Australia enacted one of the largest gun reforms ever nearly 2 decades ago -- and gun deaths plummeted

A push for tighter gun laws in the US has once again taken center stage, in the wake of a 26-year-old opening fire on Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, and killing 10 people. The suspected shooter, Chris Mercer, carried with him three pistols, a rifle, and five extra magazines — all legally obtained.

Forced to react to yet another mass shooting, President Barack Obama reiterated points he’s made before: that the US is the “only advanced country in the world that sees these mass shootings every few months” and “this type of mass violence does not happen in other developed countries.”

That wasn’t always the case. In 1996, a man named Martin Bryant became the worst killer in Australia’s history. After walking into a cafe in Port Arthur, Tasmania, he killed 35 people and wounded 23 others with a semi-automatic rifle and another semi-automatic assault weapon by the next morning.

As a result, Australia enacted one of the largest gun reforms in recent history — and gun deaths plummeted. The changes remain the gold standard for advocates of gun control today.

A sure and swift reaction

Bryant’s actions shook Australia to its core just six weeks after former Prime Minister John Howard took office.

As a federation, Australia gives its national government limited powers. So Howard stared down the challenge of convincing the country’s various states to support nationwide reform while the national government banned the import of specific weapons.

For a while, some states seemed unwilling to pass the reform. Howard, however, made clear his government would counter with a referendum to alter Australia’s Constitution and give itself the power to regulate guns.

Howard knew these efforts would be expensive. But he said he knew they would also be worth it.

“The fundamental problem,” he wrote in a New York Times op-ed 17 years after the Port Arthur shooting, “was the ready availability of high-powered weapons, which enabled people to convert their murderous impulses into mass killing. Certainly, shortcomings in treating mental illness and the harmful influence of violent video games and movies may have played a role. But nothing trumps easy access to a gun. It is easier to kill 10 people with a gun than with a knife.”

These reforms passed, creating the National Firearms Agreement. Aside from banning certain semiautomatic and self-loading rifles and shotguns, the legislation required all firearm licence applicants to show “genuine reason” for owning a gun, which couldn’t include self-defence.

Aside from the NFA, Australia still had to remove the guns then on its streets and instituted a massive, federally financed gun buyback program. The one-time national tax to raise the funds, however, required even more legislation.

But in the end, Australia’s government would purchase nearly 700,000 guns. Percentage-wise, that’s the equivalent of 40 million in the US.

The effects

Firearm suicides and homicides did drop after Australia’s buyback and enactment of the NFA. As The Washington Post’s Wonkblog has pointed out, researchers from two different Australian universities found that, in the decade after the NFA was introduced, the firearm homicide rate fell by 59% and the firearm suicide rate fell by 65% — without increases in other types of deaths.

Here’s a bigger picture:

Whether the NFA catalyzed that decline, however, is still up for debate. Over the last several decades, gun deaths in most developed nations have been trending downward, and studies struggle to determine how much of the drop resulted from Australia’s legislation. Causality is also inherently difficult to determine in social sciences.

Regardless, many analysts do believe the NFA was effective.

”Our gun buyback took about a fifth of our guns out of circulation but it approximately halved the number of gun-owning households,” said Andrew Leigh, the author of an academic study on Australia’s gun reform. ‘If the US could dramatically decrease the number of households with guns, it would have many fewer deaths.”

Among the reasons stands the shining fact that Australia hasn’t experienced a massacre similar to Port Arthur since. Many studies do show a drop outside expected trends in gun deaths as well. And of those that have found the opposite, many have been discredited.

US vs. Australia

Howard gave his New York Times account of the situation a bold title: “I Went After Guns. Obama Can, Too.”

He did, however, acknowledge Australia’s difference from the US: a more urban society, nothing similar to the US Bill of Rights or Second Amendment, and no organisation like the National Rifle Association.

The US is also arguably in a worse position than Australia was in 1996. America has one of the highest rates of gun ownership in the world. And although statistics vary, criticisms — like those of Obama — about the frequency of massacres, aren’t incorrect.

For example, from 1966 to 2012, the United States accounted for 31% of mass shootings around the world, Adam Lankford, an associate professor at the University of Alabama Department of Criminal Justice, recently told the Wall Street Journal. That’s more than any other country.

But though the highest number of mass shootings (38) have occurred within US borders over the last five years, the most fatalities go to Norway, as the Independent Journal Review recently noted. In 2011, Anders Brevik shot and killed 69 people (and eight others by detonating a bomb).

On top of the tangible numbers, recent research, with data from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, suggests that mass shootings, like the one in Oregon, lead to copy cats and help perpetuate the violence. Within 13 days, the original incident is “contagious” and incites as much as 20-to-30% of subsequent shootings, according to a study published in the journal PLOS One.

And as Vox has pointed out, research shows a strong correlation between the amount of guns and the amount of gun homicides — on a national, state, and personal level.

Regardless of the unique challenges in the US, Obama is well aware of Australia’s massive effort — and the subsequent decline in violence.

“When Australia had a mass killing … it was just so shocking the entire country said, ‘Well, we’re going to completely change our gun laws,’ and they did. And it hasn’t happened since,” he recently said on comedian Marc Maron’s podcast, according to NBC.

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