Article

“Australia’s 1996 Gun Law Reforms: Faster Fall in Firearm Deaths, Firearm Suicides and a Decade without Mass Shootings.”

School of Public Health, University of Sydney, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia.
Injury Prevention (Impact Factor: 1.89). 01/2007; 12(6):365-72. DOI: 10.1136/ip.2006.013714
Source: PubMed

ABSTRACT

After a 1996 firearm massacre in Tasmania in which 35 people died, Australian governments united to remove semi-automatic and pump-action shotguns and rifles from civilian possession, as a key component of gun law reforms.
To determine whether Australia's 1996 major gun law reforms were associated with changes in rates of mass firearm homicides, total firearm deaths, firearm homicides and firearm suicides, and whether there were any apparent method substitution effects for total homicides and suicides.
Observational study using official statistics. Negative binomial regression analysis of changes in firearm death rates and comparison of trends in pre-post gun law reform firearm-related mass killings.
Australia, 1979-2003.
Changes in trends of total firearm death rates, mass fatal shooting incidents, rates of firearm homicide, suicide and unintentional firearm deaths, and of total homicides and suicides per 100,000 population.
In the 18 years before the gun law reforms, there were 13 mass shootings in Australia, and none in the 10.5 years afterwards. Declines in firearm-related deaths before the law reforms accelerated after the reforms for total firearm deaths (p = 0.04), firearm suicides (p = 0.007) and firearm homicides (p = 0.15), but not for the smallest category of unintentional firearm deaths, which increased. No evidence of substitution effect for suicides or homicides was observed. The rates per 100,000 of total firearm deaths, firearm homicides and firearm suicides all at least doubled their existing rates of decline after the revised gun laws.
Australia's 1996 gun law reforms were followed by more than a decade free of fatal mass shootings, and accelerated declines in firearm deaths, particularly suicides. Total homicide rates followed the same pattern. Removing large numbers of rapid-firing firearms from civilians may be an effective way of reducing mass shootings, firearm homicides and firearm suicides.

Full-text

Available from: Kingsley Agho, Jan 02, 2014
ORIGINAL ARTICLE
Australia’s 1996 gun law reforms: faster falls in firearm
deaths, firearm suicides, and a decade without mass
shootings
S Chapman, P Alpers, K Agho, M Jones
...............................................................................................................................
See end of article for
authors’ affiliations
........................
Correspondence to:
Professor S Chapman,
School of Public Health,
University of Sydney,
Sydney, New South Wales,
Australia 2006;
sc@med.usyd.edu.au
Accepted 6 November
2006
........................
Injury Prevention 2006;12:365–372. doi: 10.1136/ip.2006.013714
Background: After a 1996 firearm massacre in Tasmania in which 35 people died, Australian governments
united to remove semi-automatic and pump-action shotguns and rifles from civilian possession, as a key
component of gun law reforms.
Objective: To determine whether Australia’s 1996 major gun law reforms were associated with changes in
rates of mass firearm homicides, total firearm deaths, firearm homicides and firearm suicides, and whether
there were any apparent method substitution effects for total homicides and suicides.
Design: Observational study using official statistics. Negative binomial regression analysis of changes in
firearm death rates and comparison of trends in pre–post gun law reform firearm-related mass killings.
Setting: Australia, 1979–2003.
Main outcome measures: Changes in trends of total firearm death rates, mass fatal shooting incidents, rates
of firearm homicide, suicide and unintentional firearm deaths, and of total homicides and suicides per
100 000 population.
Results: In the 18 years before the gun law reforms, there were 13 mass shootings in Australia, and none in
the 10.5 years afterwards. Declines in firearm-related deaths before the law reforms accelerated after the
reforms for total firearm deaths (p= 0.04), firearm suicides (p = 0.007) and firearm homicides (p = 0.15), but
not for the smallest category of unintentional firearm deaths, which increased. No evidence of substitution
effect for suicides or homicides was observed. The rates per 100 000 of total firearm deaths, firearm
homicides and firearm suicides all at least doubled their existing rates of decline after the revised gun laws.
