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Australia’s gun-control laws linked to drop in mass shootings and other gun deaths

REUTERS/David Gray
In a 1996 photo, Mick Roelandts, firearms reform project manager for the New South Wales Police, looks at a pile of about 4,500 prohibited firearms in Sydney that had been handed in.

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.

Key findings

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.

Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Kenny Christenson on 06/23/2016 - 03:28 pm.

    Lets get real

    So, lets talk seriously about a buy-back program.
    It is estimated that there are 330 Million firearms in the United States. 37% of American Households have at least one firearm. What would be a realistic buy-back program and what would it actually cost? In order to get gun owners to participate you have to give them fair market value for their firearms. You can’t force them to give up their firearms for a pittance. The Australian buy-back program removed about a million firearms from circulation at a cost of $500 million. How many firearms do we want to remove from circulation in the United States? With a 330 Million firearms in circulation, is a million enough? most certainly not! Is 100 Million enough, leaving 230 Million firearms still in circulation? the price of firearms has gone up in the last 20 years and the buy-back would have to be higher than $500 per gun. It would cost $100 Billion to buy-back 100 Million firearms. You are going to need one hell of a bake sale.

  2. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 06/23/2016 - 03:32 pm.

    One wishes that the virulent pro-gun advocates who usually tune in to any discussion of gun violence and possible solutions would actually take the time to read about actual experience with reducing massacres by gun and other gun deaths.

    They don’t want to hear this. Strong experiential showing that gun control works to save lives.

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 06/24/2016 - 10:13 am.

    Much too rational

    The article – and the Australian experience since their ban was put into place – is much too sensible and rational for 2nd Amendment zealots in the U.S. to pay attention to it, much less be persuaded, and even those who aren’t quite in the “zealot” category will point out that the Australian Constitution, like the English common law upon which it’s based, does not enshrine firearm ownership in the way the U.S. Constitution does.

    Ms. Sullivan and Mr. Christenson both present points well-taken. Gun zealots, like religious and other zealots, don’t even want to listen to counterarguments. The cost of buying back 330 million guns, give or take a few million, at “fair market value,” would be fiscally intimidating. It would also be foolhardy and pointless if other actions were not also taken, and legislation passed to reflect and reinforce a very different attitude than the current one.

    Given the makeup of the current Republican Party, its majority in the House, and the equally obstructionist near-majority in the Senate, I can’t get enthused about a Constitutional Convention, even if its express purpose is to alter or eliminate the 2nd Amendment. Opening up the Constitution to amendment by threatened white ethnics (i.e., old white people like me), terrified of the demographic change they can clearly see coming over the horizon, doesn’t strike me as a useful or constructive approach. Many of the officials who would end up playing an outsized role in that constitutional revision are people who have taken sizable amounts of money from firearms manufacturers, and both practically and philosophically are inclined to support the interests of those manufacturers over the interests of the majority of their constituents.

    While I wouldn’t want to promote it as the ONLY possible avenue, it seems to me that ONE possible avenue of approach to what is obviously a national pathology and national problem might be to place much more emphasis on the first two phrases of the 2nd Amendment, which do not, it seems to me, guarantee any and every citizen the right to carry a firearm with them everywhere they go. I’m not a lawyer, so I can’t cite case law and precedent to support the proposition, but offhand, at least, it seems to me that a decent and logical argument could be made that the 2nd Amendment clearly limits the right to bear firearms to members of the armed forces, and by extension, to the National Guard. An alternative might be to limit firearm ownership to long guns, or ownership of those long guns to those who, through training and the signing of affidavits, have demonstrated that they regularly shoot game animals for food. None of these approaches are by any means perfect, but they might start a conversation at least.

    The SCOTUS has avoided this whole issue of firearm ownership for many years, and isn’t likely to take it up unless/until the court has been restored to 9 justices. Even then, to be persuasive, a SCOTUS ruling would have to be unanimous, or nearly so (8-1 might be the minimum) to at least make a start on convincing the populace that we’re not only NOT safer with 330 million guns in circulation, but that we’re demonstrably LESS safe as both individuals and a society.

    Frankly, I don’t expect such a ruling to take place during my lifetime. On the other hand, I wouldn’t have predicted the iPhone and the influence of social media a generation ago.

    • Submitted by Kevin Vick on 08/07/2016 - 05:13 pm.

      Facts vs Perceptions

      The Australian homicide rate dropped 32% from ’93 to ’07
      The U.S. homicide rate dropped 38% during the same time frame (It’s dropped another 24% thru 2014)

      It’s not the guns.

      Australian Institute of Criminology
      FBI UCR

  4. Submitted by Steve Rose on 06/28/2016 - 08:33 am.

    “Actual Experience”

    University of Melbourne researchers Wang-Sheng Lee and Sandy Suardi concluded their 2008 report on the matter with the statement, “There is little evidence to suggest that [the Australian mandatory gun-buyback program] had any significant effects on firearm homicides.” “Although gun buybacks appear to be a logical and sensible policy that helps to placate the public’s fears,” the reported continued, “the evidence so far suggests that in the Australian context, the high expenditure incurred to fund the 1996 gun buyback has not translated into any tangible reductions in terms of firearm deaths.”

    Read more at:

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