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Sep 9, 2008

What John Howard could teach the US about gun control

Ever since John Howard’s 1996 post Port Arthur gun law reforms, our local gun lobby in Australia has been the laughing stock of its US brethren, writes Simon Chapman.

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The US National Rifle Association has been a tad suspicious of John McCain after he voted to support a mandatory 72-hour waiting period for background checks on gun purchasers at gun fairs and when he championed campaign-finance legislation that the gun lobby saw as an attack on their rights to expression. The Columbine High School killers obtained their guns from such a fair.

With the NRA having the largest grass roots vote delivery network in the US, and promising $40m to defeat Obama, Sarah Palin has been a masterly choice to tour the midwest and southern rump to paper over potential electoral concerns about McCain being a closet liberal among abortion hating, God fearing, gun loving Republicans.

So what would Palin’s audiences make of Australia’s record on gun control? Ever since John Howard’s 1996 post Port Arthur gun law reforms, our local gun lobby in Australia has been the laughing stock of its US brethren. Our 1996 reforms were precipitated by the Port Arthur massacre, the 13th mass shooting in 15 years in which five or more victims died in places like Hoddle and Queen Streets in Melbourne and Strathfield Plaza.

The central provisions of the reforms were the ban on semi-automatic rifles and pump action shotguns, accompanied by gun amnesties and two national buybacks, which together saw some 820,000 guns destroyed. Because of their rapid firepower, semi-automatics are the guns of choice for those intent on killing many people quickly. John Howard introduced the reforms to prevent US-style mass killings, not primarily to prevent criminal or domestic gun homicides or gun suicides.

In the 12 years since the law reforms, there have been no mass shootings. But there is also evidence of wider collateral benefits in reduced gun deaths overall. While the rate of firearm homicide was reducing in Australia by an average of 3% per year prior to the law reforms, this more than doubled to 7.5% per year after the introduction of the new laws, although to the delight of our local gun lobby, this failed to reach statistical significance simply because of the low statistical power inherent in the small numbers involved.

Gun deaths in Australia are dominated by suicides, with about 79% of all gun fatalities, followed by 15% homicides and 2% unintentional shootings. Suicide with guns has what coroners euphemistically call a very high “completion rate”. When those attempting suicide use a gun, they don’t need a semi-automatic. The trigger gets pulled once, so a single shot suffices, from any gun that remained unaffected by the law reforms. So by removing only semi-automatics, we really wouldn’t expect any decline in gun suicides.

Yet as with gun homicides, firearm suicides in males declined from 3.4 deaths per 100,000 person years in 1997 to 1.3 per 100,000, a decline of 59.9%. The rate of all other suicides declined from 19.9 deaths per 100,000 in 1997 to 15.0 per 100,000 in 2005, a 24.5% decline, less than half that for gun suicides.

Having more guns around seems to be associated with more gun suicides, and more suicides overall. A paper published in this week’s prestigious New England Journal of Medicine compares gun suicide rates in the 15 US states with the highest rate (47%) of household ownership with six states with the lowest rates (15%). While the rates of non-firearm suicide were equal in these two groups, the states with high gun ownership had 3.7 times more male gun suicides and 7.9 times more female gun suicides than the low gun ownership states.

The USA has 14.3 times Australia’s population, 104 times our total firearm-caused deaths (30,143 in 2005 vs 289 in 2003), and 294 times Australia’s firearm homicide rate (12,352 in 2005 vs just 42 in 2005/06). In 1979, 705 people died from gunshots in Australia. Despite population growth, in 2003, this number had fallen to 289.

Gun lobby affiliated researchers in Australia have sought to repudiate these outcomes using embarrassingly naïve methods that have been heavily criticised in the research literature. While news of the latest gun massacre in the United States remains depressingly common, Australians today enjoy one of the safest communities on earth. John Howard’s first and most popular law reform stands as the world’s most successful reform of gun laws.

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45 thoughts on “What John Howard could teach the US about gun control

  1. ChrisPer

    Professor Chapman does not say that he was for many years one of the lead activists pushing for extreme gun laws. His own credibility is at stake when the gun laws are assessed. Nor does he reveal that his expertise is in anti-smoking propaganda methods, and his lifelong record of activism against smoking and guns is that of a crusader whose concern for truth is limited to its usefulness in his causes.

    Professor Chapman via his expertise recognises how important FRAMING the debate is, and his use of words and statistics is very manipulative.

    He frames others research as the work of a demonic ‘gun lobby’. His repeated ad hominem attacks on the work of Baker and McPhedran disregard the known personal integrity of those women.

    By emphasising suicides as ‘gun deaths’ several manipulative researchers counted their reduction for activist purposes, but disregarded the effects of massive injections of funding and effort in reducing suicides after suicides shot UP in 1997-1998.