Conclusions: Australia’s 1996 gun law reforms were followed by more than a decade free of fatal mass
shootings, and accelerated declines in firearm deaths, particularly suicides. Total homicide rates followed the
same pattern. Removing large numbers of rapid-firing firearms from civilians may be an effective way of
reducing mass shootings, firearm homicides and firearm suicides.
O
n 10 May 1996, 12 days after 35 people were shot
dead and 18 seriously wounded by a gunman at Port
Arthur, Tasmania, Australia’s state and federal
governments agreed to enact uniform gun control laws.
Between June 1996 and August 1998, the new restrictions
were progressively implemented in all six states and two
territories. As the Port Arthur gunman and several other
mass killers had used semi-automatic weapons, the new gun
laws banned rapid-fire long guns, specifically to reduce their
availability for mass shootings. Under the 1996–7 Australian
Firearms Buyback, 643 726 newly prohibited semi-automatic
and pump-action rifles and shotguns were purchased by the
federal government from their civilian owners at market
value, funded by a levy on income tax.
1
Tens of thousands of
gun owners also voluntarily surrendered additional, non-
prohibited firearms without compensation.
2
In total, more
than 700 000 guns were removed and destroyed from an
adult population of about 12 million. Australia’s revised gun
laws also require that all firearms be individually registered
to their licensed owners, that private firearm sales be
prohibited and that each gun transfer through a licensed
arms dealer be approved only after the police are satisfied of a
genuine reason for ownership. In this context, possession of
firearms for self-defence in Australia is specifically prohibited
and few civilians are licensed to possess handguns. A detailed
summary of the reforms can be found in Ozanne-Smith et al.
3
In Australian federal law, firearm means ‘‘a device
designed or adapted to discharge shot, bullets, or other
projectiles by means of an explosive charge or a compressed
gas’’.
4
Legislation in all Australian states and territories
echoes this definition, and all include airguns and com-
pressed gas guns in their definition of a firearm.
5
Using publicly available data, we examined Australian
firearm death rates before and after the Port Arthur massacre
and the gun law reforms it precipitated to explore the
hypothesis that the introduction of the gun laws was
associated with an accelerating decline in deaths caused by
firearms. We also examine all-cause homicides and all-
method suicides in order to assess the possibility that
substitution effects may have occurred: that reduced access
to firearms may have caused those with homicidal or suicidal
intent to use substitute methods.
METHODS
Data on unintentional (accidental), and intentional (suicide
and homicide) deaths caused by firearms were obtained from
the National Injury Surveillance Unit,
6
i
sourced from the
Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) mortality data collec-
tion 1979–2003, coded as International Classification of
Diseases, 9th revision and 10th revision. This represents a
census of all firearm deaths in Australia for those 25 years. In
all Australian jurisdictions (state and territory Firearms Acts
Abbreviation: ABS, Australian Bureau of Statistics
i
These figures were updated in a private correspondence from NISU on
16 October 2006 (table 2).
365
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Page 1
and Regulations), at federal level (the Customs Act and
Regulations) and in the ABS mortality collection, ‘‘firearm’’
includes guns whose projectiles are propelled by compressed
air or gas. Although we know of no such fatalities, any deaths
from airguns or ball bearing guns would be included in this
dataset.
Population data were obtained from the ABS for the same
period. Firearm death rates per 100 000 were then calculated.
The trend in these rates for the 18 years up to and including
the year in which the new firearm laws were announced
(1996) were compared with the corresponding trend for the
next 7 years (1997–2003), to examine the hypothesis that the
announcement and implementation of the gun laws were
associated with an acceleration in the existing decline in
firearm homicides, firearm suicides and total firearm deaths.
Fatal ‘‘legal intervention’’ shootings by police, which
averaged 4.5 per annum, were excluded as they were not
targeted by the gun laws in question. For the post-Port
Arthur period, rates of total all-cause (and non-gun)
homicides and suicides were also examined, to consider
whether perpetrators may have substituted other means of
killing if the gun laws reduced their access to firearms.
Numbers of deaths by category (total and components)
have been viewed as arising from an overdispersed Poisson
process and analyzed using negative binomial regression,
with annual Australian population estimates used as an
offset. In practical terms, the model views deaths as a
number of events per head of population, although for
convenience we report rates per 100 000 heads of population.
