Twenty years ago, Australian federal, state and territory governments united to reform our firearm laws which had allowed easy access in some states to the military-style weapons of the sort used by the gunman in Orlando, Florida. The main provisions of the new laws included:
a ban on semi-automatic rifles and pump action shotguns, with a market price buy-back of all now-banned guns
uniform gun registration
end of “self-defense” as an acceptable reason to own a gun
end of mail order gun sales.
So, after 20 years of our new gun laws, what has happened to gun deaths?
Today, our study of intentional firearm deaths in Australia between 1979 and the present has been published in JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association).
The new gun laws were introduced because of the near-universal outpouring of revulsion Australians felt over the ability of someone to go into a public place and murder lots of people quickly with rapid-fire firearms.
In the 18 years between 1979 and April 1996, Australia saw 13 massacres (five or more victims, not including the perpetrator) where 104 victims died. In the twenty years and nearly two months since the Port Arthur massacre and the passage of the law reforms that followed swiftly afterwards, we have seen precisely none.
The Gun Violence Archive reports that in the United States, the Orlando shootings were the 1000th mass shooting incident in 1,260 days. In those incidents 1,134 people were shot dead and 3,950 were injured.
Mass killings a small fraction of all gun deaths
Australia’s 104 victims of mass shootings represent a small fraction of all people intentionally shot dead in Australia across the years we examined. For every person shot in a mass killing, 139 others suicided or were murdered with guns in incidents where less than five people died (most typically one or two).
While the gun laws were introduced explicitly to reduce the likelihood of mass shootings, we were interested in whether the removal of what turned out to be some 750,000 semi-automatic and rapid fire weapons from the community may have had collateral benefits on trends in these non-mass killings.
By one argument, the outlawing of semi-automatic rifles might have made little difference to the firearm suicide rate because such firearms are irrelevant to suicide: only one shot is generally fired when people try to suicide with a gun, so a semi-automatic is not necessary. But by another argument, any firearm- semi-automatic or not – can be used, so the removal of a large number of one category of gun might nonetheless have impacts on non-mass killings.
Here’s what we found.
From 1979 to 1996 (the year of the gun law reforms), total intentional firearm deaths in Australia were declining at an average 3% per year. Since then, the decline in total firearm deaths accelerated to 5% annually.
With gun suicide deaths, over the same comparison periods, there was a statistically significant acceleration in the downward trend for firearm suicides and a non-significant acceleration in the downward trend in firearm homicides.
We also examined total all-method homicides and suicides data to assess the possibility that reduced access to firearms saw people substitute other lethal methods to commit suicide or homicide. From 1979 to 1996, the average annual rate of total non-firearm suicide and homicide deaths was rising at 2.1% per year. Since then, the average annual rate of total non-firearm suicide and homicide deaths has been declining by 1.4%. This supports a conclusion there has been no substitution of other lethal means for suicides or homicides.
Finally, we found that the post-1996 decrease in the rates of non-firearm suicide and homicide were larger than the decreases for suicide and homicide involving firearms.
There are two likely explanations for this. Another study of the decline in suicide in Australia between 1994-2007 concluded that much of the decline was explained by changes toward the use of less fatal methods. Fewer people killed themselves using motor vehicle exhaust and this explained nearly half of the overall decline in suicide deaths.
Suicide using firearms had the highest fatality rates (74%) with self-poisonings lowest at 1.4%. That study noted that “the decline in firearm deaths over the study period was due primarily to a decline in attempts; lethality remained relatively flat.”
Guns have the highest “completion” or fatality rate in suicides compared to all other methods, so with evidence that suicide method choice is moving more toward less lethal means, it’s understandable that overall suicide rates could be falling faster than those for firearms where there has been no change in the completion rate. If you shoot yourself you are highly likely to die, but not so with many other methods.
Another factor, which combined with the high lethality of guns when used in both suicides and assaults, is the proliferation of the mobile phone over the past 20 years. A 1997 study found 12% of 764 cell phone users had used their phone to call emergency services to a road crash and 6% to a non-road medical emergency. As we wrote in our JAMA paper:
With increasing cell phone use over the past 20 years, it is plausible that ambulances will have increasingly attended traumatic incidents like assaults and suicide attempts earlier than in previous times when landlines were only or more commonly used to make such calls. There have also been improvements in emergency care, and the lower lethality of non-firearm assault and suicide may explain the greater reductions in non-firearm homicide and suicide rates.
When it comes to firearms, Australia is far a safer place today than it was in the 1990s and in previous decades. We have the leadership of John Howard to thank for this.
Today, politicians like the National Rifle Association’s local Australian hero Senator David Leyonhjelm are doing what they can to water down aspects of our gun laws as occurred with Leyonhjelm’s deal with the government to allow the importation of the massacre-ready Adler shotgun. Will the Prime Minister after the July 2 election have sufficinet Howard-like leadership to ban the Adler?