In 1996, after a horrific mass shooting in Port Arthur, Australia, during which a man used two semiautomatic rifles to kill 35 people and wound 19 others, that country’s political parties came together to pass several sweeping gun laws.
The laws seem to have had a dramatic effect, as a just-released study points out. In the two decades since enacting its comprehensive gun law reforms, Australia has not had a single mass shooting.
The country has also experienced a large decline in overall gun-related deaths since the stricter laws took place, although the study’s authors say it’s not possible to determine whether this change is a direct result of the reforms.
The study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) on Wednesday, the same day that Congressional Democrats, led by Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, began a sit-in on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives to protest the House’s refusal to vote on gun-control legislation.
A public outcry
Here’s some background on why the Australian study was conducted:
After the Port Arthur mass shooting, an outraged Australian public demanded change. The country’s government, led at that time by the conservative-leaning Prime Minister John Howard, immediately banned semiautomatic guns, including those already in private ownership.
The government also announced a mandatory buyback program, which paid owners market price for the prohibited firearms. A few years later, a second mandatory buyback program was announced for certain types of handguns, including automatic ones. Large criminal fines and penalties, including imprisonment, were applied to anyone who didn’t comply with these laws.
Other elements of Australia’s National Firearms Agreement (NFA) — the name given collectively to the country’s gun law reforms — require gun buyers to demonstrate a “genuine reason” for owning a firearm, pass a gun-safety test and wait at least 28 days to complete the purchase. A national gun registry was also created.
As a result of the buyback programs, about 660,000 semiautomatic weapons and 69,000 handguns were collected and destroyed by the end of 2003. Since then, Australians have voluntarily relinquished thousands of nonprohibited guns, and thousands of additional prohibited firearms have been seized by the government and melted down.
Even before 1996, the number of Australians who owned guns had been declining. The buyback programs appear to have accelerated that trend. It’s estimated that between 1988 and 2005, the proportion of Australian households with guns plummeted by 75 percent.
Twenty years after the passage of the NFA, three Australian researchers at the University of Sydney decided to analyze whether the stricter laws had impacted gun-related deaths in Australia.
For their study, the researchers used Australian government data on deaths caused by firearms from 1979 through 2013, as well as news reports of mass shootings in the country from 1979 through May 2016.
They found that there were 13 mass shootings in the 18 years prior to passage of the NFA. During those events, 104 victims were killed and at least another 52 wounded. Eight shooters also died. (In Australia, a mass shooting is defined as five or more people being killed, not including the shooter. That’s one more death than the FBI uses in the United States to define a mass shooting.)
In the 20 years since the gun reform laws were enacted, however, no mass shooting has occurred in Australia.
The researchers then took a look at other gun-related death trends. They found that Australia had an average of 3.6 gun deaths, both homicides and suicides, per 100,000 people between 1979 and 1996. After the stricter laws went into effect, that rate dropped by two-thirds, to an average of 1.2 guns deaths per 100,000 people.
Gun-related deaths fell during both time periods, but the rate of the decline accelerated after 1996.
When the researchers looked specifically at gun-related homicides, for example, they found that the annual rate fell by 0.3 percent per year, on average, before the introduction of the gun control laws and by 3.1 percent per year afterward.
There was no evidence in the data to suggest that people intent on killing others were substituting other weapons in place of guns, the researchers also point out.
A similar positive trend was found with gun-related suicides. Before the introduction of the NFA, the gun-related suicide rate had been declining by an average of 3 percent per year. After the gun control laws were passed, the decline sped up to an average of 4.8 percent per year
Again, the researchers found no evidence that people were switching to other methods to end their lives.
Caveats and a call to action
But do these findings mean Australia can credit its gun-control laws as being directly responsible for the country’s dramatic drop in gun-related homicides and suicides over the past two decades?
Not with any certainty, say the researchers. Non-gun-related homicides and suicides also decreased in Australia after 1996, they point out.
In addition, quicker and better treatment of gunshot victims by medical personnel may be saving more people’s lives — and thus lowering the death rates.
“What is most clear from the current study is that Australia’s NFA coincided with an elimination of mass killings with firearms,” writes Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, in an accompanying editorial. “It is difficult to pinpoint precisely which aspect of the policy contributed to this success, but the substantial reduction in the population’s exposure to semiautomatic long guns capable of accepting large-capacity magazines (LCMs) for ammunition is likely to have been the key.”
He calls on Americans to emulate their down-under counterparts.
“The experience in Australia over the past 2 decades since enactment of the NFA provides a useful example of how a nation can come together to forge life-saving policies despite political and cultural divides,” he writes.
“Australian citizens, professional organizations, and academic researchers all played productive roles in developing and promoting evidence-informed policies and demanding that their lawmakers adopt measures to prevent the loss of life and terror of gun violence,” he adds.
“Citizens in the United States should follow their lead.”
FMI: The study and the editorial can be found on JAMA’s website.