The model has been used to estimate the change in trend of
the relative rate of firearm deaths associated with the
introduction of uniform gun laws. Given that the rate of
firearm deaths had been decreasing before the harmonization
of gun laws, the statistical question addressed is not just
whether death rates were lower after the laws were changed,
as the pre-existing trend would predict this even in the
absence of changed laws, but whether the rate of decrease in
firearm deaths seems to be greater after the gun laws were
announced. Given the observational nature of the data
available, we can directly comment on the association of
gun law harmonization and firearm-related death rates, but
conclusions regarding causality of the association must
remain interpretive rather than definitive. However, as it
would be politically almost inconceivable that any govern-
ment would conduct a randomized controlled trial of gun law
effects, the evidence presented must be among the best that
could ever be available to deal with the question of the effects
of such law reform. As counts are of deaths, it is reasonable
to assume that observations are independent across years.
Three models have been fitted for each type of firearm death.
ln{deaths/population} = b
00
+b
10
6year,year = 1979,…,1996
(a)
ln{deaths/population} = b
01
+b
11
6year,year = 1997,…,2003
(b)
ln{deaths/population} = b
02
+b
12
6year+b
22
Law
j
+b
32
6year6Law
j
, year = 1979,…,2003, j = 0,1 (c)
Models (a) and (b) are used to estimate the trend
(measured as average annual change in rate/100 000
population) in gun deaths before and after the introduction
of gun laws, through the terms
and respectively.
Model (c) is used to estimate the effect on trends in firearm-
related deaths associated with the introduction of gun laws
through the interaction term ‘‘year6law’’. As the model is
parameterized, b
32
= b
11
2b
10
and therefore estimates
the ratio of trend after introduction to that before the
introduction of the gun laws. Trends and relative trends have
been reported as relative rates (before and after 1996) and
relative trends (comparing periods) with 95% confidence
intervals. The statistical significance of the relative trends has
also been reported. Analysis has been undertaken separately in
firearm-related and non-firearm-related deaths as well as total
deaths for homicide and suicide to investigate possible
substitution effects. If substitution occurred, we would expect
an increasing downward trend in firearm deaths after the
introduction of gun control laws but a compensatory lesser
downward or even upward trend in non-firearm-related deaths
over the same period. The extent of influence of mass shootings
has been investigated by repeating firearm-related homicides
excluding mass (>5 victims died) shootings.
An alternate view of these data might have been as a time
series of mortality rates, as was done by gun lobby affiliated
researchers Baker and McPhedran.
7
However, we saw two
disadvantages to this approach. One is that calculating
mortality rates and then treating them as a number in a
time series ignores the natural variability inherent in the
counts that make up the numerator of the rate. Another is
that the Box–Jenkins class of models, including the auto-
regressive integrated moving average model used by Baker
and McPhedran,
7
is unable to explicitly address the effect of
an intervention such as the introduction of gun laws.
Interpretation of these models is reduced to comparing the
mortality rates expected under a model assuming no effect of
the intervention with that observed, both in the post-
intervention period. This is however an insensitive approach,
and its interpretation is not based on formal statistical
inference but rather on visual inspection and qualitative
interpretation of graphs, which may be prone to selectivity.
The second author has archived reports of all mass
shooting incidents in Australia (defined here as when >5
victims died; table 1). These were used to compare the
incidence of such shootings before and after the introduction
of the new gun laws.
RESULTS
In the 18 years up to and including 1996, the year of the
massacre at Port Arthur, Australia experienced 13 mass
shootings. In these events alone, 112 people were shot dead
and at least another 52 wounded (table 1).
8
In the 10.5 years
since Port Arthur and the revised gun laws, no mass
shootings have occurred in Australia. Figure 1 comprises
seven graphs plotting both pre-law and post-law data and
trends for (a) firearm homicide death rate, (b) non-firearm
homicide death rate, (c) firearm homicide minus mass
shootings death rate, (d) unintentional firearm death rate,
(e) firearm suicide death rate, (f) non-firearm suicide death
rate and (g) total firearm death rate.
Each graph presents the observed annual death rate
(triangles) and the expected death rate under the hypothesis
of an effect of gun laws (dots) estimated from a negative
binomial model. The vertical line on the horizontal axis
indicates the revision of gun laws commencing in 1996.
