What Lessons Can Be Learned from the Australian Firearm Regulation?

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What Lessons Can Be Learned from the Australian Firearm Regulation?

 Jim Windell

           Twenty-five years ago, on Sunday, April 28, 1996, a 28-year-old man used a Colt AR-15 semiautomatic rifle to kill 35 people in the quiet tourist town of Port Arthur. Port Arthur is tucked away in the southeast corner of Tasmania – a small island off mainland Australia. That shooting on that Sunday launched one of the world’s most powerful natural experiments in firearm-injury prevention.

           Victoria (Australia’s second-most populous state) had previously tightened its firearm law after mass shootings in the region. But in most of the country, firearm policies had been changed very little in the decades before 1996. However, within two weeks after the Port Arthur mass murder, state and territory governments and the federal government had all agreed to a new firearm-regulation standard that involved implementing or strengthening gun-owner licensing, firearm registration, safe-storage policies, and suicide-prevention programs.

           In addition, as part of the policy changes, the government also announced a mandatory buyback program for newly prohibited firearms. Over the next 18 months, 659,940 semiautomatic rifles and shotguns were purchased from residents and destroyed. The total cost of the program — AU$500 million (U.S.$361 million at the 1997 exchange rate) — was paid for by a one-time levy that cost taxpayers an average of $15 each. Tens of thousands of gun owners also voluntarily turned in nonprohibited firearms with no compensation.

           But what long-term effect did this new policies have on Australia?

           In a recent New England Journal of Medicine report, this question was explored by members of the faculty of Medicine and Health, University of Sydney School of Public Health, Medicine and Health, University of Sydney Children’s Hospital Westmead Clinical School, and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston.

           One of the findings of researchers were that these policy changes have had a substantial and positive effect on gun violence in Australia. In the 20 years leading up to and including the 1996 Port Arthur massacre, there were 11 mass shootings (defined as shootings in which five or more people, not including the perpetrator, were killed) in the country. But, in the 22 years that followed, there were no such incidents. Between 1979 and 1996, average annual firearm-related mortality was 3.6 per 100,000 people. After the policies were implemented, that rate dropped to 1.2 per 100,000 people between 1997 and 2013.

           Furthermore, firearm-related mortality had already been falling in Australia prior to 1996, but changes in the rate of firearm-related death accelerated from an average decrease of 3% per year before gun laws were upgraded to an average decrease of 4.9% per year afterward. Specifically, there were sizable reductions in firearm-related suicides and homicides. The most noticeable drop was in terms of firearm-related suicides (which account for about 70% of gun deaths) – with no evidence of substitution in methods of suicide. When compared to other countries around the world, Australia had one of the largest annual rates of change in the number of firearm-related deaths between 1990 and 2016.

           The researchers looked more closely at the numbers to try to determine if the policies were responsible for reductions in firearm-related deaths. Although the number of nonfirearm suicides and homicides has also fallen during the past quarter-century in Australia, reductions in gun deaths, however, have been much more substantial. For instance, between 1997 and 2013, there was a 55% reduction in the firearm-related suicide rate, as compared with a 16% reduction in the nonfirearm suicide rate, and a 62% reduction in the firearm-related homicide rate, as compared with a 44% reduction in the nonfirearm homicide rate.

           Moreover, the drop in firearm-related deaths was largest in states where the most guns were surrendered and smaller than average in Victoria, which had already restricted access to semiautomatic long guns. A rare-events model provided strong evidence that the absence of mass shootings in Australia between 1997 and 2017 wasn’t merely a continuation of a preexisting pattern. No other policy has been suggested to explain the large reduction in firearm-related mortality after the national revision of gun legislation.

           When comparing Australia with the United States, it was found that Australia has fewer guns per capita, stronger gun regulations, and far lower firearm-related mortality. Studies have found that a country’s estimated rate of firearm ownership is associated with its rates of firearm-related suicide and homicide. The effect of gun availability on violent death is substantial. For example, an international meta-analysis of intimate partner violence perpetrated by men found that having access to a gun was linked to an increase by more than a factor of 10 in the likelihood of killing a partner (as opposed to committing nonfatal violence).

           Does this Australian experiment provide any important lessons for the United States?

           The answer to that, according to the researchers, is that it does. They suggest that the Australian example demonstrates that taking a public health approach to firearm-injury prevention by reducing access, strengthening regulation, and engaging the community can reduce gun deaths. It also shows that after mass-shooting incidents, countries have an opportunity to improve policies. Australia’s policy change used a substantial amount of the relatively new — and right-leaning — Prime Minister John Howard’s political capital. The support of many conservatives was crucial and was secured by opinion polls showing overwhelming support for firearm regulation and by media pressure. Gun-policy reforms were supported by all major political parties, whereas conservative parties in many other countries staunchly oppose such reforms. The success of firearm regulation became a source of pride for many Australians.

           Also, the Australian experience shows that efforts to reduce gun violence benefit from the use of multipronged interventions, including gun registration, gun-owner licensing, safe-storage policies, and suicide-prevention programs.

           To read the original article in the New England Journal of Medicine, find it here.




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