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Does gun control work?

Australia’s much-praised gun laws have almost eliminated mass shootings. But they’ve done little about the homicide rate, and nothing at all about suicide.

  In April 1996 a disaffected loner called Martin Bryant took a couple of military-style assault rifles to the Port Arthur Historic Site in Tasmania.

 
Bryant ... killed 35

There he killed 35 people and injured another 24. It was, and remains, Australia’s worst mass shooting since the massacres of aboriginal people finally ended in the 1920s.

It was the worst, but not the first and not the last.

In August 1987 another disaffected loner, Julian Knight, killed seven people and injured 19 in Hoddle Street in Melbourne. He used two semi-automatic rifles and a pump-action shotgun.

In the 25 years up to and including 1996, 113 people died (including perpetrators) in 12 mass-shooting incidents killing five or more people. Most were killed with weapons that are now banned – military-style semi-automatics and pump-action shotguns.

In the 25 years from 1997 to 2022 there were four such incidents and 22 deaths. The recent Wieambilla shootings in central Queensland, in which six died, makes the list only because there were three perpetrators instead of the usual one.

THE FIREARMS AGREEMENT

Knight ... killed seven
After the Hoddle Street murders, the Hawke government established a National Committee on Violence. Its 17 recommendations for gun control and a nationally consistent set of laws were ignored for six years – until the shock of Port Arthur.

The Hawke and Keating governments fudged the issue. But the newly-elected Liberal Prime Minister, John Howard, in the most widely praised action of his political career, used the momentum of the crisis to enact new gun laws that were tough, controversial and nationally consistent.

The most vocal opposition came from Howard’s own conservative base. When he addressed an angry, potentially dangerous rally at Sale in the rural east of Victoria, police advised him to wear a bulletproof vest. In the photographs, it’s clearly visible beneath his jacket.

Just 12 days after Bryant’s outrage at Port Arthur, Australian state and federal police ministers approved a National Firearms Agreement, mandating major law changes at federal, state and territory levels.

Fully automatic, semi-automatic, pump-action and self-loading weapons would be banned. Limitations were introduced on who could legally sell or supply weapons, minimum licensing and permit requirements, and rules on secure storage.

Howard and the gun-rights protesters
The ministers agreed on a mandatory 28-days ‘cooling-off’ period before being granted a gun licence was implemented; there were compulsory safety courses and a genuine reason for owning a firearm would be required. Self-defence would not be a ‘genuine reason’.

A federal gun buyback program ran for a year and removed some 650,000 guns from circulation. The program still fell short of its intentions: it was budgeted to cost $500 million but only $304 million was spent on compensation (and $65 million on administration). A further buyback scheme in 2003 ran for six months and retrieved only 68,727 guns.

At state and territory level there have been 28 gun amnesties of various duration.

THE REBOUND IN FIREARMS

The new laws, the gun buybacks and the amnesties seem to have little effect on the long-term numbers of firearms in Australia. After a relatively brief and modest downturn, numbers have risen again to well above the pre-1996 level. By 2009, new imports had completely replaced the weap0ns removed in the government’s buyback programs. The difference is that the mix no longer includes automatic and semi-automatic rifles or pump-action shotguns.

As the buybacks and amnesties faded, gun imports boomed. Customs figures show that between 1997 and 2020, 1,563,377 firearms were imported into this country.

Internationally, despite our “tough” controls, Australia is in the middle of the developed-country gun-density pack. The US is the outlier, with higher gun-ownership rates than any other country. Australia’s rate is less than in Canada, Germany and New Zealand but ahead of Britain, Ireland and the Netherlands.

WHO HAS THE GUNS NOW?

The new gun laws have been more effective at concentrating firearm numbers among a somewhat smaller number of owners than they have in reducing overall numbers. The National Firearms Agreement was far more accommodating of rural dwellers – particularly, but not only, farmers – so the proportion of Australians owning guns has reduced in the cities rather than in the country.

 

But the process of concentrating ownership began well before the 1996 law changes. Much of the decline happened in the previous decade: the rate continued to fall no faster after 1996 than before.

As we’ve already seen, the overall rate of gun ownership in Australia put us in the middle of the developed-country pack. But the effect of concentrating ownership – fewer owners each with more guns – puts us well down the gun-concentration list.

The question is whether this fact alone reduces the number of firearm-related homicides and suicides. The evidence shows that this has, at best, a fairly marginal effect.

Comparing the number of households (rather than individuals) with firearms across a number of developed countries reveals only a weak relationship. Australia’s concentration of large numbers of guns in a smaller number of premises is not, after all, the answer.

But there is a much stronger relationship between the number of guns in a country with the rate of gun deaths.

This indicates strongly that a principal aim of gun control policy should be directed at decreasing the total number of firearms in the community. In Australia, we have been going the wrong way. As we’ve already seen, the number of guns in this country – 3.8 million. That’s more than one for every seven men, women and children in the country.

