By: Susan Cochella, MD, MPH
Julia Gillard, former Prime Minister of Australia (2010-2013), addressed an audience at Abravanel Hall in Salt Lake City earlier this month (1). She had a lot to say about civic engagement, including an interesting description of how Australia was able to cut gun violence after a mass shooting incident. The 1996 incident had been preceded by many similar incidents, but involved a uniquely impressive number of casualties, and ended up motivating voters to pass a set of regulations called the National Firearms Agreement (NFA).
The 1996 NFA regulations (2) included licensing gun owners, registration of all guns, and a buy-back program for many types of semi-automatic guns rendered illegal by the law. In all over 700,000 guns were bought back by the Australian government, 640,000 of which had been rendered illegal. Most of these restrictions remain in effect.
The passage of this law marked a significant transition for Australia, from a country with 13 mass shootings over the 18 years prior to passage of the NFA law, to a country that has to date had NO mass shootings in the 22 years since the law was enacted. Australians have also seen significant declines in gun-related homicides and suicides (3). This is an impressive transition!
So how did this happen in Australia? After all, Australia was a country full of independent-minded gun-owners, much like the US. Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard points to Australia’s compulsory voting laws. Since the early 1900s, citizens have been required to register to vote and also to show up and submit a ballot on election day. Fines are levied for noncompliance. There is apparently no consequence to submitting a blank ballot, but once one puts forward the effort to register and submit a ballot, it turns out that most Australians bother to mark something intelligible on their ballots. And as she described in her remarks, it turns out most Australians prefer to live in a safe place.
If compulsory voting were to happen in the US, what would the effect be? We know that for many years, most Americans have favored sensible gun laws, but those laws have not been passed by our elected officials. American elections seem to be won by motivating a given party’s base, not by making sense to moderates or the populous as a whole. And we know there are strong lobbies influencing our politicians. But if voting were compulsory, could we feel less hijacked by extremes and lobbyists? Could we finally get rid of semi-automatic weapons and end mass shootings? It feels like a ridiculous thing to propose, but isn’t it really just ridiculous that this seems ridiculous?
- Wasatch Speaker Series at Abravanel Hall, March 11, 2019: https://www.wasatchspeakers.com/
- Wikipedia on “Gun laws in Australia”, accessed March 16, 2019: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gun_laws_in_Australia
- Large, Matthew; Nielssen, Olav. “Suicide in Australia: meta-analysis of rates and methods of suicide between 1988 and 2007
Susan Cochella, MD, MPH, is a Professor (Clinical) in the Division of Family Medicine in the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, UT. Dr. Cochella specializes in chronic disease and full spectrum care for patients of all ages.