An interpretive note that applies to all the graphs in fig 1 is
that the shape of fitted lines (trend pre-law and trend post-
law) involves two components. The first is that the post-law
trend line is shifted upward or downward according to the
underlying rates of mortality in the pre-gun law and post-gun
law periods. Where there is a pre-existing downward trend in
mortality, such a shift would occur regardless of the effect of
gun laws. The more interesting component is how much the
slopes of the pre-gun law and post-gun law trends differ.
Although it can be difficult to judge the magnitude from the
graph itself, this is quantified in the final column of table 3,
which provides estimates of the relative slopes of the post- to
pre-law trends.
Total firearm deaths
Table 2 shows that gun-related deaths (both in numbers and
as a rate per 100 000) had been steadily falling throughout
366 Chapman, Alpers, Agho, et al
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the years before the new gun laws were announced. In the
18 years (1979–96), there were 11 299 firearm deaths
(annual average 627.7). In the 7 years for which reliable
data are available after the announcement of the new gun
laws, there were 2328 firearm deaths, (annual average
332.6). Figure 1G and table 3 indicate that although the rate
per 100 000 of total firearm deaths was reducing by an
average of 3% per year, this rate doubled to 6% after the
introduction of gun laws. The ratio of trend estimates
differed statistically from 1 (no effect; p = 0.03). The decline
in total firearm deaths thus accelerated after the introduction
of the gun laws.
Firearm suicides
Firearm suicides represent the largest component cause of
total firearm deaths in Australia (more than three in four of
all firearm deaths). In the 18 years (1979–96), there were
8850 firearm suicides (annual average 491.7). In the 7 years
for which reliable data are available after the announcement
of the new gun laws, there were 1726 firearm suicides, an
annual average of 246.6. Figure 1E and table 3 indicate that
while the rate of firearm suicide was reducing by an average
of 3% per year, this more than doubled to 7.4% per year after
the introduction of gun laws. The ratio of trend estimates
differed statistically from 1 (no effect; p = 0.007). Again, we
conclude that the decline in total firearm suicides accelerated
after the introduction of the gun laws.
Firearm homicides
In the 18 years (1979–96), there were 1672 firearm homicides
(annual average 92.9). In the 7 years for which reliable data
are available after the announcement of the new gun laws,
there were 389 firearm homicides, an annual average of 55.6.
Figure 1A and table 3 show that while the rate of firearm
homicide was reducing by an average of 3% per year, this
increased to 7.5% per year after the introduction of gun laws.
However, the ratio of trend estimates failed to reach
statistical significance (p = 0.15) because of the low power
inherent in the small numbers involved.
When all firearm mass homicides (>5 victims shot dead
per incident) were removed from the data (fig 1C and table 3),
the conclusions were only slightly altered. The reason for this
slight change is that all mass shootings in Australia in the
years studied occurred before the introduction of gun laws
(table 1). This increases the apparent downward trend in the
pre-gun law period (0.971 when all homicides are considered,
v 0.961 when mass shootings are removed, table 3). The trend
in the post-gun law period is unaffected.
Unintentional firearm deaths
Unintentional (accidental) firearm deaths have always been
the smallest component of the total firearm deaths in
Australia, representing around 6% of all firearm deaths.
Figure 1D and table 2 indicate that although the rate of total
gun deaths reduced by an average of 7.6% per year, the rate of
unintentional gun deaths actually increased by 8.5% per year
after the introduction of the gun laws. We discuss this
finding below.
Total homicides
Figure 1B and table 3 indicate that the rate of total non-
firearm homicides increased by an average of 1.1% per year
before the introduction of the gun law and reduced by an
average of 2.4% per year after the introduction of the gun
laws (see row 3, columns 2 and 3, respectively, in table 3).
The ratio of the pre-law to post-law trends differ to a
significant extent (p = 0.05).
Table 2 also shows the total homicides (by all methods) for
the period 1979–2003. In the pre-gun law period, total non-
firearm homicides were essentially stable and did not differ
from steady state to a statistically significant extent (table 3).
After the introduction of gun laws, a significant downward
trend was evident in total homicides, and the ratio of pre-law
to post-law trends differed statistically from ‘‘no effect’’
(p = 0.01, table 3). We conclude that the data do not support
any homicide method substitution hypothesis.
