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This article is part of a Daily Kos Firearms Law and Policy group series on Gun Laws and Shooting Injuries in Canada and Australia.  The series will examine the experience of Canada and Australia: the gun reforms that were implemented in each country and the research studies done subsequently to observe how the laws affected the incidence and frequency of shooting injuries.  The series has three parts: Part I presents an overview and summary (here).  Part II reviews the gun law reforms established in Canada, and the known results of those reforms on the incidence of gun violence in Canada (here).  Part III is presented here, and reviews the gun law reforms instituted in Australia, and the subsequent incidence of gun violence in Australia.  All three parts of this series are available to interested readers today, but are being published as separate articles over three consecutive days.  


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Since the federation of Australia in 1901, each state is responsible for writing and passing their own gun laws: the federal government has no constitutional authority to create a national gun law.  Through most of its history, Australia saw only low levels of violent crime, and gun regulations received little public attention.  After a couple of public shoot-outs in Melbourne in 1987, several states were moved to require the registration of all guns.  In 1996, after a horrific public mass shooting incident in Port Arthur (Tasmania), in which 35 people were killed and another 23 wounded by a single gunman armed with two assault-style weapons, the Australian government acted to implemented sweeping reforms of the nation’s gun laws.  The conservative Prime Minister John Howard lobbied, pushed, and maneuvered the different states to adopt his proposed laws.  The National Firearm Agreement (NFA) of 1996 was passed in all the states, and included the following changes:

  • Everyone who wants to own a gun must prove a genuine reason, above and beyond “self defense”.
  • The minimum age for obtaining a gun license was set at 18 years of age.
  • Applicants for a firearm license would be required to pass a background check which includes criminal, mental health and addiction problems, and history of domestic violence.
  • All applicants for a gun license must take a gun safety training course.
  • All gun licenses were required to be renewed every one to five years (the frequency of renewal depending on the type of license).
  • Domestic violence offenders were banned from owning a gun for a minimum of 5 years, or had an existing license revoked.
  • The ownership and sale of every gun in the country would be registered in a national database.
  • All gun sales would only be done through a licensed dealer; all mail-order sales and private sales were outlawed.
  • All gun sales would be completed only after a 28-day waiting period.
  • Strict gun storage requirements for all gun owners were instituted.
  • Sales of automatic and semi-automatic weapons, and pump-action shotguns, were banned entirely, except for farmers and professional shooters who could demonstrate a genuine need.
  • Current owners of newly-prohibited guns were given 12 months to surrender weapons, and were given paid financial compensation for those weapons.

(Source: Gun Policy.org)
The NFA included a gun buy-back program to remove newly outlawed weapons: during the one year the buy-back program was in place, over 631,000 weapons were purchased from citizens and subsequently destroyed, and the government paid out over $59 million dollars in compensation to gun owners.  Because the buy-back program was instituted all over the country simultaneously, there was no way that guns could “leak” from one area into a neighboring area.

A follow-on change in Australia’s gun laws was implemented in 2002.  The National Handgun Agreement (NHA) of 2002 outlawed handguns with a caliber greater than 0.38, limited magazine size to a maximum of 10 rounds, and placed limits on the barrel length of revolvers.

A common myth is that Australians are no longer allowed to own guns: this is not true.  Today, it is estimated that the total number of guns held (both legal and illegal) by private citizens in Australia is 3,050,000.  It is estimated that the rate of private gun ownership in Australia is 15 guns per 100 people.  
(Source: Gun Policy.org)

In 2006, Dr. S. Chapman at the University of Sydney and his colleagues published a report on firearm suicides and death in the years before and after the 1996 NFA law.  Data on firearm deaths came from the National Injury Surveillance unit of the Australian Bureau of Statistics mortality data for the years 1979 – 2003.  The research team noted the following statistically significant changes:
Average yearly number of firearm deaths prior to 1996 = 627.7; after 1996 = 332.6.
Average yearly number of firearm suicides prior to 1996 = 491.7; after 1996 = 246.6
Average yearly number of firearm homicides prior to 1996 = 92.9; after 1996 = 55.6

Dr. Chapman reported he could find no evidence of a “substitution effect” - a hypothesized phenomenon whereby a lack of guns would result in increased numbers of non-firearm suicides and non-firearm homicides.  Indeed, after 1996, the total number of non-firearm suicides declined an average of 4.1% per annum, while the total number of homicides (by any method) declined an average of 3.0% per annum.  The differences between pre-1996 and post-1996 annual rates of non-firearm suicides and homicides by any method were both statistically significant.  

