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.

Peter Fray

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