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Australia and firearms: What the evidence really tells us

OCTOBER 20, 2014
Responding to MLC David Shoebridge's firearms piece, Dr Samara McPhedran argues that anti-gun lobbyists privilege some forms of "evidence" over all others, at the expense of proper scrutiny.

Greens NSW MLC David Shoebridge's call for evidence-based policy towards firearms management sounds good.

Sadly, his statistical cherry-picking shows that politicians use statistics like a drunk uses a lamp-post.

The facts simply do not support Mr Shoebridge's belief that more gun laws equate to more safety. Nor do the facts back the Greens NSW long-standing policy platform of imposing ever-increasing bans on legal gun ownership.

In 1996, Australia passed some of the most restrictive gun laws in the Western world. This included bans on semi-automatic longarms (rifles and shotguns) and pump-action shotguns, and a taxpayer-funded gun confiscation program costing an estimated half-billion dollars.

Since then, many different research groups have studied the effects of those laws. None of these has found a significant impact of the legislative changes on the pre-existing downward trend in firearm homicide. The decline in firearm homicides in Australia is not unique, with other Commonwealth countries like Canada and New Zealand experiencing similar or greater declines over time, despite having higher density of gun ownership" than Australia and much less restrictive legislative approaches to firearms control.

Whether or not Australia's laws affected firearm suicides is uncertain. Some studies find an impact, others find little or no evidence of any changes and/or substitution of other suicide methods. Adding to this complexity, suicides across the board declined after 1997. This coincided with national implementation of a wide range of suicide prevention strategies.

There were broader social changes occurring around that time, including the start of a long period of economic growth and low unemployment. It is extremely difficult to disentangle the effects of legislative changes from those of multiple interventions and social changes occurring around the same time. Indeed, based on a careful evidence review, it has been proposed that Australia's gun laws do not represent a cost-effective way of preventing suicide.

Anti-gun lobbyists often claim that banning private ownership of semi-automatic longarms has prevented mass shootings. However, our close neighbour New Zealand - similar to us in history, culture, and economic trends - has experienced an almost identical time period with no mass shootings despite continued widespread availability of the firearms Australia banned. The absence of mass shootings in New Zealand alongside ongoing use of sporting configuration semi-automatic firearms for target shooting and hunting cannot be reasonably attributed to pre-existing differences between the two countries: data that takes the different population sizes into account shows the occurrence of mass shootings before 1996/1997 was comparable between countries.

Interestingly, some authors claim to find miraculous impacts of Australia's gun laws, such as Australian Labor Party MP Andrew Leigh, whose work Mr Shoebridge selectively promotes. When you look closely at the actual results of that study, the statistics just do not add up. As the US National Institute of Justice comments: "[Leigh & Neill 2010] has proven confusing in that its abstract suggests that Australia's gun buyback reduced firearm homicide rates... but the body of the report finds no effect." Others note that the result of Leigh and Neill's suicide estimation modelling "strains credulity."[1] Unfortunately, it seems anti-gun lobbyists privilege some forms of "evidence" over all others at the expense of proper scrutiny.

Is it true that the more legally-owned guns there are in Australia, the more gun crime we will have? The answer is resoundingly "no". For example, figures released by the NSW Government show very clearly that although the number of firearm licence holders and legally-owned guns has continued to grow, firearm misuse, as well as firearm theft, has continued to fall.

The ongoing administrative costs of Australia's firearms management regime are unknown, but have been conservatively estimated at around AU$27 million per year, or about AU$75,000 per day. This is more than the average Australian earns in a year and it is a "low estimate" - the real costs may be much higher[2].

Despite this massive price tag, the overall balance of evidence suggests Australia's gun laws are simply not the "too good to be true" success story anti-gun lobbyists want them to be.

So, if Mr Shoebridge and his colleagues genuinely want evidence-based policy towards firearms, it looks like they still have a lot to learn.

[1] Hemenway, D. (2011). The Australian Gun Buyback. Harvard Injury Control Research Centre Bulletin No. 4, Page 2.

[2] NOUS Group (2007). National Firearms Management System: Business case project. Canberra.