Perhaps most importantly, Dr. Chapman reports that Australia experienced 13 mass shootings (defined as shooting incidents resulting in 4 or more deaths) in the 18 years prior to the institution of the NFA, and zero mass shooting events in the ten years following the NFA (and I believe there have not been any mass shooting events in the years since the publication of this report).

The authors conclude that after implementation of the gun reform laws, Australia saw declines in the number of mass shooting events, total firearm deaths, firearm suicides, and firearm homicides.  There was no evidence of a substitution effect in homicide or suicide deaths.  The authors say that removing large numbers of guns may be an effective means of reducing mass shootings, and firearm homicides and suicides.  
(Source: Chapman, S., Injury Prevention Dec. 2006; 12(6):365-372)

Writing in the British Journal of Criminology in 2007, Baker and McPhedran report that firearm suicide rates in Australia were declining in the period prior to passage of the NFA, while non-firearm suicides were increasing.  After the NFA, the researchers observed further reductions in firearm suicides (statistically significant lowering of post-NFA firearm suicides from what was predicted by pre-NFA firearm suicide rates), and no significant change in the rate of non-firearm suicides post-NFA.  Overall, the total suicide numbers in the years 1997-1998 were significantly increased from previous years, but thereafter, fell off sharply.  This finding was interpreted as evidence of some suicide method substitution in the period immediately following passage of the NFA, which was in subsequent years replaced by overall decreases in suicides.  The authors conclude that the NFA had the effect of increasing declines in firearm suicides, and reversing increases in non-firearm suicides.  
(Source: J. Baker, S McPhedran, Br. J. Criminology, 2007)

Dr. Leigh Neill examined Australian crime statistics in a 2010 report in the American Law and Economics Review.  He reported that following the 1996 NFA, there was a decrease of slightly less than 80% in firearm suicides in Australia, with no significant change in non-firearm suicide rates.  A similar decrease was observed in the number of firearm homicides.
(Source: N. Leigh, Am Law Econ Rev  12(2):462; 2010)

Dr. Bricknell used data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics to look at historical trends in homicide and other crimes in Australia.  The author reports that Australian homicides peaked at 2.0 homicides/100,000 population during the 1980s, and generally declined thereafter.  In 1989-90 there were 330 homicides in Australia, dropping to 301 homicides in 2005-06.

In Australia, assault is the most common violent crime.  Assaults in Australia have been increasing – from 562.8/100,000 population in 1995 to 829.4/100,000 in 2006.  The increase was seen for both men and women, and for youths aged < 15.

There have been two peaks in the incidence of armed robbery in Australia: in 1998 and again in 2001.  Since then, the incidence of armed robbery has steadily declined.  In 2001, the rate of armed robbery was slightly less than 60/100,000 population, and in 2006 that rate had dropped to 36.5/100,000 population.

The authors conclude that the incidence of homicide and armed robbery is decreasing in Australia.  The authors note that there exists inconsistencies in the reporting of assault statistics in different sources, and this makes the interpretation of assault statistics more uncertain.
(Source: S. Bricknell.  Trends and issues in Crime and Criminal Justice no. 359)

The NFA of 1996 included a gun buy-back program, so a clear reduction in gun availability in Australia was one important result of the gun reforms.  Additionally, decreases in gun homicides and suicides followed the adoption of the NFA.  Any suicide method substitution seems to be limited to the period immediately after implementation of the NFA; there is no evidence of suicide method substitution in later years.  Importantly, acceptance of the NFA completely eliminated the incidence of public mass shooting events in Australia.  The data on other violent crimes is mixed: armed robberies have been decreasing in Australia, while assaults (including rape) have been increasing.

Edited: This diary was edited on 7/8/14 to correct the erroneous location of the mass shooting event in 1996 at Port McArthur, Northern Territories.  The correct location of the mass shooting event in 1996 is Port Arthur, Tasmania.  The author apologizes for the error.

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Originally posted to Firearms Law and Policy on Tue Jul 08, 2014 at 06:01 AM PDT.

Also republished by Repeal or Amend the Second Amendment (RASA) and Shut Down the NRA.

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