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A look at Australia's ban on some semi-automatic guns

After a 1996 massacre in Australia left 35 people dead, the government banned semi-automatic firearms
A second look at Australia's ban on semi-automatic weapons 03:04

AUSTRALIA -- "I enjoy tinkering around with firearms." Anthony Winchcombe said he started hunting with his father when he was just five years old.

Anthony Winchcombe gave up his semi-automatic firearms after the Australian government banned them. CBS News

But to own a gun in Australia you need a license -- which requires background checks that take at least 28 days, sometimes months.

Semi-automatic rifles and semi-automatic and pump-action shotguns are banned, and it's illegal to carry a gun for personal protection.

"I had semi-automatic firearms prior to the laws changing, and I complied with the laws and handed them in. Do I miss them? No, not particularly," said Winchcombe.

The guns were banned amidst a huge public outcry after 35 people were massacred by a lone gunman in 1996.

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The Australian government confiscated more than 600,000 guns that were banned after a 1996 massacre killed 35 people. CBS News

"I had just been elected...and I had to do something," said John Howard, Australia's Prime Minister at the time. He fought off opposition from his own party to push the ban through.

"I don't regard this thing as a civil liberties issue. The greatest civil right you have is to stay alive," said Howard.

"Staying alive and being free from random attack is a far more precious right than owning a gun."

Under the new laws the government launched a national buy back program, confiscating more than 600,000 banned guns. Since then the number of deaths by firearm has fallen by about half, though it was already in decline before 1996.

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The ban hasn't stopped gun violence entirely, which is often committed with illegal guns -- including a siege in Sydney last year by a mentally disturbed gunman who claimed to be inspired by ISIS.

But even gun shop owner Steve Ballas believes Australia's laws are saving lives. "No doubt, a lot of firearms have been taken out of undesirables hands," he said.

Ballas acknowledges that if he sold guns in the United States, he'd make a lot more money. "I suppose sometimes it's not all about the money."

John Howard pushed the ban through while he was Australia's prime minister. CBS News

"If there are too many guns lying around and you lose your temper, even rational people will pick up the gun and shoot somebody," Howard continued.

"It's much harder, if I can put it bluntly, to kill 10 people with a knife than to kill 10 people with a gun."

Eighty-five percent of Australians either support their country's gun laws or think they should be even tougher, according to a recent opinion poll.

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