Tougher laws, gun buyback on target
Illustration: Rocco Fazzari
Since the 1997 gun buyback, your chance of being a victim of gun violence has more than halved. Yet as Monday's Herald pointed out, the number of guns in Australia has increased by nearly one-fifth over the same period. What's going on?
The simplest answer is that the population is a fifth larger than it was in 1997. In reality, Australia has about as many guns per person as we did after the gun buyback. The only way to conclude the gun buyback has been undone is to ignore a decade and a half of population growth.
Moreover, the figure that really matters is the share of gun-owning households. In 1997 many households used the chance to clean out the closet and take a weapon that hadn't been used in years to the local police station (the most common weapon handed in was a .22 calibre rifle). So the share of gun-owning households dropped from 15 per cent to 8 per cent.
New firearms in Australia may be being bought by people who already have a weapon in the home. Adding a tenth gun to the household arsenal is much less risky than buying the first. Trouble is, surveys of household gun ownership are rare, so we don't know whether the share of gun-owning households has risen.
To understand the policy success of the National Firearms Agreement, it's important to recognise precisely what happened. Alongside the gun buyback, what had been a patchwork of state and territory regulations was strengthened and harmonised. Self-loading rifles, self-loading shotguns and pump-action shotguns were banned. Firearm owners were required to obtain licences and register their weapons.
While the changes were backed by the then Labor opposition, political credit must go to then prime minister John Howard and National Party leader Tim Fischer for standing up to the hardliners in their own parties. They paid a short-term electoral price but history will judge them well.
In the 1990s some argued that the gun buyback would make no difference to the firearms homicide and suicide rates. Yet careful studies have shown otherwise. In the decade before Port Arthur, Australia had an average of one mass shooting (involving five or more deaths) every year. Since then, we have not had a single mass shooting. The odds of this being a coincidence are less than one in 100.
The gun buyback also had some unexpected payoffs. While at the Australian National University, in work with my former academic colleague Christine Neill, I looked at the effect of the Australian gun buyback on firearm suicide and homicide rates. Shocking as mass shootings are, they represent a tiny fraction of all gun deaths. If there's a gun in your home, the person most likely to kill you with it is yourself, followed by your spouse.
Neill and I found that the firearm suicide and homicide rates more than halved after the Australian gun buyback. Although the gun death rate was falling before 1997, it accelerated downwards after the buyback. Looking across states, we also found that jurisdictions where more guns were bought back experienced a greater reduction in firearms homicide and suicide.
We estimate that the Australian gun buyback continues to save about 200 lives per year. That means thousands of people are walking the streets today who would not be alive without the National Firearms Agreement. Other work, including that by public health researchers Simon Chapman, Philip Alpers, Kingsley Agho and Michael Jones, reaches a similar conclusion.
For the United States, where Alpers will present research on the Australian experience at the Summit on Reducing Gun Violence in America this week, reform is tougher. According to the General Social Survey, 32 per cent of US households own a gun, and a patchwork of city and state laws means that restrictions in one jurisdiction are often undercut by people travelling interstate to buy a weapon.
Historically, the US National Rifle Association was a moderate body, akin to some Australian shooting groups. It supported the first federal gun laws in the 1930s, and backed a ban on cheap ''Saturday night specials'' in the 1960s. Since the 1977 ''Cincinnati Revolt'', when hardliners took over, the NRA has opposed all restrictions on firearms ownership, including bans on assault rifles and armour-piercing bullets (''cop killers''). Members of Congress rate the NRA the most powerful lobbying organisation in the nation.
The challenge for American legislators today is to stand up to these powerful extremists, and follow the example of Australia's leaders in 1996. With 86 Americans dying each day because of gun accidents, suicides or homicides, perhaps our experience can persuade sensible US legislators that there is a better way. As in Australia, the onus is on the conservative side of politics.
For Australia, the challenges in firearms policy are more modest, but still real. All states and territories should heed the call from the Minister for Justice, Jason Clare, to implement a national firearms register. This will help to keep track of weapons when they are sold or their owners move interstate. And it will help to ensure that Australian firearms do not fall into the wrong hands.
Andrew Leigh is the federal member for Fraser, and a former professor of economics at the Australian National University.
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