Totalsuicides
Figure 1F and table 3 indicate that the rate of total non-
firearm suicides increased by an average of 2.3% per year
before the introduction of the gun law and reduced by an
average of 4.1% per year after the introduction of the gun
laws (see row 6, columns 2 and 3, respectively in table 3). The
ratio of the pre-law to-post-law trends differs statistically
(p,0.001).
Table 2 also shows total suicides for the period under
review. Total suicides follow a similar pattern as total
non-firearm homicides. In the pre-gun law period, total
suicides were essentially stable (table 3). After the introduc-
tion of gun laws a significant downward trend was evident in
total suicides and the ratio of pre-law to post-law trends
differs statistically from ‘‘no effect’’ (p, 0.001; table 3). We
Table 1 Mass shootings* in Australia, January 1979–October 2006
Date Location and state
Victims killed
by gunshot
Perpetrators
killed
Total killed
by gunshot
Victims
wounded Perpetrators
28 April 1996 Port Arthur, TAS 35 0 35 19 Martin Bryant
25 January 1996 Hillcrest, QLD 6 1 7 0 Peter May
31 March 1993 Cangai, NSW 5 1 6 0 Leabeater and Steele
27 October 1992 Terrigal , NSW 6 0 6 1 Malcolm Baker
17 August 1991 Strathfield, NSW 6 1 7 7 Wade Frankum
30 August 1990 Surry Hills, NSW 5 0 5 0 Paul Evers
25 September 1988 Oenpelli, NT 6 0 6 0 Dennis Rostron
8 December 1987 Queen St, VIC 8 1 9 5 Frank Vitkovic
10 October 1987 Canley Vale, NSW 5 1 6 1 John Tran
9 August 1987 Hoddle St, VIC 7 0 7 19 Julian Knight
19 June 1987 Top End, NT/WA 5 1 6 0 Josef Schwab
1 June 1984 Wahroonga, NSW 5 1 6 0 John Brandon
24 September 1981 Campsie, NSW 5 1 6 0 Fouad Daoud
Total 104 8 112 52
*Definitions of ‘‘mass shooting’’ and ‘‘mass homicide’’ have ranged from 3 to 5 victims killed.
28 29
To exclude most of the more common firearm-related spousal
and family violence killings, ‘‘mass shooting’’ is defined here as one in which >5 firearm-related homicides are committed by one or two perpetrators in proximate
events in a civilian setting, not counting any perpetrators killed by their own hand or otherwise.
Details of each case were collected from police and coroners’ files, by personal communication with police and counsel involved, or as a last resort from
corroborating newspaper reports.
Australia’s 1996 major gun law reforms 367
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conclude that the data do not support any suicide method
substitution hypothesis.
In all, total suicide (all methods including firearms)
increased by an average of 1% per year before the introduc-
tion of the gun laws and decreased by an average of 4.4% per
year after the introduction of the gun laws, whereas, total
homicide (all methods including firearm) was essentially
steady (decreasing by an average of 0.1% per year) before the
introduction of the gun law and decreased further by 3.3%
per year after the introduction of the gun law. The ratio of the
pre-law to post-law trends reaches statistical significance for
both total suicide (p,0.001) and total homicide (p = 0.01;
table 3).
DISCUSSION
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.’’
910
Figure 1 (A–G) Total firearm deaths
(excluding ‘‘legal intervention’’ (police
shootings)), firearm homicides and
suicides, unintentional firearm deaths,
total homicides and suicides; rates per
100 000, Australia 1979–2003. Note
that the total firearm deaths include
deaths of undetermined intent as
shown in table 2.
