Does rural Australia have a gun problem?

There is a higher density of gun ownership in country areas in Australia relative to cities. Does this explain recent homicides on farms? shutterstock

The recent multiple homicide in a small Victorian township, coming barely a month after a mass shooting in rural New South Wales, may give the impression that firearm-related murders in rural Australia are rampant.

It would be easy to attribute this to higher density of gun ownership in country areas relative to cities, particularly where farming is a dominant industry and firearms are “tools of the trade”. But understanding gun violence is not that simple.

Firearm homicide in Australia is an uncommon event, with around 35 deaths per year on average. That works out to between one and two out of every ten assault-related deaths. Interestingly, a disproportionate number of firearm homicides tend to occur in New South Wales, where analyses have also shown that shooting offences occur more often in metropolitan than rural areas.

Unfortunately, detailed geographic crime statistics are not routinely released. This makes it difficult to identify and compare the number of urban and rural firearm homicides, as well as homicides using other methods.

Who can legally own a gun in Australia?

Often, high-profile firearm homicides – regardless of location – lead to calls for more gun laws. Equally often, this is coupled with discussion of how we do not want Australia to become like the US. But before making such arguments, it is important to consider existing gun laws in Australia.

A person cannot legally possess or use a firearm unless they are properly licensed, with licensing controlled by police. All jurisdictions share “minimum standards” for licensing. A person who wishes to obtain a firearms licence must be aged 18 years or over and have passed an approved firearms safety training course. They must also pass a thorough police background check.

Prospective licence holders are required to prove that they have a “genuine reason” for owning firearms. Reasons include target shooting, hunting, collecting and primary production. Self-defence is explicitly excluded from the list of reasons.

A licence applicant must be deemed a “fit and proper person” by police. For example, if someone has a history of violent behaviour or drug misuse, this will disqualify them from being issued a firearms licence. This incorporates sound evidence from criminology and psychology that past behaviour is a strong predictor of future behaviour.

There are many conditions that apply to firearms licences. Breaching those can lead to licence cancellation by police. For example, it is mandatory that when firearms are not in use they are securely stored in a safe that is not easily penetrable, and which cannot be easily moved. Storage is subject to inspection by police.

Also, legislative provisions ensure that if a firearms licence holder commits an act of domestic violence, for instance, then their licence will be automatically revoked.

What works to reduce gun violence?

A significant policy challenge is that firearm misuse cannot be adequately explained by firearm availability. The number of legally owned firearms in most Australian states and territories has risen over the past decade, while firearm homicides as well as other types of firearm crime have continued to decline.

Most firearm homicide perpetrators are not licensed to possess firearms.

With a strict management system for legal firearms ownership already in place, Australia needs to look at innovative ways to best address unlawful firearms use. Fortunately, there is a growing body of evidence about promising strategies.

These initiatives include intensive engagement between police and communities who are especially affected by gun violence, community partnerships with a focus on juvenile offending, enhanced supervision of non-lethal gun violence offenders who are on probation, policing focused on high-risk individuals and situations (such as disadvantaged youths with connections to the illicit drug trade), and broad-based strategies to reduce social exclusion.

Why the spate of rural homicides?

Two multiple-fatality shooting incidents in rural Australia, in a short space of time, is an extremely unusual occurrence by any measure. Police and coronial investigations may shed light on contributing factors. But for now, even though we know about “how”, little is known about “why”.

From a theoretical standpoint, violence towards others has been conceptualised as a maladaptive response to strain. It would be naïve to ignore the unique stressors that many of Australia’s rural communities face and how that may contribute to violence.

Strains range from economic downturn and industry collapse, to natural disasters such as drought, to community fragmentation, social isolation, financial hardship and lack of services. Tellingly, these stressors also feature in a different form of violence: suicide. And when it comes to suicide, rural communities have much higher rates than urban locations.

Firearms get a lot of attention. But if we truly seek to prevent lethal violence, whether urban or rural, towards others or the self, and using a firearm or some other method, we need to remember that violence never occurs in a vacuum.