Right: Hoddle Street, Melbourne, 1987. Police converge on the scene as gunman Julian Knight fires a high-powered rifle indiscriminately, killing or wounding motorists and pedestrians.
Arguments suggesting Australia's gun control laws have been a success
1. Australia's stricter gun laws have reduced gun ownership in this country
It has been claimed that the extent of gun ownership in Australia has not reached the level that it was immediately prior to the Port Arthur massacre.
Figures which suggest that the number of guns now in private hands has reached pre-1996 levels are criticised as misleading. Supporters of Australia's stricter gun laws point to their continuing success and claim that the increased number of guns currently owned in Australia is a reflection of Australia's larger population. The rate of gun ownership per person has not reached pre-1996 levels.
On January 15, 2013, The Sydney Morning Herald ran an opinion piece by Andrew Leigh, the federal member for Fraser, and a former professor of economics at the Australian National University.
Leigh argues that the rise in the number of guns in Australia since 1997 is more than matched by our population growth.
Leigh claims, 'The population is a fifth larger than it was in 1997. In reality, Australia has about as many guns per person as we did after the gun buyback. The only way to conclude the gun buyback has been undone is to ignore a decade and a half of population growth.'
Leigh further argues, 'Moreover, the figure that really matters is the share of gun-owning households. In 1997 many households used the chance to clean out the closet and take a weapon that hadn't been used in years to the local police station (the most common weapon handed in was a .22 calibre rifle). So the share of gun-owning households dropped from 15 per cent to 8 per cent.'
Leigh concludes, 'New firearms in Australia may be being bought by people who already have a weapon in the home. Adding a tenth gun to the household arsenal is much less risky than buying the first.'
2. Australia's stricter gun laws have reduced gun-related deaths and crime in this country
Supporters of Australia's gun control legislation point to the decline in gun-related deaths and crime which have occurred since the 1996 gun-buyback and the restrictions on gun ownership which accompanied it.
On January 16, 2013, The New York Times published an opinion piece by former Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, in which he argues that the gun control legislation he introduced in Australia could also succeed in the United States.
Mr Howard explained the benefits that had come to Australia following the gun buyback and the introduction of stricter gun laws. Mr Howard stated, 'Today, there is a wide consensus that our 1996 reforms not only reduced the gun-related homicide rate, but also the suicide rate. The Australian Institute of Criminology found that gun-related murders and suicides fell sharply after 1996. The American Law and Economics Review found that our gun buyback scheme cut firearm suicides by 74 percent. In the 18 years before the 1996 reforms, Australia suffered 13 gun massacres - each with more than four victims - causing a total of 102 deaths. There has not been a single massacre in that category since 1996.'
In 2010 Andrew Leigh of the Research School of Economics, Australian National
University and Christine Neill of the Department of Economics, Wilfrid Laurier University conducted a study of the impact of Australia's gun buyback.
The researchers found that 'the buyback led to a drop in the firearm suicide rates of almost 80%, with no significant effect on non-firearm death rates. The effect on firearm homicides is of similar magnitude but is less precise.' Important for any discussion of causality, the authors also found that 'the largest falls in firearm deaths occurred in states where more firearms were bought back.' This study went on to cite survey results to suggest that Australia had nearly halved its number of gun-owning households and then estimated that, by withdrawing firearms on such a scale, this nation of nearly 23 million people had saved itself 200 deaths by gunshot and US$500 million in costs each year.
In 2013 an essay written by Adjunct Associate Professor Philip Alpers, from the University of Sydney's School of Public Health was published. Professor Alpers explains the positive impact of Australia's gun buyback scheme. The professor stated, 'The evidence is clear that following gun law reform, Australians became many times less likely to be killed with a firearm. That said, causality and standards of proof are as contentious in Australia as in any community polarized by the gun debate. Central to the differing interpretations is the fact that Australia's gun death rates were already declining prior to its major public health interventions. Taking this into account, one study concluded nevertheless that "the rates per 100,000 of total firearm deaths, firearm homicides and firearm suicides all at least doubled their existing rates of decline after the revised gun laws."'
3. Many of the claims made by opponents of Australia's gun laws involve a distortion of the relevant statistics
Defenders of Australia's gun laws have argued that many of their critics in Australia and the United States are distorting statistics in order to support their claims that restrictive gun laws are ineffective.
On February 8, 2013, The Arizona Daily Star published an opinion piece by Michael Brown. Michael Brown is a senior lecturer at Monash University and an Australian astronomer who lived in Tucson from 2000 to 2004.
Michael Brown has argued, 'Remarkably, some American gun advocates argue Australian gun laws have greatly increased crime. I have lived in Australia and Tucson, and this claim seems amazing, given how often my friends, colleagues and I encountered gun crime in America.
