After 11 mass shootings in a decade and 13 in the 18 years before the introduction of the new gun control laws, Australia collected and destroyed categories of firearms designed to kill many people quickly. In his immediate reaction to the Port Arthur massacre, Australian Prime Minister John Howard said of semi‐automatic long guns: “There is no legitimate interest served in my view by the free availability in this country of weapons of this kind… Every effort should be made to ensure such an incident does not occur again. That is why we have proposed a comprehensive package of reforms designed to implement tougher, more effective and uniform gun laws.”9,10
In the 10.5 years which followed the gun buy‐back announcement (May 1996–October 2006), no mass shootings have occurred in Australia. As one study on the Australian firearm buy‐back notes: “Given that mass murders cause so much community fear, it is appropriate to choose this as an evaluation outcome separate from homicide rates generally.”11
Yet, in a recent paper examining the same dataset,7
two authors with declared affiliations with firearm advocacy groups failed entirely to report on this fundamental outcome, and issued press releases headlined Gun Laws Failed to Improve Safety
and New Research Vindicates Gun Owners
Given that the banning of semi‐automatic rifles and pump‐action shotguns was premised on the explicit objective of reducing the likelihood of mass shootings, such a flagrant omission from their analysis is extraordinary.
We suggest an analogy here. If a government addressed a recurrent incidence of level crossing car/train collisions by mandating alarmed barrier gates, it would be appropriate to ask two questions when later evaluating the effect of such a measure. One could ask “Have there been fewer level crossing car/train collisions and fatalities?” and “Have there been fewer road toll deaths from any cause?”. The outlawing of rapid‐fire rifles and shotguns in the revised Australian gun laws was the equivalent of level crossing barrier gate legislation: its primary intention was to reduce mass shootings, a national concern after the Port Arthur massacre. Accelerating the reduction in overall firearm deaths—as occurred—is a bonus, particularly as the data show that there is no evidence of method substitution for either suicide or homicide.
Three categories dominate firearm death data in Australia: suicide, homicide and unintentional (accidental) shootings. Suicide is the leading category, with an average of 79% of all firearm deaths each year. Firearms have a high lethality index (or “completion rate”) in both homicide and suicide.14
Had the gun law reforms not occurred, more Australians contemplating suicide—in particular, impulsive young people—might have more easily found a method of instant completion. Reliable national data on suicide attempts are not available in Australia to examine whether suicide completion rates changed after Port Arthur. However, the data show that the declining rate of suicide by firearms accelerated significantly after the 1996 gun laws, with there being no apparent substitution by other methods.
As only a single shot is involved in most firearm suicides, it might be argued that reduced access to rapid‐firing semi‐automatic weapons would be irrelevant in policies designed to reduce suicide: a person intending suicide with a firearm need use only a single‐shot gun. However, a person attempting suicide might just as easily use any available gun, including one capable of firing rapidly. The removal of more than 700
000 guns from an adult population of around 12 million therefore may have reduced access to guns among potential suicide attempters.
However, many gun owners own >1 firearm and may well have handed in the newly prohibited weapons after the new laws required this, but retained their non‐prohibited weapons. This means that although 700
000 firearms were removed from the community, the number of persons (and households) with access to (still legal) firearms is unlikely to have reduced significantly. What can be said with certainty though is that 700
000 fewer guns were available to be stolen or otherwise leaked from lawful owners to criminals.
The finding that there was a significant increase in unintentional (accidental) firearm deaths after the new gun laws is perplexing, although it should be emphasized that the numbers involved in this increase are small. The average annual increase in unintentional firearm deaths in the 7 years since 1996 was just 1.4 deaths. We can conceive of no plausible hypothesis as to why the removal of more than 700
000 guns from the population, the introduction of firearm registration and the tightening of shooter licensing procedures would be associated with an increase in unintentional fatal shootings, however small in number.
