Thursday, October 8, 2015

Why America Shouldn't Follow Australia's Lead on Gun Control

Last week on October, an unfortunate shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon took place. Before the facts were even gathered, Obama released a statement about the tragedy, and unsurprisingly blamed guns. As part of his statement, Obama went beyond the usual gun control rhetoric and hinted at gun confiscation:

"We know that other countries, in response to one mass shooting, have been able to craft laws that almost eliminate mass shootings. Friends of ours, allies of ours: Great Britain, Australia, countries like ours. So we know there are ways to prevent it." 

Since Australia has some of the strictest gun laws out there, let's examine the extent to which Australia is an exemplar for gun control, and whether the United States should follow Australia's lead.

On April 28, 1996, a gunman open fired on tourists in Tasmania. 35 were killed and 23 were wounded. In response to the tragedy, the Australian government enacted a series of stringent gun laws. Semi-automatic rifles, as well as semi-automatic and pump shotguns, were banned. The government created a restrictive system on licensing and gun ownership. The Australian government strongly pushed for a gun buyback program, in which it purchased and destroyed about 643 thousand firearms between October 1996 and September 1997. This crackdown on firearms has been lauded by gun control proponents.

We should look at three types of gun-related incidents to see whether the Australian crackdown on guns was a success: homicides, suicides, and other gun-related crimes. A 2008 report from the University of Melbourne (Lee and Suardi, p. 23-24) concludes that "although gun buybacks appear to be a logical and sensible policy that helps to placate the public's fears, the evidence so far suggests that in the Australian context, the high expenditures incurred to fund the 1996 gun buyback has not translated into any tangible reductions in terms of firearms deaths." A 2007 report (Baker and McPhedran) found that the gun laws had positive effects on suicide rates, but nothing significant for homicide rates. The main study lauded by gun control advocates (Leigh and Neill, 2010) points out that gun suicides decreased because of Australia's laws, but were not able to say the same for gun-related homicides. What is interesting in Leigh and Neill's study (p. 40) [see below] is that from 1987 to 2000, the firearm suicide rate is dropping at roughly the same rate pre-buyback that it is when the buyback, which makes it harder to argue a case for correlation.

If I had to summarize the criminology data, there is inconsistent data on the effects of firearm suicides. The suicide rate decrease could be just as easily explained by a suicide prevention initiative that began back in the early 1990s (Klieve et al., 2009), which very well could be causing the ambiguity in the suicide rate data. However, the data are pretty clear in terms of finding that the Australian laws have not impacted the homicide rate in Australia (Baker and McPherdan, 2015). Scholars over at the centrist Brookings Institution (Reuter and Mouzos, 2003, p. 121-122) noticed that there was a "relatively small effect" since the firearms that were confiscated "had not previously been used frequently in crime or suicide." The lack of impact of the buyback program might also have to do with the fact that the increase of gun imports since 1997 replenished the previously destroyed guns, which would put Australia at pre-buyback levels.

According to the Australian Institute of Criminology, the number of murder and manslaughter victims stayed steady from 1993 to 2007, homicides involving firearms as a percentage of total homicides had already been decreasing since 1987, the number of homicide victims increased in 1999, and the number of homicide incidents in Australia had already been decreasing since at least 1990. This doesn't even consider that the number of armed robberies and assaults increased substantially after the gun buyback, or that other violent crime, e.g., sexual assault, kidnapping, were also increasing since the gun buyback (see here and here). Looking at these government data, the only positive thing we can say is that it decreased mass shootings, which is a small subset of gun-related deaths to begin with. Furthermore, something as drastic as a buyback should produce immediate results. Yet in the case of Australia, homicides did not really decrease for eight years, and the number of armed robberies increased shortly thereafter. Suicide rates also stayed at roughly the same rate pre-buyback (Australian Bureau of Statistics, p. 60) as they did immediately after the buyback took into effect.

Let's forget for a moment that the data on the rates of homicides, suicides, and overall violent crime in Australia don't point to the positive effects that gun control proponents were hoping for. Even if Australia were hypothetically a role model for gun control, would it be possible to implement?

The Australian gun ban was able to confiscate about a fifth of the country's guns, and that was with much fervor. To apply that confiscation rate to the United States and try to confiscate a minimum of 20 percent of 357 million guns, which is 71.4 million firearms, is just untenable without using police force. Let's also recall that the number of guns in the past couple of decades went from 192 million in 1994 to 310 million in 2009. Even with this increase in American gun ownership, violent crime has decreased. New Zealand also experienced increased firearm ownership rates while homicide rates decreased in the same time period (McPherdan et al., 2010), which begs the question of necessity of a gun ban.

What also worries me about when people say we should follow Australia's example is that they mean mandatory confiscation of firearms. Not only does that violate the Second Amendment, but it also comes into conflict with the United States' gun culture. Even the Left-leaning Mother Jones concedes that a buyback program would not work in the United States. Australia did not have a Bill of Rights, which made it all the easier for the Australian government to confiscate firearms. Furthermore, Australia is an island nation-state without domestic gun manufacturers, which also allows for easier enforcement. Combine the poor performance of Australia's gun ban and the infeasibility of implementing a gun ban in the United States, and I can make a very educated guess that a gun ban would not take place in the United States anytime soon, which is why I would rather steer the argument towards public policy that would actually lower gun violence (another blog entry for another time, to be sure) instead of steering us towards a mirage of "common sense" nirvana.

3-2-2018 Addendum: Here is another gem of a study (Kleck, 2017) that covers the Australia gun control program. For one, only 16 percent of guns were bought back. Two, there was no particular impact on gun suicides or homicides. Even more importantly, it did not prevent mass murders. Although none of the mass murders were committed with guns, mass murders not committed by guns actually increased from 0 mass murders 18 years prior to the Port Arthur Massacre to 6 mass murders.

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