Editor’s note: This is a roundup of gun control articles published by scholars from the U.S. and two other countries where deadly mass shootings are far less common.
An underresearched epidemic
Guns are a leading cause of death of Americans of all ages, including children. Yet “while gun violence is a public health problem, it is not studied the same way other public health problems are,” explains Sandro Galea, dean of Boston University’s School of Public Health.
That’s no accident. Congress has prohibited firearm-related research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health since 1996. Galea says:
“Unfortunately, a shortage of data creates space for speculation, conjecture and ill-informed argument that threatens reasoned public discussion and progressive action on the issue.”
The Australian model
The contrast with Australia is especially stark. Just as Congress was barring any research that might strengthen the case for tighter gun regulations, that country established very strict firearm laws in response to the Port Arthur massacre, which killed 35 people in 1996.
To clamp down on guns, the federal government worked with Australia’s states to ban semiautomatic rifles and pump action shotguns, establish a uniform gun registry and buy the now-banned guns from people who had purchased them before owning them became illegal. The country also stopped recognizing self-defense as an acceptable reason for gun ownership and outlawed mail-order gun sales.
These measures worked. Simon Chapman, a public health expert at the University of Sydney, writes:
“When it comes to firearms, Australia is far a safer place today than it was in the 1990s and in previous decades.”
There have been no mass murders since the Port Arthur massacre and the subsequent clampdown on guns, Chapman observes. In contrast, there were 13 of those tragic incidents over the previous 18 years – in which a total of 104 victims died. Other gun deaths have also declined.
Concerns about complacency
After so many years with no mass killings, some Australian scholars fear that their country may be moving in the wrong direction.
Twenty years after doing more than any other nation to strengthen firearm regulation, “many people think we no longer have to worry about gun violence,” say Rebecca Peters of the University of Sydney and Chris Cunneen at the University of New South Wales. They write:
“Such complacency jeopardizes public safety. The pro-gun lobby has succeeded in watering down the laws in several states. Weakening the rules on pistols so that unlicensed shooters can walk into a club and shoot without any waiting period for background checks has resulted in at least one homicide in New South Wales.”
In the UK
Like Australia, the U.K. tightened its gun regulations following its own 1996 tragedy – when a man killed 16 children and their teacher at Dunblane Primary School, near Stirling, Scotland.
Subsequently, the U.K. banned some handguns and bought back many banned weapons. There, however, progress has been less impressive, notes Helen Williamson, a researcher at the University of Brighton. On the one hand, the number of firearms offenses has declined from a high of 24,094 in 2004 to 7,866 in 2015. On the other, criminals are growing more “resourceful in identifying alternative sources of firearms,” she says, adding:
“Although the availability of high-quality firearms may have fallen, the demand for weapons remains. This demand has driven criminals to be resourceful in identifying alternative sources of firearms. There are growing concerns about how they could acquire instructions online on how to build a homemade gun, or even 3D-print a functioning pistol.”