CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Australia's prime minister said Thursday that a review of national gun laws would not weaken strict regulations that had kept Australians safer since 35 people were shot dead by a mass murderer 20 years ago.
Malcolm Turnbull was in the island state of Tasmania to attend a 20th anniversary commemoration of one of the world's worst mass murders by a lone gunman at the historic tourist site of Port Arthur on April 28, 1996.
Federal and state governments responded by severely restricting ownership of rapid-fire weapons and by buying back about one-in-five guns from Australia's public arsenal.
Turnbull told Hobart Radio 7HO that the National Firearms Agreement was one of the then Prime Minister John Howard's "greatest achievements and it has kept Australians safer ever since."
A government inquiry into a 2014 siege in a Sydney cafe in which a gunman and two of his hostages died recommended a review of that agreement with a view to modernizing it.
Gun enthusiasts fear that any changes to the agreement could mean greater restrictions on gun ownership, while gun control advocates argue that the country was already backsliding on its post-Port Arthur regulations.
Turnbull, who is a licensed shooter, said maintaining the strength of the agreement was "one absolutely non-negotiable factor."
"We must continue to maintain our strong and responsible stance with respect to guns that is enshrined in the National Firearms Agreement and which has kept Australians safe," he said.
Most analysts agree that the reforms have resulted in declines in gun deaths and gun crime. Some opponents argue the reforms have achieved nothing and blame illegal guns for Australia's gun problems.
Turnbull pointed to the United States, where a person is 10 times more likely to be shot dead than in Australia, as an example of why Australians needed to severely restrict the type of semi-automatic weapons used at Port Arthur.
"You only have to look at the tragic examples — I was going to say 'daily' but certainly 'weekly' — in the United State of what happens when you have very little if any restrictions on the purchase of weapons like that," Turnbull said.
Dignitaries, survivors and victims' families gathered at Port Arthur on Thursday for the first official commemoration since the 10th anniversary of the tragedy.