There are considerable problems in accurately estimating the number of gun owners and guns in a community. Given the political volatility of gun control, and the widespread and virulent opposition of many firearm owners to gun laws, which is often manifested in statements of open defiance on gun lobby websites and publications, under‐reporting of gun ownership is common in both survey research and in police registers of licensed gun owners. In 1992, Kellerman et al
reported that owners of registered handguns were much more likely to be prepared to answer questions about gun ownership than about their income.15
However, licensed firearm owners are those who self‐select to obey shooter licensing requirements. Before the 1996 gun law reforms, there was no national system of firearm registration in Australia, so there is no way of accurately comparing the estimated number of guns in the Australian community before the 1996 gun laws with the known number of registered guns after the introduction of the laws. Notwithstanding these uncertainties, in a trend that preceded the Australian Firearms Buyback but seems to have been greatly accelerated by it, the reported private gun ownership fell by 45% between 1989 and 2000, leaving a three times less likelihood of an Australian household reporting owning a firearm compared with a US household.16
By destroying an estimated one fifth of their country's estimated stock of firearms—the equivalent figure in the US would be 40 million guns17
—Australians have chosen to significantly shrink their private arsenal. All remaining guns must now be individually registered to their licensed owners, private (owner‐to‐owner) firearm sales are no longer permitted, and each gun purchase through a licensed arms dealer is scrutinized by the police to establish a “genuine reason” for ownership. Possession of firearms for self‐defence is specifically prohibited, and very few civilians are permitted to own handguns. Australia's state governments, police forces and police unions all supported the tightened gun laws. In 2002–3, Australia's rate of 0.27 firearm‐related homicides per 100
000 population was one fifteenth that of the US.18,19
It would also be negligent to omit what seemed plain to Australians, but could be less easy to measure in empirical terms. After the death and serious injury of 54 people at Port Arthur, facilitated by firearms then openly marketed by licensed gun dealers as “assault weapons”, a national upwelling of grief and revulsion saw pollsters reporting 90–95% public approval for stringent new gun laws.20,21
Resistance to gun control was roundly condemned in virtually all news media,22
and governments' 12 days of resolve deprived the firearm lobby of crucial delay time. Announcing the law changes, Prime Minister John Howard invoked the majority will of Australians when he said “This represents an enormous shift in the culture of this country towards the possession, the use and the ownership of guns. It is an historic agreement. It means that this country, through its governments, has decided not to go down the American path ... Ours is not a gun culture, ours is a culture of peaceful cooperation.”23,24
Later opinion polling ranked Howard's new gun laws as by far the most popular decision in the first year of his conservative government.25
In the opinion of the authors, the 1996 sea change in Australian attitudes—and perhaps also a significant component of the public health benefits of lower rates of firearm‐related mass shootings, suicide and homicide reported here—is best described as a national change of attitude to gun owners and their firearms.
Table 2 shows that across the 25 years, there were 200 firearm deaths classified as being of undetermined intent. Of these, 157 (80.1%) occurred before 1991, and only 15–23 after 1996. (To preserve victims' privacy, publicly released data for years in which there are
3 firearm deaths of undetermined intent are recorded as NA. This was the case for 4 of 7 years between 1997 and 2003, meaning that there could have been a maximum of 12 and a minimum of 4 undetermined cases in this time.) Across the study period, firearm deaths of unknown intent comprised 1.3% of all firearm deaths, falling to 0.8% after 1990 and 0.4% after 1996. The decrease in “unknowns” is attributed to improved reporting practices. These “missing data” from the component analyses of firearm suicide, homicides and unintentional deaths may account for small variations in the results shown, were their status able to be known.
Although ABS mortality data were also available for 2004, the National Injury Surveillance Unit warned of significant questions of accuracy due to the number of coroners' cases not closed at the time, and potential miscoding of suicide, homicide and unintentional firearm‐related death in that year.26
Accordingly, this study ends with 2003, the most recent year of reliable data.
- A radical gun law reform occurred in Australia after a gun massacre (35 dead and 18 seriously injured) in April 1996. Semi‐automatic and pump‐action shotguns and rifles were banned; a tax‐funded firearm buyback and amnesties saw over 700000 guns surrendered from an adult population of about 12 million.
- The total firearm deaths, firearm homicides and firearm suicides had been falling in the 18 years preceding the new gun laws. In all, 13 mass shootings were noticed in the 18 years preceding the new gun laws.
- In the 10.5 years after the gun law reforms, there have been no mass shootings, but accelerated declines in annual total gun deaths and firearm suicides and a non‐significant accelerated decline in firearm homicides. No substitution effects occurred for suicides or homicides.
Implications for prevention
The data swings shown are so obvious that if one were given the data in table 2 and were asked to guess the date of a major firearm intervention, it would be clear that it happened between 1996 and 1998. The Australian Firearms Buyback remains the world's most sweeping gun collection and destruction program.27
A combination of laws making semi‐automatic and pump‐action shotguns and rifles illegal, paying market price for surrendered weapons, and registering the remainder were the central ingredients. The Australian example provides evidence that removing large numbers of firearms from a community can be associated with a sudden and ongoing decline in mass shootings and accelerating declines in total firearm‐related deaths, firearm homicides and firearm suicides.