SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australians turned in 51,000 illegal firearms, ranging from 19th-century weapons to a rocket launcher, during a three-month amnesty that ended on Friday, and which Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said had helped avert Las Vegas-style mass shootings.
The cache, representing about a fifth of illegal firearms, was collected during Australia's second amnesty since its worst ever massacre, when a lone gunman killed 35 people in the island state of Tasmania in 1996.
There has not been a mass shooting since the then conservative government banned all semi-automatic rifles and semi-automatic shotguns that year, and introduced tougher background checks on gun purchases.
The firearms gathered in this year's amnesty will be destroyed. Those who still own such guns face jail time, and the government is pushing for harsher penalties for gun traffickers.
"Every single one of those 51,000 guns could be used, could have been used in a crime where Australians could be killed - now they can't," Turnbull told reporters in Sydney.
"The killer there had a collection of semi-automatic weapons which a person in his position would simply not be able to acquire in Australia," he added.
Turnbull was referring to the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, when Stephen Paddock, 64, armed with numerous assault rifles, fired this week on an outdoor country music festival in Las Vegas, killing 58 people and himself.
The attack has focused attention on gun ownership rules in the United States, and in Australia, where gun ownership restrictions are seen to have worked.
AUSTRALIAN MASSACRE SPARKED REFORM
In Tasmania in 1996, Martin Bryant killed 35 people at the former prison colony of Port Arthur, using military-style weapons bought without background checks.
In response, conservative Prime Minister John Howard convinced Australia's eight provincial governments to toughen their laws, despite opposition from his own side of the political divide.
Rapid-fire guns were outlawed, and a national licensing system required gun sellers and buyers to register, and specify reasons - such as gun club membership - why they needed weapons.
The measures provoked opposition from gun owners, in particular farmers, but has since mostly vanished, because Australia's rules are seen to have worked.
"You can't just buy a gun," said Phillip Alpers, a firearms injury researcher at the University of Sydney, adding that potential purchasers faced a full background check by police.
"They will ask you for a genuine reason for owning a firearm," he added. "If you can't (provide one), you won't get the gun."
Australia's few gun stores are heavily regulated, in contrast with the United States, where ammunition and weapons are sold at chain stores, such as Walmart.
(Reporting by Colin Packham and Tom Westbrook in SYDNEY; Editing by Michael Perry and Clarence Fernandez)