Shooting down arguments against tough gun laws

The Australian Financial Review has this morning published my opinion piece that mounts a defence of Australia's gun buyback scheme.



In the decade up to 1996, Australia averaged one mass shooting every year. Places like Hoddle Street, Queen Street, Strathfield, Surry Hills, the Central Coast and Port Arthur all became synonymous with killings in which five or more people died.

In the decade after the 1997 National Firearms Agreement (NFA), Australia did not have a single mass shooting.

Some argue that it’s just a coincidence that we went from mass shootings being annual to non-existent. Fortunately, statistics can help us work out the odds of that. They are less than 1 in 100.

Put another way, there is better than a 99 in 100 chance that Australia’s gun buyback helped avert mass shootings.

And yet in this newspaper last Friday, an article (‘The unsettled science of gun laws’) argued that the NFA was a failure, criticising research by Christine Neill and myself on the effectiveness of the buyback.

Our studies – carried out while I was an economics professor at the Australian National University – used two different approaches to assess the effectiveness of the 1997 changes. First, we analysed the time trends. Overall gun deaths have been trending downwards over recent decades (the same is true in New Zealand). So the challenge is to test for a faster rate of decline after the NFA. To the extent that the data show a pattern, it is a more rapid fall in gun deaths post-1997.

The more reliable approach is to compare states where more guns were bought back with those where fewer guns were bought back. Again, Neill and I found that the buyback saved lives. Both studies suggest that the NFA saved around 200 lives per year, most of them averted suicides rather than homicides. And it doesn’t appear that non-firearms deaths rose after the NFA.

As a Labor MP, I don’t have any political interest in arguing the effectiveness of the gun buyback. But I think it is important to acknowledge political courage when you see it. With Labor’s support, John Howard and Tim Fischer stared down the extremists in their ranks. Thousands of Australians are alive today as a result.

In a recent radio interview with Canberra talk show host Mark Parton, he told me the story of how his father had kept a .22 rifle in the closet. Unbeknownst to his dad, Mark and his brother would take the gun out and play with it when they were alone in the house. When the NFA came along, this rifle was one of the 650,000 firearms that were handed back.

Much as Hollywood would like us to believe that having a gun makes you safer, the data clearly show that the reverse is true. The typical gun death is a suicide or a spousal shooting, not an innocent gun owner defending herself against an unprovoked attack. The ‘Dirty Harry’ fantasy rarely plays out in life as it does on the silver screen.

To see this, you only need to compare Australia with the US. Today, there are more guns than people in the US, while Australia has one gun for every seven people. More than 1 in 10,000 Americans will be killed by a gun this year, compared with fewer than 1 in 100,000 Australians. The US has over seven times more guns per capita, and over ten times more gun deaths per capita.

Earlier this month, I wrote an article on the NFA that was published in several US outlets, including Time and the Huffington Post. So I was especially pleased to see President Barack Obama citing Australia’s gun buyback as a model for his country to follow.

The Australian model does not undermine sports shooting. In my own electorate, I have a rifle range and a pistol club, and I’m as proud as anyone else of the success of our sporting shooters on the world stage, including Adam Vella, Warren Potent and Stacy Roiall. When I chat with sporting shooters, I’ll find many are as concerned as anyone about the prospect of teens taking handguns out with them on a Saturday night, as happens in parts of the US.

Social science should always be critically analysed, but the statistical evidence in favour of the 1997 gun buyback is extremely strong. The odds that it had no effect on gun deaths are less than 1 in 100.

The studies summarised in this article are available at

Published in the AFR, Wednesday 25 June 2014  

Showing 6 reactions

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  • commented 2014-06-26 18:41:39 +1000
    Andrew, please respond to Leigh Nunn.