    Andrew Leigh and Christine Neall in their unpublished paper held that lower total suicides after ten years meant that suicides were not substituted, but didn’t even check the literature to find the 1993 Queensland research that found a perfect negative correlation between a rise in hanging and the fall in gun suicides from 1997. Did Professor Chapman mention that research in his article? I see not.

    Professor Chapman also twists the truth in his claim that the gun laws were intended to prevent massacres. In fact, it was believed they COULD NOT prevent massacres, because only some guns could be removed and criminals can always get them. Instead, the gun laws would somehow ‘create a safer Australia’.

  2. Russell Edwards

    Trish, your “tobacco industry hack” has written over 30 books on philosophy, culture and politics, none of which are on the topic of tobacco.


    And the Cato Institute mainly focusses on libertarian ideas of limited government and individual freedom; yes, free markets are in there too.

    Out of interest what are your own credentials for making such outlandish claims?

  3. ChrisPer

    My name and contact details are available on request, email thinkfocus@iinet.net.au


    Cantor C. 2001 Civil Massacres Ethological Perspectives. The ASCAP Bulletin Vol 2 No 1. 29-31.

    Cantor, Mullen and Alpers, 2000 Mass homicide: the civil massacre. J Am Acad Psychiatry Law 28:1:55-63

    Cialdini, Robert 2001. Influence: Science and Practice 4th Ed. Allyn and Bacon, pp121-130.

    Cramer, C 1993. Ethical problems of mass murder coverage in the mass media. Journal of Mass Media Ethics 9.

    Hansen, Jane 1995. “Tassie Guns”, A Current Affair 2 Oct 1995, featuring Roland Browne and Rebecca Peters of the Coalition for Gun Control. Nine Network broadcast.

    Lovibond J. 1996. ‘Hobart gun death related to TV show’, Hobart Mercury, 21/05/1996, Ed: 1, Pg: 2, 511 words. Newstext

    Mullen, Paul quoted in Hannon K 1997, “Copycats to Blame for Massacres Says Expert”, Courier Mail, 4/3/1997

    Pinker, Stephen 1999. How the Mind Works, Norton and Company, 672 pp.

    Phillips, D. P. 1980. Airplane accidents, murder, and the mass media: Towards a theory of imitation and suggestion. Social Forces, 58, 1001-1024.

  4. Dr Russell Edwards

    What a joke, Mr Chapman.

    “Gun lobby affiliated researchers in Australia have sought to repudiate these outcomes using embarrassingly naïve methods that have been heavily criticised in the research literature. “

    “Heavily criticised” by whom? Only yourself, a well-known anti-gun lobby activist, heavily involved in pushing through the expensive, illiberal “reforms” you are now desperate to justify, against all the evidence. A single publication hardly counts as “the reasearch literature”. Never before have I seen a scientist, much less a professor, stoop to publishing reviewer comments on his website like some kind of marketing testimonials. The only other dissenter I am aware of is the unpublished work of ANU Associate Professor Andrew Leigh.

    Bias ought not to be an issue to the informed reader, and those uncomfortable with evaulating research on its merits can always place weight in the comments of independent experts, such as the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research head Don Weatherburn, who has stated in reference to the Baker & McPhedran works proving no or minimal effects from the gun laws that “although the authors of the study admit to being members of gun clubs, the study was well conducted and published in an internationally respected, peer-reviewed journal. It would be unfair to accuse the authors of “cooking the books” to achieve a certain result.”

    Nevertheless, it is hard to go past the latest work on the topic, which comes out of the prestigious (University of) Melbourne Institute from authors with known known affiliation to either side of the debate. The full paper is downloadable on their website. Here is an extract from the abstract: “we re-analyze the same data on firearm deaths used in previous research, using tests for unknown structural breaks as a means to identifying impacts of the NFA. The results of these tests suggest that the NFA did not have any large effects on reducing firearm homicide or suicide rates.”

  5. ChrisPer

    Even if you have taken your ball and gone home, I have gone back and read the source material on the objectives of the gun laws and I acknowledge that you are right that the objectives included reducing massacres. The language was ‘I don’t pretend for a minute that this will prevent all massacres’. Rather, it was to ‘prevent a US-like gun culture’ arising. It therefore remains to be explained how it reduced massacres to zero, when it was not thought capable of doing so. The answer is in the cutural environment. Activists and journalists stopped inciting loonies to murder.

    Interesting how the CULTURAL intervention is not being examined. The hate-filled disparagement of shooters by Trish and her mates above, and in more self-important words by yourself, gives the lie to your self-serving pretense that this was a rational intervention. The manipulation by you and your partners in the media to demonise our innocent sport was loaded with malice, as the excessive and personal language of you activists then and now proves.