368 Chapman, Alpers, Agho, et al
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Table 2 Gun-related deaths, Australia, 1979–2003
Year Population Firearm suicide Firearm homicide
Homicide minus
mass shootings Unintentional Undetermined Total
Total non-firearm
suicide
Total non-firearm
homicide
Suicide by all
methods including
firearm
Homicide by all
methods including
firearm
1979 14 515 729 523 (3.60) 97 (0.67) 97 (0.67) 65 (0.45) 20 (0.14) 705 (4.86) 1154 (7.95) 168 (1.16) 1677 (11.55) 265 (1.83)
1980 14 695 356 516 (3.51) 109 (0.74) 109 (0.74) 62 (0.42) 11 (0.07) 698 (4.75) 1091 (7.42) 171 (1.16) 1607 (10.94) 280 (1.91)
1981 14 923 260 495 (3.32) 87 (0.58) 82 (0.55) 36 (0.24) 11 (0.07) 629 (4.21) 1177 (7.89) 195 (1.31) 1672 (11.20) 282 (1.89)
1982 15 184 247 541 (3.56) 100 (0.66) 100 (0.66) 48 (0.32) 8 (0.05) 697 (4.59) 1236 (8.14) 189 (1.24) 1777 (11.70) 289 (1.90)
1983 15 393 472 512 (3.33) 92 (0.60) 92 (0.60) 40 (0.26) 6 (0.04) 650 (4.22) 1214 (7.89) 202 (1.31) 1726 (11.21) 294 (1.91)
1984 15 579 391 523 (3.36) 120 (0.77) 115 (0.74) 32 (0.21) 7 (0.04) 682 (4.38) 1189 (7.63) 179 (1.15) 1712 (10.99) 299 (1.92)
1985 15 788 312 550 (3.48) 97 (0.61) 97 (0.61) 35 (0.22) 24 (0.15) 706 (4.47) 1277 (8.09) 217 (1.37) 1827 (11.57) 314 (1.99)
1986 16 018 350 548 (3.42) 101 (0.63) 101 (0.63) 28 (0.17) 15 (0.09) 692 (4.32) 1434 (8.95) 214 (1.34) 1982 (12.37) 315 (1.97)
1987 16 263 874 571 (3.51) 96 (0.59) 71 (0.44) 27 (0.17) 10 (0.06) 704 (4.33) 1669 (10.26) 223 (1.37) 2240 (13.77) 319 (1.96)
1988 16 532 164 521 (3.15) 123 (0.74) 117 (0.71) 30 (0.18) 17 (0.10) 691 (4.18) 1676 (10.14) 272 (1.65) 2197 (13.29) 395 (2.39)
1989 16 814 416 450 (2.68) 80 (0.48) 80 (0.48) 19 (0.11) 13 (0.08) 562 (3.34) 1646 (9.79) 239 (1.42) 2096 (12.47) 319 (1.90)
1990 17 065 128 486 (2.85) 79 (0.46) 74 (0.43) 30 (0.18) 15 (0.09) 610 (3.57) 1675 (9.82) 306 (1.79) 2161 (12.66) 385 (2.26)
1991 17 284 036 505 (2.92) 84 (0.49) 78 (0.45) 29 (0.17) 5 (0.03) 623 (3.60) 1855 (10.73) 270 (1.56) 2360 (13.65) 354 (2.05)
1992 17 494 664 488 (2.79) 96 (0.55) 90 (0.51) 24 (0.14) 7 (0.04) 615 (3.52) 1806 (10.32) 223 (1.27) 2294 (13.11) 319 (1.82)
1993 17 667 093 431 (2.44) 64 (0.36) 59 (0.33) 18 (0.10) 6 (0.03) 519 (2.94) 1650 (9.34) 262 (1.48) 2081 (11.78) 326 (1.85)
1994 17 854 738 420 (2.35) 76 (0.43) 76 (0.43) 20 (0.11) 6 (0.03) 522 (2.92) 1838 (10.29) 256 (1.43) 2258 (12.65) 332 (1.86)
1995 18 071 758 388 (2.15) 67 (0.37) 67 (0.37) 15 (0.08) 3 (0.02) 473 (2.62) 1980 (10.96) 266 (1.47) 2368 (13.10) 333 (1.84)
1996 18 310 714 382 (2.09) 104 (0.57) 63 (0.34) 30 (0.16) 5 (0.03) 521 (2.85) 2011 (10.98) 222 (1.21) 2393 (13.07) 326 (1.78)
1997 18 517 564 329 (1.78) 79 (0.43) 79 (0.43) 19 (0.10) 3 (0.02) 430 (2.32) 2391 (12.91) 250 (1.35) 2720 (14.69) 329 (1.78)
1998 18 711 271 235 (1.26) 57 (0.30) 57 (0.30) 22 (0.12) 8 (0.04) 322 (1.72) 2448 (13.09) 250 (1.34) 2683 (14.34) 307 (1.64)
1999 18 925 855 269 (1.42) 50 (0.26) 50 (0.26) 28 (0.15) NA 349 (1.84) 2223 (11.75) 250 (1.32) 2492 (13.17) 300 (1.59)
2000 19 153 380 222 (1.16) 57 (0.30) 57 (0.30) 45 (0.23) NA 326 (1.70) 2141 (11.18) 256 (1.34) 2363 (12.34) 313 (1.63)
2001 19 413 240 261 (1.34) 47 (0.24) 47 (0.24) 18 (0.09) NA 329 (1.69) 2193 (11.30) 253 (1.30) 2454 (12.64) 300 (1.55)
2002 19 640 979 217 (1.10) 45 (0.23) 45 (0.23) 31 (0.16) 0 (0.0) 293 (1.49) 2103 (10.71) 246 (1.25) 2320 (11.81) 291 (1.48)
