When it comes to gun control, Hillary Clinton said last Friday, "Australia is a good example" for the United States to follow. That comment suggested the leading Democratic presidential candidate's plans in this area are much more ambitious than she usually lets on -- so ambitious that implementing them would require ignoring or repealing the Second Amendment.
By Monday a spokeswoman for the former secretary of state was already backpedaling, saying Clinton did not mean to endorse mass gun confiscation, a central element of Australia's approach to firearms. But if that was not Clinton's intent, she has an alarmingly cavalier attitude toward laws that impinge on constitutional rights: the details don't matter as long as you mean well.
The question of what impact Australia's gun restrictions had on suicide and homicide rates remains controversial. But before you can intelligently discuss the results of what Australia did, you have to understand what Australia did, which Clinton apparently doesn't.
During her appearance at Keene State College in New Hampshire last week, Clinton took a question from an elderly man who asserted that "Australia managed to ... take away tens of thousands -- millions -- of handguns, and in one year they were all gone." His question: "Could we do that? And if we can't, why can't we?"
Although Clinton nodded vigorously when her interlocutor claimed the Australian government had confiscated all of the country's handguns, that claim is not true. But at least he understood that the transfer of guns from Australians to the government was not, as Clinton portrayed it, a voluntary process similar to that of President Obama's "cash for clunkers" program.
After the 1996 Port Arthur massacre, in which a gunman used two semi-automatic rifles to kill 35 people, Australia's states and territories established a new system of gun control that requires a license for every owner and a permit for every purchase. The National Firearms Agreement limited possession of certain weapons, such as pump-action shotguns and semi-automatic rim fire rifles with a magazine capacity of no more than 10 rounds, to people whose jobs require them and restricted other weapons, including semi-automatic centerfire riles, to government use.
Under the National Firearms Buyback Scheme, the government confiscated about 660,000 newly prohibited long guns and paid owners compensation for their property loss. In 2003 a similar "buyback" program confiscated about 50,000 licensed target pistols after the government -- in response to a shooting at Monash University in Victoria -- imposed new limits on caliber and barrel length.
In her remarks last week, Clinton made it sound as if these "buybacks" were optional, saying the government "offered a good price for buying hundreds of thousands of guns." She likened Australia's mass confiscations to local programs in the United States that offer cash or gift cards for guns in a vain attempt to reduce the supply of weapons to criminals.
Even if we attribute Clinton's misleading portrayal of Australia's policies to ignorance rather than dishonesty, it hardly inspires confidence that she knows what she's talking about when she says this model is "worth considering." But if we take her at her word, Clinton is open to restrictions that clearly would be inconsistent with the right to armed self-defense.
Australia, which has nothing like the Second Amendment in its constitution, recognizes no such right. Australians must demonstrate a "genuine reason" for owning a gun, and personal protection does not count.
That policy cannot be reconciled with what the U.S. Supreme Court has said about the right to keep and bear arms. Neither can Australia's requirement of a "genuine need" for owning handguns (including air pistols) or its firearm and ammunition storage rules, which preclude self-defense. It also seems doubtful that Australia's gun registry or its 28-day waiting period for firearm purchases could pass constitutional muster in this country.
Yet in addressing the question of whether the U.S. could adopt Australian-style gun control, Clinton did not mention the Second Amendment once. The omission speaks volumes.