    Interesting that although (as you point out) the protests at the time regarded movies as equally or more harmful, NO action has been taken to destroy the culture of American movie violence. And most interesting of all, the proven link between instruction by the news media and deaths of innocents has been ignored. Phillips 1980 forward – you assuredly know the research because its your speciality.

    The partnership between activists and news commentators to whip up hype over guns, exploiting mass murder for eyeballs on news screens, inadvertently caused Columbine, caused Cho, and almost certainly caused Port Arthur. And although its impossible to prove that single show by the NCGC caused Port Arthur, the Coroner found it taught one man how to get a gun and kill himself. That’s more deaths than I and my friends have caused, Simon.

  6. Russell Edwards

    Trish, perhaps you would like to take up your simple-minded philosophical objections to hunting with famous philosopher Josè Ortega y Gasset (except he is dead)


    Not a fan of spaniards? Another influential philosopher, this one contemporary: Roger Scruton


    Or is Women’s Studies more your philosophical bent? Ask Professor Mary Zeiss Stange about it then


    I don’t think you will find any of those educated hunters foaming at the mouth. While you are at it, ask yourself if the Cato Institute, sponsors of the recent High Court challenge to Washington DC handgun bans, was “fulfulling some pathetic rambo fantasy”.

  7. Simon Chapman

    ChrisPer is a regular critic of mine, but never with the courage to reveal his name as he wades yet again into his tedious claims. Many people know I was an active member of the Coalition for Gun Control in the mid 1990s (a decade ago). I don’t declare that past affiliation today as competing interests are customarily held to extinguish after 5 years. The CGC’s “extreme” agenda was adopted by every government in Australia, so I’ll leave the accuracy of that slur to others. Apparently I have only expertise in tobacco control “propaganda”, and not gun control matters — unlike McPhedran whose expertise (although I can find only one peer reviewed publication) is in vestibular science and Baker whose expertise is weed science). Chris, how is it that they have gun control expertise but not me and my biostatistical co-authors who came to my office with their jaws dropping at the elementary problems in the way M&B had done their analyses?

    Your insistence that the Howard reforms were not directed at reducing massacres is laughable. Did Howard mention suicides? Did he ban semi-autos because of lots of men were shooting their wives or neighbours with them? No, he banned them because they were they usual weapon of choice in massacres. And as our table shows (http://tobacco.health.usyd.edu.au/site/supersite/contact/pdfs/2006_InjuryPrevent.pdf) the large majority of men who run amok with semi-autos had no criminal record or no hstory of mental illness. They with hitherto “law abiding gun owning citizens.”

  8. Russell Edwards

    Mac W, no-one is arguing against regulation in principle. What is being asked for is, first of all, evidence-based policy, and secondly, for the interests of legitimate firearms owners to be taken seriously into consideration. At least three of your suggestions — registration, handgun bans and military style firearm bans — are of very doubtful value in terms of public health outcomes.

    Canada is in the process of dismantling its firearms registry after finding it an expensive failure. New Zealand, perhaps the closest to Australia culturally but with significantly higher firearms ownership rates and greater cultural acceptance of hunting as a legitimate activity, have no registration and yet enjoy similar or better violent crime rates than Australia.

    Handguns do have legitimate uses for target shooting and, although not recognised legally in Australia, hunting and personal protection against dangerous animals and human attackers.

    Military style rifles is a meaningless term — since when does the “style” of a firearm, i.e. its appearance, have anything to do with its potential for misuse?? And yet we see both in law and in common practice of Australian Customs, the banning or de facto banning of firearms purely on the basis of appearance.

    When it comes down to it, the entire idea of restricting access to certain classes of firearms is of very doubtful public safety value. Sure, a 20 mm automatic cannon or a grenade launcher is obviously potentially more dangerous than a sporting rifle. However, the difference between a handgun or a longarm, a semi-automatic or a pump action or a lever action or a bolt action or a single shot — these are largely negligible.

    This practice, in my view, has always known to gun control advocates and politicians to be of no public safety value. It has a simplistic appeal to the general public, hence its adoption by NCGC and ultimately John Howard (twice), as a means to the end of a complete ban (NCGC) or reelection (JWH).

  9. Trish

    Russ, I just googled Roger Scruton and it seems he’s a little more than a “grimy hack for the tobacco industry” (see http://www.ash.org.uk/ash_ye6i432k.htm). And the Cato Institute is nothing but a let-industry-rip- and-bugger-the-consequences “think tank” (if that’s not an oxymoron). You certainly know how to pick ’em. And just sort of furry critters do you miss terrorising with your confiscated guns, might I be bold enough to ask? Or are you a family defendin’ sort of guy?

