12/15/2014 08:13 pm ET Updated Dec 15, 2014

With Just 40 Gun Murders In Australia In 2012, Sydney Hostage Crisis Looms Large

Joosep Martinson via Getty Images

Australia was rocked by a rare episode of gun violence on Tuesday, when a tense hostage siege in Sydney came to an end after police pushed into a downtown cafe and exchanged gunfire with the suspect. The gunman, reportedly armed with a pump-action shotgun, was killed by police, who entered the store after gunfire was heard inside. Two hostages also died, though it was unclear whether they were killed by the hostage-taker or by police who sought to free them.

The battle at the Lindt Chocolat Cafe in the heart of Sydney initially looked more complicated than a "damaged goods individual" with a gun, as the gunman's former lawyer recently described him. There were reports of possible explosives, an ominous display of a flag with an inscription of the Islamic declaration of faith, and rumors that the gunman may have ties to other terror suspects.

Some of the early suspicions appear to have been debunked. However, Australia is nevertheless reeling from something the country seldom sees: people killed by guns.

"We have lost some of our own in an attack we never thought we would see here in our own city," New South Wales Premier Mike Baird said at a news conference Tuesday.

In 2012, Australia saw 40 murders by firearm, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. This was a five-year high. Australia's gun homicide rate for the year was .20 per 100,000 residents, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, or UNODC.

Compare that to the United States, which according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, saw 11,622 homicides by firearm in 2012. The U.S. gun homicide rate for the year was 2.2 per 100,000 residents, according to UNODC.

Australia and the U.S. have drastically different relationships with guns and gun control, and Australia has historically had substantially less gun violence. In 1996, a shooting spree claimed 35 lives in Port Arthur, Tasmania, leading to an ambitious package of gun control legislation. It banned all automatic and semi-automatic weapons, imposed strict licensing, background check and waiting-period rules for new purchases, and implemented a massive gun buyback program.

There hasn't been another mass shooting since. The number of homicides by firearm has fallen over the past 15 years. Still, recent reports suggest gun ownership is becoming more commonplace and the market for illegally imported or stolen weapons is growing, leading to disturbing outbreaks of gun violence -- though not necessarily deaths -- in certain areas.

Tuesday's hostage crisis in Sydney showed the two nations still respond to gun violence quite differently. Before full details of the siege had even been released, Australian politicians were rushing to make statements championing the nation's steadfast resolve in the face of the violence. Media in Australia and around the world blanketed the airwaves with minute-by-minute updates. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott called the ordeal "profoundly shocking." On Tuesday afternoon, flags at government buildings in Australia were flown at half mast and residents lay flowers near the cite of the standoff in a makeshift tribute to the victims.

Meanwhile, more than 9,000 miles away, in the Philadelphia suburbs, a manhunt was ongoing Monday night for a gunman accused of killing six people in a spree of three shootings. The motive appears personal, with authorities saying the suspect is related to all of the victims.

Still, the Pennsylvania violence has so far played out without much notice from elected officials or international media. Perhaps that's not surprising. If U.S. leaders and the world turned their attention to American gun violence every time people were shot to death, there would be little time to focus on much else.