2003 19 872 646 193 (0.97) 54 (0.27) 54 (0.27) 40 (0.20) NA 289 (1.45) 2020 (10.16) 224 (1.13) 2213 (11.14) 278 (1.40)
Total 10 576 2061 1957 791 209 13 637 43 097 5803 53 673 7864
NA, not available. Values are n (rate/100 000). Where the nimber of undetermined cases is (3, these were suppressed by the National Injury Surveillance Unit to protect privacy. The column total is the accurate total.
Australia’s 1996 major gun law reforms 369
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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 gener-
ally.’’
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.
12 13
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 peo-
ple—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 weap-
ons. 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 uninten-
tional 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 guns
17
—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 speci-
fically prohibited, and very few civilians are permitted to own
Table 3 Estimated effect of gun laws on trends in firearm-related death rates using negative binomial models
Mortality
Trend before 1997
RR (95% CI)
Trend in 1997 and later
RR (95% CI)
Ratio of slopes
RR (95% CI), p value
Firearm homicide 0.971 (0.958 to 0.984) 0.925 (0.881 to 0.973) 0.955 (0.897 to 1.016), p = 0.15
Firearm homicide (omitting mass shootings) 0.961 (0.948 to 0.973) 0.925 (0.880 to 0.973) 0.965 (0.908 to 1.024), p = 0.2
Total non-firearm homicide 1.011 (1.001 to 1.021) 0.976 (0.954 to 0.999) 0.965 (0.932 to 0.999), p = 0.05
Total homicide (all methods including firearm) 0.999 (0.992 to 1.006) 0.967 (0.946 to 0.988) 0.968 (0.943 to 0.993), p = 0.01
Firearm suicide 0.970 (0.964 to 0.977) 0.926 (0.892 to 0.961) 0.954 (0.922 to 0.987), p = 0.007
Total non-firearm suicide 1.023 (1.018 to 1.029) 0.959 (0.951 to 0.968) 0.938 (0.920 to 0.956), p,0.001
Total suicide (all methods including firearm) 1.010 (1.005 to 1.015) 0.956 (0.948 to 0.964) 0.946 (0.930 to 0.963), p,0.001
Unintentional firearm deaths 0.924 (0.907 to 0.942) 1.085 (0.975 to 1.207) 1.171 (1.070 to 1.282), p = 0.001
Total firearm deaths 0.967 (0.961 to 0.973) 0.936 (0.912 to 0.961) 0.968 (0.940 to 0.997), p = 0.03
370 Chapman, Alpers, Agho, et al
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Page 6
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.
Limitations
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.
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.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
We thank Renate Kriesfeld, National Injury Surveillance Unit, South
Australia, for providing data. We also thank our three reviewers for
their extremely helpful reviews.
Authors’ affiliations
.....................
S Chapman, P Alpers, K Agho, M Jones, School of Public Health,
University of Sydney, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Competing interests: SC was a member of the Coalition for Gun Control
(Australia) from 1993 to 1996. PA is the editor of Gun Policy News
(www.gunpolicy.org). All authors had full access to all of the data in the
study and MJ and KA take responsibility for the integrity of the data and
the accuracy of the data analysis.
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N
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N
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N
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