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Politics

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.

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 comments

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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. dermot

    gun murders. the murder rate is close to static. It has been for 30 plus years.

  3. fsilber

    You’re comparing completely different situations. In Australia, those semi-automatics were legally used only for sport — which was not too much to give up for increased safety. In America, urban shopkeepers in some neighborhoods must keep such guns on hand to defend their livelihoods against mobs of rioting looters and arsonists (e.g. Los Angeles in 1992). Firearms in general serve a much more important legitimate purpose in America than they do in Australia.

    Furthermore, in most American cities the vast majority of firearm murders have felonious gang members as the victims. Until we find some other way of ridding our society of such people, the elimination of firearms murder would actually do our society more harm than good. But the real reason is so people can defend their right to privacy in the home, their right not to be raped, and their right to freedom from unwarranted searches and seizures — rights which in our country police alone do not ensure.

  4. Simon Chapman

    As I stressed in the article, Howard’s reforms were introduced to try & reduce the incidence of mass shootings like Port Arthur. He & all the states didn’t come together and do what they did because of any crisis in the “routine” gun homicide rate (ie domestic and criminal shootings) nor because of the gun suicide rate. It was because of Port Arthur, which followed a spate of lesser scale gun massacres which remain so common in the US.

    A useful analogy here is if there had been a series of multi-fatality car/train level crossing smashes and governments took action to introduce automatic level crossing gates across the country, at great expense. The obvious way to evaluate the impact of this would be to look at the incidence in level crossing smashes, not to look at all car deaths whereever they occurred. If somehow there was a knock-on fall in overall road deaths, this would be a curious bonus.

    So with the 1996 reforms, the obvious outcome of interest is mass shootings, not all gun homicides, let alone all homicides. There have been no mass shootings since. The gun lobby can hardly complain about that, but they find it a very inconvenient truth.

  5. dermot

    teach them? nothing. they have had port Arthur several times over. As i found out in a n email debate with a pro gun us lawyer they point to our supposedly larger crime rate as the principal result of gun control.

  6. Sarah Stokely

    @Alien You may notice I edited your comment. Whether it’s hyperbole or not, your comment about what should be done to Hawke was too violent to pass muster. Trying to keep the debate sane here.

  7. Russell Edwards

    “The gun laws have massive public and political support” .. classic perception management, there.. it’s as if you’d written a textbook on the topic. Oh hang on, you have. It goes quite well with the “creative epidemiology” you publicly advocate, i.e. deliberate misrepresentation of statistics for political purposes.

    The office of the attorney general estimated public support for the 1996 national firearms agreement at 60 per cent. That is not “massive”, it’s borderline. Considering the level of infringement of individual liberty at stake, it’s a rather poor show.

    And this straight after a horrendous gun massacre with massive amplification of emotions by the media and those seeking to cynically exploit the situation for tawdry political gain (John “I hate guns” Howard). No doubt the 60 percent figure was a maximum value, with it declining with time.

  8. 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.

    http://www.roger-scruton.com/rs-books.html

    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?

  9. John

    QUOTE Gun lobby affiliated researchers in Australia have sought to repudiate these outcomes using embarrassingly naïve methods”

    Are you kidding? Your saying gun deaths are down in a country that bans them.

    Well no kidding! Thats like comparing surfing accidents in Hawaii to ones in Arizona.

    But how about OVERALL deaths? How about non-gun violence? How about crime in general?

    And the figures from America, it looks like they are pretty well skewed too. How many of those “gun deaths” were from crime? Suicides? Police shootings?

    And you have the guts to question the gun lobby’s methods & figures?!?!??! Get real!

  10. Russell Edwards

    Simon, it seems rather hypocritical of you to criticise Baker & McPhedran on the basis of not being specialist statisticians or criminologists. (Although for what it’s worth, we already know what one of Australia’s top crime statisticians thinks on the topic.) As professional research scientists with honours degrees and PhDs in science, they will each have considerable training and experience in statistics. In contrast, your own “training” is in the Humanities, and your PhD was on the topic of semiotics — what the rest of us would generously call semantics, or perhaps less generously, spin doctoring. What part of that, if anything, qualifies you to produce an objective analysis with sound statistical methodology?

    Yes, your most recent paper has a biostatistician as second author. So what about your paper with Philip Alpers. What is his training?

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