The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Australia’s far right hoped for millions from the NRA to reverse tough firearms laws, triggering public fury

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison addresses the media at Parliament House in Canberra on Feb. 13. (Rod McGuirk/AP)

When commentators rushed to explore New Zealand’s gun laws after the Christchurch mosque attack almost two weeks ago, they kept circling back to one role model: Australia. After 35 people were killed in a mass shooting there in 1996, firearms laws were severely restricted, despite the country’s previously relaxed approach to guns.

The tougher laws have since been widely accepted by the majority of Australians, but a group of far-right lawmakers still hopes to go back in time. At a time when the role of far-right Australian populists in stirring tensions with Muslims and other minority groups is under renewed scrutiny, Al Jazeera revealed on Tuesday that senior politicians with the far-right One Nation party may have sought up to a $20 million donation from the U.S. National Rifle Association (NRA) — in return for trying to shift Australia’s public opinion on firearms.

The revelations triggered a public backlash and condemnations from the highest levels on Tuesday, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison accusing One Nation of having sought “to sell Australia’s gun laws to the highest bidders, to a foreign buyer, and I find that abhorrent.”

Morrison, from the conservative Liberal Party, defended Australia’s strict gun laws, saying “they were put in to protect Australians.”

The two senior One Nation party members who were secretly recorded seeking gun lobby money, Steve Dickson and James Ashby, defended themselves on Tuesday, saying that they were drunk and that their quotes were taken out of context.

“I never, ever, ever suspected in my wildest dreams that this guy was employed by a Middle Eastern country, by Al Jazeera, as an Australian spy to interfere in Australian politics,” Dickson acknowledged to reporters after the Al Jazeera piece aired, referring to Rodger Muller, an undercover reporter who posed as a fake gun lobbyist.

“This was not about sourcing money from the NRA. This was about sourcing technology, sourcing an understanding of how they operate, but never was it about seeking $20 million from the NRA,” Dickson told reporters.

According to Al Jazeera, the two lawmakers met with NRA representatives, but it remained unclear whether the conversations yielded any outcomes.

While hopes for specific amounts of donations are indeed only mentioned during a recorded conversation with fake gun lobbyist Muller, a separate recording appears to also show the two politicians meeting representatives of Koch Industries, the U.S. company controlled by a family that is a key donor to conservative causes. In that separate discussion, the two far-right politicians similarly appear to imply that they could help change Australian gun laws by changing the country’s voting system.

Koch Industries did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Tuesday.

In an emailed statement, Jennifer Baker, NRA director of public affairs, wrote: “A few years ago, representatives of the state-owned anti-gun Al Jazeera network, fraudulently disguised as members of a group called ‘Gun Rights Australia,’ set up meetings with NRA employees and brought members of an Australian political party to those meetings.”

"It has been reported that this Australian political party intended to seek funding from the NRA. At no time did the NRA contribute funding to any Australian political party or Gun Rights Australia,” Baker wrote.

The NRA has long tried to expand its influence abroad through other means, however, including to countries such as Australia and Brazil. While restrictions on foreign donations may have hampered some gun-lobby support efforts, the NRA found other ways to shape public opinion abroad, even though its influence remains limited.

“In most countries and at the U.N., it’s amusing to see them laughed out of town, with the exceptions of Brazil and Canada,” said Philip Alpers, a professor at the University of Sydney who founded a website that tracks gun policy worldwide.

The arguments that were promoted by Brazil’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, earlier this year to make it easier for civilians to obtain and keep firearms may sound rather familiar to U.S. audiences.

“This is so good citizens can at this first moment have peace inside their homes,” Bolsonaro said after he approved the new gun laws in January.

Compare that to NRA chief executive Wayne LaPierre’s controversial line: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

In Brazil, NRA efforts to influence politics go back to at least 2003, when lawmakers toughened gun laws. Politicians deemed amenable to NRA ideology were supported and trained by the organization at the time and in later years. Subsequent efforts to further crack down on gun ownership were defeated, after mass ad campaigns reminiscent of some of the NRA ads aired in the United States.

In a country that suffers from an even higher rate of gun violence than the United States, the NRA’s strategic support for pro-gun politicians has helped shape the belief among a large number of people that only more guns are the solution.

Not everyone has bought into this rhetoric, as my colleagues Marina Lopes and Anthony Faiola reported on Monday. A rare school shooting on March 13, in which five students and two employees were killed just outside Sao Paulo, once again exposed a heated debate that might have looked very different without the NRA’s global reach.

Tuesday’s Al Jazeera report similarly reminded Australians that they should not take their stricter gun laws for granted, either. For countries that are also major arms exporters, confronting the NRA’s global reach has proved awkward at times, however, as they may share the same goals of lowering the criteria for weapons exports. In its push against tougher gun laws worldwide, the organization has at times even battled the United Nations and its Arms Trade Treaty, designed to stop weapons exports to countries accused of “committing genocides or war crimes.”

To the NRA, that particular crusade may have been all about domestic politics instead of a more sophisticated global objective. In a statement at the time, it warned that passing the treaty would mean that “U.S. firearms policy could become the rest of the world’s business and subject to its approval.”

The perception that tougher gun laws abroad could also threaten the NRA’s grip on power in the United States may still be good news for gun advocates in Brazil, Europe and Australia, who can hope for strategic support.

But after the Christchurch shooting two weeks ago, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern proved that the U.S. gun lobby’s reach has its limits, too. Although New Zealand’s previous gun legislation may have made the NRA proud, laws were amended within only six days of the shooting.

Tuesday’s recordings in Australia and the debate they have triggered are yet another indication that the NRA’s global pro-gun campaign could easily turn awkward in countries without a Second Amendment.

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