  10. Mac W

    To those who have criticized the suicide research, may I suggest you actually READ the NEJM article (http://content.nejm.org/cgi/content/full/359/10/989), which states that 24% of attempted suicides were impulse actions decided and acted upon in less than 5 minutes, 70% of those in less than an hour and 90% of those failed attempters do not go on to die from suicide. These were the lucky ones. Surely, if you remove the guns, you remove people’s easy access to suicide. Presumably, it’s easy to pull a trigger with immediate, irreversible results, but far harder to motivate (if that’s the right word?) oneself to step off a high edge, hang up a noose, or swallow 100 pills – all of which allow time for reflection. Bullets don’t.

    The same can be argued for homicides and accidental death. Remove the guns, and you remove the easy access of hot-headed impulse murders. Remove the guns, and you remove the chance of accidentally discharging a bullet into an innocent bystander (as seen in last week’s Port Macquarie tragedy: http://www.smh.com.au/news/national/owners-of-pistol-that-killed-teen-arrested/2008/09/04/1220121430195.html).

    Full credit to Trish who highlights the ‘pathetic rambo fantasy’ inherent in those men who through insane reasoning, believe the presence of some military-style weapon guarantees them some added sense of security. Newsflash guys: your ‘increased security’ is only guaranteed if you’re the only one with the weapon – you’re not!; but just keep using this MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) mentality if it makes you feel more ‘manly’.

    And to those who believe that gun laws will never have an affect because ‘real criminals will still get hold of them’, yeah you’re right – hey you know what, there will always be rape and child abuse so lets make that as easy to commit as well – while we’re at it!

  11. Peter Cunningham

    INTERESTING – After all the years nothing has changed.
    A truly independent research body investigates (
    http://www.melbourneinstitute.com/wp/wp2008n17.pdf ) data since 1914 and finds nil tangible change following the promises made by John Howard, the various Police Ministers and Commissioners in their orgy of public manipulation.
    * Simon Chapman continues making a livelihood out of fear – even on this forum he continues.
    * Alpers (and his grand self anointed title “Adjunct Associate Professor”) does likewise.
    * People hate guns.
    * Other people enjoy using firearms properly.
    * Crime continues.
    * Suicides continue.
    * Nothing has changed because nothing can change.

    The reasons are practical politics, personal prejudice, personal vested interest and of course – money.
    Best summed up by H.L. Mencken 1923:
    Hobgoblins: “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”
    It is more convenient to create a demon and be seen destroying it, than delve into the root causes as to why people resort to suicide, or crime. Those answers are societal, and in which law and human nature play vital rolls.
    So, whilstever people have ‘ass-holes’, then so too will division and problems continue.

  12. Simon Chapman

    Tree hugger & John — did you actually read the data on total suicides & gun suicides pre/post Port Arthur before writing your comments? You can look at it here http://tobacco.health.usyd.edu.au/site/supersite/contact/pdfs/2006_InjuryPrevent.pdf I don”t mind responding to informed comment, but until we agree what the data are — and I cite official sources — there’s not much point in debating whether substitution (to other methods of suicide) occurred. If you disagree with the data shown on suicide, what are your sources?

  13. ChrisPer

    Simon, it is indeed generous of you to respond to me again.

    I have used my usual Internet name, which you recognise from Andrew Leigh’s comments thread. I recall an exchange with my real name a few years back wherein you noted that you had a good friend who was a target shooter and supported the new gun laws. I recall you going very quiet when I asked it it was Phillip Alpers.

    For those who don’t know, Associate Professor Alpers went to a target shooting club to conduct an activist stunt. There he deliberately contravened safety rules, recklessly firing shots in two separate incidents after the range officer had commanded to cease firing and clear the rifle.

    Professor Chapman, with your expertise in influence and the role of media in persuading the weak-minded to take harmful courses of action like smoking, have you read the references in my article from a few years ago? You know that authors INCLUDING Associate Professor Alpers showed that the massacres in Australia were media-influenced copycat crimes.

    Six months before the Port Arthur massacre, the NCGC acting with a current affairs program gave Tasmanians detailed instruction in how to obtain assault rifles illegally. A Greenpeace activist showed us on TV how to load and use the rifles, then blew apart a melon like the head of a victim.

    According to police interviews, Martin Bryant bought that AR15 assault rifle illegally five months before the massacre. That places it within two to four weeks after the program, but that is only suggestive. The proof that program did harm is in a man who travelled from Melbourne, followed the instructions of the program and blew his own head off. Refs in http://www.class.org.au/ideas-kill.htm .

    It took the hype over Dunblane to actually trigger Bryant’s copycat crime. The NCGC was there capitalising with activism, just as taught by you.

    Simon, explain for the readers please: in the media-influence copycat model why would massacres have stopped?

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