I am often being asked, particularly by United States residents, if I can help to elucidate the effects of the much-discussed Howard Government’s gun buy back (which removed about 650,000 weapons from Australian society, for which compensation was paid) following the Port Arthur massacre in which 35 people were killed.
It is difficult to be precise, as studies are still on-going, but in a bi-partisan spirit I post the following links for people to investigate for themselves if they so wish.
This joint Canadian-Australia research study finds a drop in gun suicide rates of 80%. Suicide rates are often the forgotten element in the gun control discussion – a 2010 study found that the gun buyback scheme cut firearm suicides 74%, thus saving 200 lives a year. The Canadian-Australian study, by Christine Neill and Andrew Leigh also found that states such as Tasmania, which withdrew guns quickly, had a bigger decline in firearm suicides than states such as New South Wales, which withdrew more slowly. The authors found no evidence of substitution of method of suicide in any state, although other studies have argued that this has happened. The study finds other violent deaths unaffected in the main, although it believes that overall gun violence diminished.
Effect on massacre killings
The Wikipedia page on Gun Politics in Australia is helpfully unbiased and full of data. It shows, in effect, that the effect of the gun buy back is disputed (hardly surprising with strong opinions on both sides) but that one area where it is likely there will be agreement is that guns have almost disappeared from massacre-style killings.
Hypothetically, I would argue that this is because the nature of the weapons restricted are those that typically allow considerable damage to be done in a short space of time, as in the recent school killings in the USA. This may be helpful in considering, for example, whether the USA should ban semi-automatic weapons or large magazine weapons.
This study into an Argentine gun buy back programme notes the effects of the buy back in Australia, and particularly emphasises that any changes that have taken place as a result of it are because it was not just about removing weapons from the community but also about a wider range of restrictions, as in a similar scheme in Brazil, and also a concomitant cultural change, brought about by a generalised revulsion at the Port Arthur massacre. Interestingly, though, despite not finding much impact on the overall problem of gun violence, this study finds a significant reduction in deaths from gun accidents in the Argentine.
Gun suicide and gun accidents
The effect on the reduction in gun suicide and accidental gun deaths in the USA needs to be considered as a part of any overall gun control discussion there.
23,237 accidental non-fatal gunshot injuries in the United States occurred during 2000. Annually, about 600 people are accidentally killed. You either consider this a lot, thinking about 600 families losing someone, or a little, compared to the overall gun population. Or you can hold both thoughts simultaneously, as I do.
Just over half of all gun-related deaths in the United States are suicides, and firearms remain the most common method of suicide, accounting for 50.7% of all suicides committed in 2006with 17,352 (55.6%) of the total 31,224 firearm-related deaths a year later in 2007 being decided to be suicide. It is worth noting that some of these suicides also occurred after one or more murders, such as in a family murder-suicide situation. In this respect, there would seem to be some advantage to reducing the number of households in a society with firearms.
National may work, local doesn’t
My reading seems to imply that the success or otherwise, in any sphere, of a gun buy back programme is critically determined by whether or not the activity is national, rather than state based or city based. This seems to be because if one can simply travel across a border to buy a weapon or type of weapon that is restricted in a particular community then the effect of the buy back is reduced or negated. Also, small-scale gun buy backs (such as a city within the United States) do not have a large enough impact on the overall gun population to make a serious statistical impact.
The role of guns in death and injury in the USA would seem urgent, and not just because of the recent sad mass murders. As this graphic and article from Bloomberg reveals, gun deaths will out-number traffic deaths within a couple of years. As we work to make driving a car safer and safer in so many ways, it surely makes sense to make the same effort for weapon ownership.
- Julie Mack: Gun-control debate could use more facts, less emotion (mlive.com)
- Red states: High in gun murder (wvgazette.com)
- In California, Gun Sales Are Up, Gun Injuries Are Down (hispanicbusiness.com)
- Harvard Study: Gun Control Is Counterproductive (dprogram.net)