Does Australia have its own gun problem? Australians own about the same number of firearms as before Port Arthur but factor in population growth and the types of firearms, and the numbers might be less alarming.

Research by Philip Alpers from the University of Sydney made headlines this week when it was revealed Australians imported more than 1 million guns since the 1988. But Alpers tells Crikey population should be factored into the numbers.

Alpers said the estimated number of firearms at the time of the Port Arthur massacre was 3.2 million. Australian Bureau of Statistics data shows the number of guns per 100 people in 1996 would have been 17.3, based on the 3.2 million figure. Today that number is estimated at 13.9 guns per 100 people, making the number of guns per capita significantly less than it was in 1996. (Australia’s population has grown by more than 4.4 million since 1996.)

It’s estimated 1 million guns were destroyed in the period between 1988 and 1997. After a seven-year decline, Alpers’ research found gun imports have steadily increased over the last decade, putting the estimated figure of guns in Australia now at 3.2 million.

And Alpers says you also need to factor in the types of guns legally available to Australians today. “They’re different types of guns,” he said. “They’re not the semi-automatics which were specifically banned after Port Arthur.”

What’s the difference? A semi-automatic or self-loading firearm works by mechanically reloading the gun and firing it each time the trigger is pulled. They vary in the amount of ammunition they can carry before requiring more. An automatic firearm has the ability to continuously load and fire ammunition while the trigger is held — usually with a large ammo capacity.

As a part of the National Firearms Agreement in 1996, all semi-automatic and automatic firearms were banned except in exceptional circumstances. The states implemented the agreement and bought back 728,667 guns.

Alpers says guns that were voluntarily given up were not counted in the buyback figure, and therefore he estimates the number of guns destroyed is closer to 1 million.

Most people who participated in the 1996/97 buyback replaced these with single shot rifles, single and double-barrel shotguns and other various firearms with only a single shot capability — which is exactly what it sounds like. The gun can only shoot one bullet before it needs to be re-loaded.

Since 1996, you need a permit to buy any sort of firearm. Applicants — who must be over 18 and prove a legitimate reason to own a weapon, like hunting, pest control or target shooting — are put through training. A separate permit for each firearm must be obtained. Self-protection is never considered a genuine reason for possessing any type of firearm.

The 1996 law placed all firearms into categories.  All types of semi-automatic and automatic guns are in the most difficult categories to get a permit for, along with certain types of handguns after the 2002 National Handgun Control Agreement.

Alpers’ study shows that since these laws were implemented, the number of gun-related homicides has dropped significantly, with just 30 reported in 2010 compared with 104 in 1996. Compared to other Western countries, Australia’s rate of gun homicide is very low — only 0.13 deaths per 100,000 people, whereas the United States sits at 3.6. And there has not been another mass shooting in Australia since 35 people died at Port Arthur nearly 17 years ago.

Alpers told Crikey what is also important is the number of firearms per household. “This important number has dropped in Australia,” he said, explaining guns pose a greater risk if new households buy them.

Gun advocates and shooting associations are critical of Alpers’ work, claiming he is a part of the anti-gun lobby. While his study shows gun numbers are on the rise, he doesn’t claim this has made any difference to gun violence in Australia. “It may be a problem, it may be a serious one, it may not be too bad, but we have yet to see,” he said.