John Howard feels satisfied that his draconian and expensive National Firearms Agreement has worked. But what has it really achieved?

The NFA: The Big Trick John Howard played on Australia

Michael Burbidge is a Sporting Shooter reader who has written this piece on the National Firearms Agreement. He makes some good points in this well-researched comment so we thought it deserved a run as a blog this week.

Following the Port Arthur Massacre in 1996, John Howard had enough fear and confusion to start tightening firearm laws in Australia. And let’s be clear here, John Howard did not force the 1996 National Firearms Agreement (NFA) through Federal and State Parliaments (even threatening to withdraw health funding from states that refused to fall into line) as a response to Port Arthur; he forced the NFA through because Port Arthur gave him the excuse to impose laws on the law abiding citizens of Australia that reflected his hatred of firearms (as stated in an interview on 2GB).

The big trick was beautiful in its simplicity. The logic was supposedly infallible; heavily restricting (essentially to the point of banning) semi-automatic firearms, imposing strict licensing requirements on individuals, cooling off periods and registration of all firearms would be strong legislation to curb gun homicide.

The thing was firearms licensing had been in place in Tasmania since 1991. Martin Bryant did not possess a firearms licence. The SLR (incorrectly described by John Howard in his recent NY times piece as an SKS) used by Bryant was purchased illegally from a private individual in much the same way that illegally imported firearms are purchased by organised crime gangs to conduct their nightly drive-by raids in Western Sydney.

The AR15 used in the Broad Arrow Cafe murders has a far more interesting history. This firearm was handed into police for destruction as part of an amnesty. Martin Bryant then allegedly purchased this firearm from a firearms dealer in Tasmania. The dealer in question was never found guilty of supplying a firearm to an individual without a firearms licence. All that is known for sure is that the AR15 was handed into the police for destruction and its next confirmed location was in the hands of Martin Bryant.

So essentially, all the National Firearms Agreement did was make what Martin Bryant did more illegal than it already was. When you outlaw guns, you only take them off the law abiding citizens.

There has been little statistical support to suggest that the NFA had a definitive effect on firearms homicides. In fact there have been several studies which have suggested otherwise. Two examples would be Baker & McPhedran (2006), Wang-Shang Lee & Sandy Suardi (2010).

In addition to this, Don Weatherburn from the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research suggested in 2005 that the NFA had had little impact on gun violence. Even the study which is often touted by the gun control lobby as proof that John Howard’s NFA was a success (Neill & Leigh 2010) concludes that any reduction seen in firearm homicides in the statistical model that was used in the study is within standard error margins.

All this study definitively concludes is that the National Firearms Agreement correlated to a reduction in suicides. It is disputed as to whether this reduction is indeed due to the NFA or because of suicide prevention programs which started to run from the mid-90s onwards.

It is commonly suggested that while the NFA may not have had an effect of the gun homicide rate, it has stopped random massacres. This is also very much debatable. New Zealand also had a cluster of mass shootings in the late 80s and early 90s and did not implement NFA style firearms laws as a result. New Zealand has not had a mass shooting since 1997.

John Howard suggests that the NFA was one of his greatest achievements as Prime Minister of Australia. If you consider a suite of complex legislation which cost huge amounts of money to implement and provides somewhere between no and very questionable benefit one of your great achievements, then you can’t have been much of a Prime Minister, Mr Howard.




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