Gun violence trends have moved in a positive direction in that nation since the passage of a major 1996 gun reform law.
By Tom Jacobs
Nicole Edwards and her wife Kellie Edwards observe a moment of silence during a vigil outside the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts for the mass shooting victims at the Pulse nightclub on June 13, 2016, in Orlando, Florida. (Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)
In the wake of the Orlando nightclub massacre, many gun-control advocates have cited Australia — which passed strict laws restricting firearm ownership in response to a 1996 mass shooting — as an example of how such regulations save lives. Is that a fair assertion?
A study just published in the Journal of the American Medical Association doesn’t come to a definitive conclusion. But it notes that, while the nation suffered 13 fatal mass shootings (with five or more victims) between 1979 and 1996, there have been none at all in the years since.
Moreover, both homicide and suicide rates have declined over the two decades since the reforms were enacted. While it’s impossible to say this decline in violence was the direct result of stricter gun regulations, the data suggests it played a significant role.
“Australia’s National Firearms Agreement coincided with an elimination of mass killings with firearms,” Daniel Webster of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research writes in an accompanying editorial. “A reasonable interpretation of the data … is that Australia’s restrictions on guns enacted in 1996 likely spared the country from a significant number of fatal mass shootings.”
The results provide “a useful example of how a nation can come together to forge life-saving policies despite political and cultural divides.”
“It is difficult to pinpoint precisely which aspect of the policy contributed to this success,” he adds, “but the substantial reduction in the population’s exposure to semiautomatic long guns capable of accepting large-capacity magazines for ammunition is likely to have been key.”
The NFA, as it is widely known in Australia, was passed in response to a massacre in which a man killed 35 people, and wounded 19 others, using two semiautomatic rifles. Such weapons were strictly prohibited; owners who did not turn them in as part of a mandatory buy-back were subject to imprisonment and heavy fines.
So, aside from the lack of mass shootings, how did things change in the two decades following the law’s passage? Here’s one figure that stands out: The mean annual rate of total deaths due to firearms dropped from 3.6 per 100,000 people in the years 1979–96, to 1.2 per 100,000 people in 1997–2013.
“There was a more rapid decline in total firearm deaths after gun law reforms (1997–2013) compared with before gun law reforms,” writes the research team, led by Simon Chapman of the University of Sydney. “Although the annual trend in total homicide was slightly declining in 1979–1996, by less than one percent, this trend accelerated to a 3.1 percent decline after the introduction of gun control laws.”
And let’s not forget that other form of lethal violence. The rate of firearm-related suicides declined from 3.0 per 100,000 people in 1979–96 to 0.99 per 100,000 people in 1997–2013.
The researchers will only go as far as saying it is “plausible” that these positive trends are related to the reduced availability of semiautomatic weapons. They note that the rate of non-firearm-related homicides and suicides also decreased during the 1997–2013 period, which suggests other factors besides gun control played a role in the reduction in violence.
Webster disputes some of the assumptions behind the study’s conclusions. He writes that firearm homicides have plateaued or increased in recent decades in a number of nations, and argues the same could easily have happened in Australia. Thus, he argues, the study may be underestimating the NFA’s actual positive impact.
“That the rate of reductions in firearm homicides and suicides accelerated and strengthened following the 1996 (legislation) represents suggestive evidence — although not proof — that the gun-related reforms and measures enacted in Australia were directly related to meaningful reductions in homicides and suicides,” he writes.
The results provide “a useful example of how a nation can come together to forge life-saving policies despite political and cultural divides,” Webster concludes.
“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 writes. “Citizens in the United States should follow their lead.”