Australia’s gun laws: leading by imperfect example

Has the country really achieved anything?

Samara McPhedran

Government and governance, Law, National security, Arts, culture & society | Australia, The World

4 April 2019

On the surface, Australia’s gun laws may seem like exemplary policy-work, but a closer look at its history and related research suggests otherwise and may even be cause for concern, Samara McPhedran writes.

Just days after the Christchurch tragedy, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced changes to that country’s gun laws. That sparked calls for other nations around the world to revise their gun policies, with some commentators promoting the Australian model of firearms management as the best way forward.

Australia likes to suggest that following its example will prevent history from repeating itself. It’s difficult, however, to learn from history when history is continually being revised. Perhaps more so than in any other area of public policy, the goalposts in Australia’s gun control narrative have shifted dramatically over time.

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So, what has changed?

In 1996, 12 days after the Port Arthur massacre, all jurisdictions agreed to ban all semi-automatic firearms and pump-action shotguns, and implemented a half-billion dollar taxpayer-funded program to compensate those who voluntarily handed in their guns. The other ‘big ticket’ change was the mandatory registration of all rifles and shotguns. Gun laws remain one of the then-PM John Howard’s defining policies.

Despite being the catalyst for change, very little was said about the likely impacts of the new laws on mass shootings – with only brief and occasional mention made that the changes might prevent or reduce those events. Instead, state and federal Hansard of the day reveal great expectations of declines in firearm homicides and firearm suicides. The purpose of the reforms was routinely described as improving overall community safety by reducing those types of deaths.

For many years afterwards, firearm homicide and firearm suicide rates remained the widely used yardstick for measuring our gun law success.

Over time, though, a body of empirical research has cast ever-growing doubt on whether Australia’s law reform actually impacted those types of deaths. Although the conclusions that different authors draw do not always line up with each other – and, in some cases, do not even accurately represent their own data – the statistical findings are startlingly consistent. This is especially true for firearm homicide, where no study has found impacts on the pre-existing downward trend.

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Although most studies observe more rapid declines in firearm suicide after the laws changed, it is difficult to draw causal inferences because, from the mid-1990s, both firearm and non-firearm suicides began falling. In fact, it appears the magnitude of decline was greater for non-firearm suicide then for firearm suicide. This strongly suggests other factors may have been at play.

As the evidence has accumulated, dialogue around guns in Australia has suddenly shifted.

We are now told that our gun laws were always, and were only ever, about preventing mass shootings. Suicide and ‘regular’ homicide have slipped quietly off the radar.

One of the ugliest aspects of Australia’s revisionism is that, in order to maintain the ‘no mass shootings’ narrative, the definition of a mass shooting has also been quietly altered. Most research defines a mass shooting as four or more people killed in one incident – not including the perpetrator. Using that definition, Australia has continued to experience mass shootings since 1996. Faced with such events, activists have simply revised their definitions upwards.

But if we apply the standard mass shooting definition in the same way we did up until it became inconvenient, then we see that Australia has had 15 mass shootings over the past 55 years. The most recent was in 2018. Most – 11 out of 15 – involved domestic situations; most, including Australia’s four public mass shootings, occurred between 1987 and 1996.

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Public mass shootings did not occur in Australia before 1987 or after 1996. It is easy to say that the 1996 laws explain the absence of public shootings post-1996. However, we have no explanation for why there were none of those incidents prior to 1987, despite laws that were extremely lax by today’s standards and the wide availability of semi-automatic firearms.

If we do not know what may have started these incidents, then we cannot know what may have stopped them – yet this crucial, missing part of the puzzle is never acknowledged.

Ultimately, the ever-moving goalposts of Australian gun policy are unhelpful for informing public debate. While constant revisionism may allow us to maintain a comforting narrative, the distinctly deliberate shifts over time reveal a fundamental unwillingness to look facts in the face.

This leaves us with a deeply confronting question. Which do we value more: grandstanding about how right we are on gun policy, or allowing other countries to truly learn from us?

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5 Responses

  1. Concerned Voter says:

    Samara,
    I have to say considering the atrocious incident in Christchurch recently, the timing of your article lacks empathy.
    To make specific reference, and to add a hyperlink, to the murder suicide in Western Australia seems callous and unfeeling toward the family involved.

    I’m not sure what your real point is, but to stand over the the dead and injured to promulgate a message that we shouldn’t “grandstand” to other countries when a large part of the antipodean community is mourning seems heartless and unnecessarily cruel.

    • Allan says:

      To pretend to be concerned and use the opportunity to hammer through policy that is otherwise unpopular seems more cynical and “heartless” to me. However, I wouldn’t go around saying that to advocates, because they don’t have to stop doing their job because of a tragedy.

      If you’re against anyone talking about any policy as it relates to specific tragedies, then you’re misguided but at least consistent. If this show is just towards people who don’t believe seizing guns does anything that it claims to, then try arguing against the evidence.

    • Jase says:

      “Concerned Voter”, your comment is an example of a widespread problem in society that stops us making actual progress on social issues – using a call to emotion to defuse or distract from rational discussion.
      Can you imagine doctors or medical researchers behaving in this way? What about engineers and scientists?

      Imagine a world where emotion trumps scientific method in the hard sciences – imagine cancer research being halted because it is insensitive to the families of dead and dying patients to learn from their loss; imagine not investigating why a fatal bridge collapse occurred because it might upset the families of victims or embarrass the designers and engineers; imagine…

      Until we, as a society, can look beyond the emotional impact of tragedy, we will never be able to clinically examine and understand the true causes of horrific events. Until we can look critically and honestly at our failures, we will never progress. Emotional considerations just get in the way, and are too often used as the moral high ground for those wishing to stifle debate.

  2. Peter says:

    As a survivor of one of those shootings, it became clear that a weapon didn’t kill my family, a man did, and further, a man who’d been driven to the point by others, not just himself. Those details are never revealed in hasty reports thrown together to meet a deadline, and are unlikely to be fully revealed until much later anyway. Therefore, while it seems superficially comforting to make everyone suffer for the sins of the few, it makes no rational sense whatsoever. Laws regulating gun ownership probably make the least sense of all, since outlaws, by definition, don’t abide by laws. Therefore, the only ones to suffer are law-abiding gun owners.

  3. Keith H. Burgess says:

    An excellent article, thank you.
    In regards to suicides, I fail to see how someone who has pulled the trigger & died can possibly pull that trigger a second time! So just how did the government think that banning semi-automatics & pump actions would make a difference to the suicide rate??? Like the whole issue around firearms, this is a social problem, not a gun problem, but the government refuses to own this!

    It is a fact, criminals do not obey the law, so poorly thought out gun control laws do not & will not work. All they do is inconvenience & punish law abiding licensed gun owners & make us defenceless (by law gun owners are not allowed to use a gun to protect their families in an armed or outnumbered home invasion)!

    Did you know that 18th century flintlock, matchlock & wheellock muzzle-loading pistols are on a restricted “H” class gun license? When do you think was the last time one of this guns was used to commit a crime?!!! This in the name of public safety???!!!
    Keith.

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