Few events provoke as much as fear as mass shootings – incidents where four or more people are killed by one offender. Australia learnt this the hard way in 1996, when an unlicensed gunman killed 35 people at Port Arthur using two military-style semi-automatic rifles.
In response to this tragedy, all Australian states and territories revised their gun laws. A major change was the wide-scale removal from private ownership of semi-automatic rifles and shotguns, and pump-action shotguns, through a taxpayer-funded “buy-back” scheme.
The justification was that mass shooters generally use particular “types” of weapon and that certain “types” of guns make mass shootings more likely to occur. This claim has been repeated recently, with some calling for Australia to ban what is being described as a “rapid fire” lever-action shotgun.
At first glance, this call may sound reasonable. It seems to have found the ear of Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who has announced an interim ban on the gun’s import. But the facts about mass shootings in Australia tell a different story.
Australia had 13 mass shootings between 1964 and 2014, involving many different types of firearms. Before Port Arthur, the worst mass shooting was not committed with a high-powered semi-automatic weapon, but with a “single shot” .22-calibre bolt-action rifle. That type of firearm is still commonly owned by farmers and other licensed shooters in Australia today.
Other shootings involved manually operated “centre-fire” rifles, which are still widely owned. And some shootings were committed with faulty guns that had to be slowly re-loaded by hand.
Australia currently has somewhere between 2.75 million and 4.5 million legally owned firearms in private hands, including some of the exact same types of guns used in past mass shootings.
History shows any type of firearm can be used in a mass shooting. So why was there an 18-year gap between the Port Arthur massacre in 1996 and the most recent mass shooting in September 2014?
No single, or simple, explanation
Looking at Australia’s history of mass shootings, most – nine out of 13 – occurred between 1987 and 1996.
It is possible that the concentration of incidents in one decade was a statistical anomaly. Mass shootings are rare events, and the long gap between incidents post-1996 may simply reflect a return to a more “normal” state of affairs, similar to the years before 1987.
Life stressors can play an important role in lethal violence. These can include social and economic factors like financial strain, business failure and unemployment. We must think carefully about whether the 1990s recession, for example, may have played a part in the number of shootings around those years.
Conversely, Australia’s long period of recent economic prosperity may have helped reduce the frequency of mass shootings.
Changing who can legally own guns
It has long been illegal for Australians to own any type of firearm unless they hold a gun licence. However, another change Australia made to its gun laws in 1996 concerned licensing practices.
Measures including 28-day waiting periods and mandatory police background checks were uniformly implemented around Australia. Predictors of violent behaviour, such as past violence – including domestic violence – and involvement in other criminal activities, including drug use, became reasons for refusing, or cancelling, gun licences.
Most Australian mass shooters from the 1980s and 1990s would be unlikely to qualify for a firearms licence under the current system. Many offenders had records of domestic or other violence, or criminal behaviour more generally. They would almost certainly fail the “fit and proper person” requirements that people must now meet before they are licensed to access any type of firearm – and which they must uphold to keep a licence.
Is mental illness to blame?
In post-1996 Australia, mental illness is a reason for police refusing, or cancelling, a firearm licence. Although clinically recognised mental illness was uncommon among Australian mass shooters, two offenders had consulted psychologists prior to their crimes and some offenders had shown ongoing “psychological distress”.
This highlights the importance of community awareness of the warning signs of psychological problems, as well as ways to help people in distress. It is vital to de-stigmatise mental illness, encourage help-seeking behaviours and ensure appropriate services are accessible.
Positive changes in mental health awareness and treatment have occurred since the 1990s, which may have contributed to fewer mass shootings. Also, Australian laws now support healthcare professionals reporting to police anyone who may pose a danger to themselves or others.
Together, all of these facts suggest that regulating the types of people who can legally own guns is a more likely explanation for Australia’s low frequency of mass shootings than regulating the types of guns people can legally own. But when Australia’s gun laws are touted as a model for others to follow, proponents typically focus on our gun bans.
Australia’s licensing laws – which are similar to those used in countries like Canada and New Zealand – are rarely discussed. If we are serious about helping countries like the US find ways to reduce gun violence, perhaps it is time to change what we say about Australian mass shootings.