Reforms still having positive effect 20 years on, as landmark study shows accelerated reduction in rates of suicide and homicide deaths caused by firearms
Since major gun law reforms were introduced in Australia, mass shootings have not only stopped, but there has also been an accelerating reduction in rates of firearm-related homicide and suicides, a landmark study has found.
It has been two decades since rapid-fire long guns were banned in Australia, including those already in private ownership, and 19 years since the mandatory buyback of prohibited firearms by government at market price was introduced. A handgun buyback program was later introduced, in 2003.
Researchers from the University of Sydney and Macquarie University analysed data on intentional suicide and homicide deaths caused by firearms from the National Injury Surveillance Unit, and intentional firearm death rates from the Australian Bureau of Statistics. For the period after the 1996 reforms, rates of total homicides and suicides from all causes were also examined to consider whether people may have substituted guns for alternative means.
From 1979 to 1996, the average annual rate of total non-firearm suicide and homicide deaths was rising at 2.1% per year. Since then, the average annual rate of total non-firearm suicide and homicide deaths has been declining by 1.4%, with the researchers concluding there was no evidence of murderers moving to other methods, and that the same was true for suicide.
The average decline in total firearm deaths accelerated significantly, from a 3% decline annually before the reforms to a 5% decline afterwards, the study found.
In the 18 years to 1996, Australia experienced 13 fatal mass shootings in which 104 victims were killed and at least another 52 were wounded. There have been no fatal mass shootings since that time, with the study defining a mass shooting as having at least five victims.
The findings were published in the influential Journal of the American Medical Association on Thursday, days after the US Senate rejected a string of Republican and Democrat measures to restrict guns. The reforms were proposed in response to the deadliest mass shooting in US history, at an LGBTI nightclub in Orlando.
The 1996 reforms introduced in Australia came just months after a mass shooting known as the Port Arthur massacre, when Martin Bryant used two semi-automatic rifles to kill 35 people and wound 23 others in Port Arthur, Tasmania. The reforms had the support of all major political parties.
The lead author of the study, Professor Simon Chapman, said a similar study had been conducted 10 years ago, and that the researchers had repeated it to see if gun-related deaths were continuing to decline, finding that they had.
“I’ve calculated that for every person in Australia shot in a massacre, 139 [people] are shot through firearm-related suicide or homicides, so they are much more common,” Chapman said.
“We found that homicide and suicide firearms deaths had been falling before the reforms, but the rate of the fall accelerated for both of them after the reforms. We’ve shown that a major policy intervention designed to stop mass shootings has had an effect on other gun-related deaths as well.”
He said the researchers had chosen to publish the results in an American medical journal not just because the title was a prestigious one, but also because the findings would have a greater impact.
However, he does not believe the findings will have an impact on gun ownership laws in the US.
“The US is a good example of where evidence is going to take longer to prevail over fear and ideology,” he said.
“When people like [Republican candidate] Donald Trump talk about gun violence, he’s essentially not talking about the facts or the evidence, he’s talking about ideology and saying people want the right to protect themselves and their homes.
“The irony is the person you have to protect yourself most from in a home is the person who owns the gun.”
Chapman said more than half of those who had conducted mass shootings in Australia and New Zealand had been licensed gun holders.
A co-author of the paper, Associate Professor Philip Alpers, who is also the founding director of GunPolicy.org, said it was “amazing” that the reforms were still having a positive effect 20 years after they were first introduced.
“When these laws came in the hope was they would curb mass shooting, but what we didn’t realise was the laws would be followed by huge changes in other types of shootings, particularly in suicide,” he said.
“The breadth of the change was unexpected. But in America, things will get worse before they get better. In Australia we had a government that was prepared to act, and what [the then prime minister] John Howard did amounted to the confiscation of private property.
“You just can’t imagine the US ever seeing that as feasible.”
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