On closer scrutiny, it is clear the National Rifle Association and other gun advocates are applying several tricks and sleights of hand to make their case. Let's look at these in action.'
Brown then goes on to explain the distortions he believes have been made. 'The selective use of data, or cherry-picking, is used to get the "right" answer when all the data give the "wrong" answer.
NRA (National Rifle Association) News was cherry-picking when it reported this statistic from the Australian state of New South Wales: "In the inner west, robberies committed with firearms skyrocketed more than 70 percent over the previous year."
Rather than giving the national trend over many years, the NRA chose one part, of one city, in one state and just two years. This is misleading. Around Australia, robberies using firearms have declined from more than 1,500 per year in the 1990s to below 1,200 per year over the past five years.'
Brown went on to criticise another misuse of data. 'In the Wall Street Journal, Joyce Lee Malcolm stated, "The Australian Institute of Criminology reported a decrease of 9 percent in homicides and a one-third decrease in armed robbery since the 1990s but an increase of more than 40 percent in assaults and 20 percent in sexual assaults."
The implication is that gun control increases assaults and sexual assaults (including rape). This is false.
Weapons (including knives) are used in just 2 percent of sexual assaults in Australia. In the state of New South Wales, just 0.3 percent of assaults involve firearms. Firearm use is almost completely irrelevant to assault and sexual assault in Australia, and cannot be driving changes in these crimes.'
Brown concludes, 'Claims that Australian gun laws have increased crime are pure spin. These deceptive claims say more about the bitter partisan debate than about the reality in Australia.'
Similar claims have been made about the gun lobby in Australia. Gun Control Australia has noted, 'Several Australian gun clubs are deceiving the public by claiming that the National Firearms Agreement of 1996 has not been successful. The Sporting Shooters Association (SSAA) and the International Coalition for Women in Shooting and Hunting are two examples. We believe that soon our politicians will realise that it is often unwise to trust gun club leaders on gun law matters.'
4. Australia's gun laws include previsions that would help reduce the likelihood of further United States massacres
Supporters of stricter gun controls have argued that a number of the safeguards put in place under Australian legislation would have helped reduce the likelihood of the most recent gun massacre at Newtown, Connecticut, having occurred.
Australian anti-gun lobbyist, Rebecca Peters, has noted that two of the changes that Australia made to its background checks after the Port Arthur massacre might have prevented Adam Lanza from obtaining the weapon he used in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre.
Australian background checks now require information about who gun owners live with. If police had determined that Lanza wouldn't have qualified to own a gun, his mother might have been either refused permission, or required to keep her guns locked in a different location.
Rebecca Peters has suggested that like Australia there are a few initial steps the United States could take to make the country safer. The first step, she argues, would be to bring back the assault weapon ban. Peters has stated, 'One of the next important changes would be to expand background checks: currently, gun owners undergo checks only if they buy a new gun not if they buy a used one.'
Peters also advocates increasing waiting periods and expanding checks on owners who want more than one gun.
Ms Peters argues, 'When you're talking about reducing motor vehicle accidents, you don't only rely on seat belts, you don't only rely on speed limits, you don't only rely on highway design, you don't only rely on motor vehicle standards, but you have a set of them. Similarly, they're a set of measures that together constitute regulation to prevent gun violence.'
5. Gun control measures such as those introduced in Australia reduce the likelihood of terrorist groups developing within a country
It has been argued that the ready availability of firearms increases the likelihood terrorist attacks within a country. Conversely, it has been claimed that reducing the ready availability of firearms reduces the incidence of terrorism.
On January 16, 2013, The Conversation published a comment by Shandon Harris-Hogan, a Researcher at the Global Terrorism Research Centre at Monash University. Mr Harris-Hogan stated, 'The introduction of restrictions on the sale of firearms in Australia has helped prevent such a mass casualty attack [involving terrorism]. In 2005 and 2009, cells were intercepted in Victoria which planned to conduct mass casualty attacks in the name of jihadist ideology. Both unsuccessfully attempted to procure guns from the black market.'
Mr Harris-Hogan has argued that the difficulty of acquiring firearms increases the likelihood that terrorists will be apprehended.
Mr Harris-Hogan concluded, 'The 2005 cell used money raised through criminal activity in an attempt to purchase firearms for the group. Three men were also convicted of planning a suicide mission on Holsworthy Army Barracks in 2009 using guns that carried "up to 60 bullets". These men were recorded commenting that with this type of weaponry, "20 minutes would be enough" to inflict mass casualties.
Fortunately, both groups had difficulty acquiring such weapons and authorities were able to intercept both cells before an attack could take place.'