Federal MP Bob Katter’s recent foray into gun politics shows that having a calm discussion in Australia about firearms can be challenging. In trying to overturn a government ban on a particular type of shotgun, Katter said:
We are emasculating the individual because some city people are scared of firearms. I’ve bought a bow and arrow now because I think one day they’ll ban all guns.
Debate is often driven by emotional statements about who is most at risk of being killed by someone using a gun, who is most likely to do the killing, and whether more guns lead to more gun violence.
Such claims frequently rest on a select handful of US-based studies. But do they stack up in Australia?
Who commits murder with a gun in Australia?
For more than a decade, the Australian Institute of Criminology has studied this question as part of its National Homicide Monitoring Program. Each of the program’s reports has shown remarkably consistent findings: most firearm homicides in Australia are committed by offenders who did not hold a valid firearms licence.
When the figures are averaged across several years of reports, almost nine out of every ten firearm homicides involved an unlicensed offender.
The reports also show that more than 90% of guns used to commit murder are not registered. In other words, there is not a record of them being legally owned.
Do more guns mean more murders?
A common claim is that the more guns there are, the more frequently firearms will be used to commit murder. This holds true across many – but not all – American states. But this is not the case in Australia.
Police data show steady increases in the number of people licensed to own firearms as well as the number of firearms legally owned. But despite growing levels of gun ownership, there have been ongoing declines in firearm homicides in Australia. The downward trend emerged in the 1970s and has continued to the present.
This suggests that, in Australia, more guns do not mean more gun-related murders. And firearm suicides, which account for most firearm-related deaths in Australia, have also continued to fall.
The statistics we have are about legal gun ownership. They cannot take into account illegally held guns, which means we are unable to draw conclusions about relationships between unlawful ownership levels and firearm homicide.
Nobody knows how many unlawfully owned firearms exist in Australia. Estimates range from 260,000 up to about six million illegal guns. It is unclear how many firearms may be in the hands of people involved in the various other forms of criminal activity that are often linked with gun violence, such as the illicit drug trade.
Are firearm-related murders most often between intimate partners?
Although correlations between having a gun in the house and becoming a victim of intimate partner homicide have been found in some US studies, the Australian evidence tells a different story.
Most Australian firearm homicides involve both male offenders and male victims. Very few firearm homicides occur between intimate partners. The highest number of incidents of lethal firearm violence occur between acquaintances, with the smallest percentage involving perpetrators and victims who were strangers to one another.
Firearms are one of the least common methods used to kill women in Australia. From 2010 to 2012, there were 12 female firearm homicide victims nationwide, relative to 63 females stabbed to death, 56 killed using “other” (non-specified) methods and 34 killed by being beaten. These patterns have been fairly consistent over time.
The low incidence of female firearm homicide victimisation may be associated with Australia’s gun laws, which prevent individuals who commit domestic and family violence from lawfully owning firearms.
Where do we go from here?
With the facts so easily accessible, why does misinformation about firearm violence still appear so regularly in Australian commentary? We can speculate on reasons. Is it poor background research? Lack of specialised knowledge? Time pressures? Political ideology? The media confecting outrage for clicks?
Whatever the reasons, the result is an impoverished quality of public debate in Australia. Ultimately, this contributes to moral panic and the risk of poor decision-making when it comes to firearms policy. This achieves nothing for violence prevention efforts in the long term.
So, if we want to develop truly effective policies to reduce violence and its impacts on individuals, families and communities, we need to start basing Australian debate on Australian facts.