    He has pretty much dissected your argument.
  • commented 2014-06-25 23:49:12 +1000
    Hang Yourself! You System Scumbag! Up Yours!
  • commented 2014-06-25 23:14:13 +1000
    We have had a number of mass murders since 96, we also changed the mental health system at the same time, think that made more difference …… Go get youvfscts right PLEASE
  • commented 2014-06-25 21:22:01 +1000
    they have turned to arson since 96..
  • commented 2014-06-25 21:11:10 +1000

    Interesting article. A few points:
    • In the decade after the 1996/97 NFA, we did have a mass shooting. SEVEN people were shot, in a school (Australia’s first school shooting). Of course, you might say well ONLY two died (too bad if you’re one of the two, or one of their family members?) and 5 were hit, but lived. How is the poor aim of the shooter, and/or good fortune on the part of the victim, plus a lot of bravery from unarmed students and teachers, an indication of GOOD gun laws?

    There was never a massacre every year, but there was about a 5 year period where we averaged one per year (three happened in the same year). Prior to that year there were 3 in 13 years, if you include the one incident where a person only killed their family, not the general public.

    Queensland had, for a long time, some of the most relaxed firearms laws in the country. Yet it never had any massacres. By your logic, one could argue that having relaxed laws also stops gun massacres. Sure, QLD had shootings… but so did everywhere else… typically at a higher rate. But no massacres.

    Its an interesting, and probably convenient statistic that you use the numbers of firearms brought back, versus the number of deaths in that state. The number returned has little bearing on the availability of firearms, just an indication of those that did have firearms that were prepared to comply with the law…. the people we least had to worry about.

    I will give you credit that you admit (where convenient) that most of the reduction in gun deaths were from reduced suicides. Levels of method substitution are argued about, and its impossible to eliminate that in the wake of a massacre by a mentally ill man, authorities and even families would pay more attention to troubled individuals, perhaps giving them the support needed before a final act is taken. It may have had nothing to do with the lack of firearm availability at all.

    I find your articles mostly concerned with specious reasoning. We change gun laws this way, and we had no massacres, therefore it worked. New Zealand also had a gun massacre about the same time, and did not make anywhere near the draconian changes Howard made, and also had no massacres… despite retaining greater numbers of firearms per capita. Hence why to say as you say that the NFA stopped massacres, is specious reasoning… because if what you said were right, without the overbearing laws that Howard introduced, New Zealand by rights, should have had another mass shooting. It didnt, whereas Australia did.

    The Australian model DOES undermine sports shooting – even in your own electorate. Service Rifle shooting, is a competition which – on almost every other level in the world – uses semi automatic rifles. This is a traditional competition that has been around for over a century. When we go to New Zealand to compete, we are hopelessly outclassed. It is even worse in the US.

    Also in your electorate, there would be IPSC practical pistol shooters. Everywhere else, this competition is run with firearms over .38 calibre – the limitation imposed by the NFA for target shooting, and with magazines typically around 15-17 rounds – also restricted to sports shooters in Australia. Again we have little opportunity to practice to a sufficient level to compete on a world scale in some classes (in other classes we have WORLD champions). This is a classic undermining of my ability to compete in a safe, internationally recognised sport.

    If you talk to almost any shooter in the US, they too would be equally concerned about teens taking firearms out on a saturday night, since in almost every state the minimum age to possess a handgun is 21, and similarly with permits to carry a firearm in public, its minimum age is 21. I am sure you will argue this still happens, but it only highlights that laws dont stop them, but they do stop those that can obey laws, leaving them at a significant disadvantage, just for complying with the law. Fortunately in most states in the US, the law doesnt penalise you in this way, and actually recognises and supports your right to have the advantage – or at least a level playing field, in a defensive situation. In Australia, we cannot even carry pepper spray, except in WA…. and then with restrictions.

    I would also note that in Australia, I can do a 10 day course, get a background check, and pay some license fees, and be lawfully allowed to carry a handgun openly, or in some cases concealed, in order to protect money or valuables over about $2k, or in some cases a VIP like a judge, an MP, or even a rock star. Why is it, Mr Leigh, that John Howard, the present government, and you, see my family, and myself, as worth less than 2 grand… or less worth of protection than say, a member of the Rolling Stones, or a judge? Why is it that I cannot do the same course, the same checks, and the same licensing, and suitably protect myself and my family?

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