DO GUN LAWS PREVENT HOMICIDE?

The ban on military-style weapons has greatly reduced the toll of mass shootings. But single-victim incidents do not require that sort of firepower. A single-shot weapon will be just as lethal.

Nevertheless, an initial look at the figures shows an impressive drop in the number of gun homicides after the National Firearms Agreement came into effect, reaching a plateau around 2005 and then flatlining.

On its face, this involves a substantial reduction in homicides by firearm. Taking the average annual death toll of the five years before 1996 as a baseline, we can see how many lives have been theoretically saved each year since then by the downturn in gun homicides.

That adds up to an apparent saving of 883 lives between 1997 and 2019. But how reliable is that figure? Would that reduction have happened anyway?

A wider look at the data indicate that much of it probably would. Over a period of almost 30 years, the total homicide rate fell even more sharply than the rate for guns alone.

The point is confirmed by comparing the rates of the two most common forms of homicide – stabbing and shooting. These figures do not show any material difference between the two trajectories.

It is not possible, on the basis of currently available data, to calculate the real effect of gun restrictions on the normal run of homicides – that is, those not occurring as part of a mass-shooting event. Perhaps the most reasonable provisional conclusion is that it had some effect in the first few years but that the result was transitory, as the flood of new imported guns swamped the numbers that had been taken out of circulation.

THE MOST INTRACTABLE PROBLEM: SUICIDE

Homicides – that is, assaults resulting in death – account for only about a quarter of all gun deaths. Of far greater impact are gun accidents and firearm suicides.

As the figures from the NSW cohort study show, self-harm incidents and gun accidents are much more likely to result in death.

At first glance, the firearms agreement seems to have had an effect on lowering the overall suicide rate, at least for the following decade. Any effect, though, was limited to men, who have far higher suicide rates than women ( a ratio of around 3:1) but are also much more likely to use firearms.

But a reduction in one suicide method is of little benefit if another method takes its place. This switch to have happened between the two most common methods – firearms and hanging. The decline in male firearm suicides and the increase in deaths by hanging are long-term trends that owe nothing to the firearms controls.

If we look again at the overall suicide rate over four decades, we can see that despite all the policies intended to reduce the suicide rate, it is no better now than it was 40 years ago.

GUN LAWS CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE. WE JUST DON’T HAVE THE RIGHT ONES

Even Hawaii, the safest of all US states, has a rate of gun deaths almost four times that of Australia. But in the most dangerous state, Mississippi, it’s more than 30 times as high.

Nobody really knows how many guns there are in America. Estimates vary from 265 million to 398 million: either way, there are more guns than people.

America’s gun laws, unlike Australia’s, vary radically from state to state. So there’s a natural experiment here: do states with stricter gun controls have lower death rates than those with a free-for-all approach?

The answer, clearly, is that they do. The two most common restriction methods are compulsory registration of purchasers and the capacity for authorities to issue control orders for individuals deemed to pose an extreme risk to the community.

On the other side, the most common laws being enacted in the most dangerous states are to allow handguns to be carried in public without a permit; and to use lethal force to defend a property without first attempting to retreat.

“There is supportive evidence,” a 2020 RAND Corporation study concluded, “that stand-your-ground laws are associated with increases in firearm homicides and moderate evidence that they increase the total number of homicides.”

The other key element, as the RAND study demonstrated, was the number of guns in the community. In its calculated rate of household ownership (in the right-hand column) a higher number equals more guns.

Politics and political culture are the key here: the five safest states are all safe-Democrat and the five deadliest states are all safe-Republican.

In Australia, the benefits of the 1996 legislation have been eroded and are no longer living up to their reputation. Too many guns – around 100,000 every year – are still being imported. The buyback and amnesty schemes were long ago overwhelmed by this flood of new weapons.

The only major lasting improvement from those laws has been the massive reduction – so far, anyway – in multiple shootings. But taking pump-action shotguns and semi-automatic rifles out of circulation can only go so far: it has not produced any credible, substantial decrease in the rates of homicide and suicide.

There is clearly a need for a functional National Firearms Registry, to keep track of weapons and of potentially dangerous individuals. It seems extraordinary that one does not already exist. But the vast majority of deaths and injuries will not be addressed by such a register.

For this, we need to pay serious attention to reducing the total supply of firearms – reducing imports and, where possible, using voluntary buyback schemes and amnesties. The number of guns able to be held in any one household should be reduced. Right now, each registered firearm owner has an average of 4.35 guns. Some, of course, have many more.

Suicide and homicide are leading causes of death among younger Australians: suicide in second place, homicide in ninth. Guns cause only a minority of these deaths but guns are amenable to control.

There are many intractable challenges, but the overriding aim of all public health initiatives is to prevent premature death. It took 35 deaths at Port Arthur to produce the gun control laws we currently have, and which have been undermined ever since. What, then, will it take to get the next round of serious reform – and to unwind the erosion of those we thought we already had?


 

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