A quarter of a century ago, on April 28-29, 1996, a lone gunman murdered 35 Australians at the historic site of Port Arthur in Tasmania. At the time, Australia’s population was 18 million, so as a share of the population, the death toll was the equivalent of a shooting spree in the United States today costing more than 600 lives.
The massacre was unique in its brutality, but it followed a spate of mass shootings. Over the previous decade, Australia had experienced an average of one mass shooting annually (where a mass shooting is defined as five or more victims). Melbourne experienced the Hoddle St. and Queen St. massacres, Sydney the Surry Hills and Strathfield massacres.
Yet because of the unprecedented death toll, the Port Arthur Massacre spurred governments to act. Within a fortnight, state and territory police ministers met and agreed to reform Australia’s gun laws. Most semi-automatic weapons were banned for civilian use. Licensing and registration rules were tightened. A national firearms registry was established. Gun owners had to provide a justification for owning a weapon, and personal security was specifically excluded as a valid reason.
Having tightened the rules, the national government promised that it would buy back newly banned firearms at market prices. Australians could simply walk into their local police station with a gun, and walk out with cash. The gun buyback also operated as an amnesty, in which anyone could drop off a gun with their local police for safe disposal, no questions asked.
By the time the amnesty was over, more than 600,000 firearms had been handed back. While critics of gun buybacks often deride them as merely allowing criminals to upgrade their arsenals, the Australian gun buyback seemed to disproportionately involve people handing back the only gun they owned. As a result of the buyback, the share of gun-owning households nearly halved, from 15% to 8%.
The starkest impact of the National Firearms Agreement was on mass shootings: Australia suffered none in the decade afterward. Since then, the country has experienced only two mass shootings — both of which were family murder-suicides.
But mass shootings account for only a tiny share of all gun deaths, so to estimate the impact on homicide and suicide, Wilfrid Laurier University economist Christine Neill and I looked at differences across Australian states and territories. In some jurisdictions, relatively few weapons were handed back. In others, the share was much larger. We asked the question: Did these differences predict changes in the death rate?
Our findings showed that the answer was yes. In Tasmania, where the largest number of weapons were handed back, the drop in firearms suicide and homicide was greatest. In the Australian Capital Territory, where the buyback had the smallest effect, there was a commensurately smaller impact on gun deaths. And we found little evidence that those looking to kill themselves or others switched to equally lethal techniques.
Overall, we estimated that the National Firearms Agreement saved around 200 lives a year, for a total of nearly 5,000 lives since the agreement. Although the political focus of the reforms had been on homicide, a majority of the averted deaths have been suicides.
What might the United States learn from our experience? First, there is a clear correlation between gun ownership and gun deaths. These differences can also be seen in a comparison between Australia and the United States. As a share of the population, the United States today has seven times as many guns as Australia, 29 times as many gun homicides, and 10 times as many gun suicides.
Another lesson is the ability of sport shooters to thrive alongside reasonable gun ownership restrictions. As a marathon runner, a single run can take me past both the rifle range and the pistol club. But hardly any Australian firearms owners leave a loaded pistol in their bedside drawer or car glovebox, nor do teens tuck a weapon into their waistband on a Saturday night. Australia’s approach to gun control aligns with the once-moderate stance of the National Rifle Association, which in the late-1960s and early-1970s supported a ban on cheap handguns, reasoning that a proliferation of weapons on the streets tarnished the reputation of honest gun owners.
Finally, the Australian experience emphasizes the importance of acting in the wake of tragedy. Having lost a friend to gun violence, I can understand why some might see it as disrespectful to debate policy while bodies are being buried. But history teaches us that those who yield to the argument that “this is not the time to talk about gun laws” are unable to regain the momentum.
Let us hope that the United States never sees a gun massacre as sizable as Port Arthur. Let us also hope that the United States learns from how Australia responded to the terrible carnage it suffered.
Andrew Leigh is the federal Member for Fenner.
This opinion piece was first published in The New York Daily News on Monday, 26 April 2021
Authorised by Paul Erikson, ALP, Canberra