It seems almost everyone “knows” America has a problem with guns. Each mass shooting in America is followed by a wave of commentary insisting that America’s “gun culture” is a problem that Australia has done well to avoid. John Howard’s 1996 gun laws are offered up as proof of our wisdom, and Howard himself describes them as one of his proudest achievements.
Underlying all this is the belief that the availability of guns results in more crime, therefore removing guns from private hands makes the community safer. America’s problem, it is said, is simply too many guns.
The problem with that is it is totally false. Australia has never shown any inclination to emulate America with respect to gun ownership. Howard’s gun laws achieved nothing in terms of public safety. Neither strict gun laws nor the level of gun ownership bear any relationship to crime, in Australia or elsewhere. And America’s problem with guns, to the extent that it is a problem, is its policy of leaving the vulnerable undefended.
The massacre at Sandy Hook in the US in which 20 children and seven adults were murdered occurred in a Gun Free Zone. Guns are banned from all schools in Connecticut, as well as most other states.
There was nobody in the school with any practical means of countering the demented gunman who committed that atrocity. The little children and their teachers were utterly defenceless.
The two people murdered a couple of days earlier in the shopping centre in Oregon were also in a Gun Free Zone. In fact all the mass murders in the last 20 years in America, including Columbine and Virginia Tech, have occurred in Gun Free Zones.
One measure of insanity is to repeat the same failure time after time hoping that the next time the failure will turn out to be a success. Gun Free Zones are a lethal insanity. What this latest tragedy ought to prompt is a rising chorus of Americans demanding the elimination of what are effectively Criminal Safe Zones. What it is prompting instead is a crescendo of demands for greater gun control.
Yet gun control laws have never had any impact on crime rates anywhere in the world.
Malaysia has one of the strictest gun control laws in the world including the death penalty for illegal possession of a firearm. That has not stopped criminals from obtaining or using firearms in crime, or of engaging in shoot-outs with police.
Britain banned pistols in 1997 following the Dunblane tragedy. In the following two years the use of pistols in crime rose by 40 percent. In the four years from 1997 to 2001 the rate of violent crime more than doubled. The chances of being mugged in London are six times greater than in New York.
In 1974 in Jamaica, legislation was introduced banning the private ownership of firearms and ammunition. The Prime Minister Michael Manley told the country, “There is no place in this society for the gun, now or ever.” The sentence for almost any firearms crime was life imprisonment. There was no bail for those charged.
The murder rate in 1973 was 11 per 100,000. It soon rose to 30 and peaked at 40 per 100,000 in 1980. In May 2007 the World Bank issued a report saying, “Murder rates in the Caribbean (it was referring to Jamaica) – at 30 per 100,000 population annually – are higher than for any other region of the world and assault rates, at least based on assaults reported to police, are also significantly above the world average.”
The Republic of Ireland banned virtually all firearms in 1973, requiring their surrender within just three days, based on concerns about the IRA. The following year the number of murders doubled and stayed at that level for the next 20 years. Other violent crimes increased as well.
In October 2003 the US Centre for Disease Control released a major study on gun control laws in the US in which it reviewed 51 published studies on eight different types of gun laws dating back to the 1970s. It covered firearms bans, ammunition bans, waiting periods, background checks, gun registration, gun owner licensing, right to carry laws, child access-prevention laws, “zero tolerance” of weapons in schools and various combinations of laws.
The main outcome was the finding of “insufficient evidence to determine the effectiveness” of those laws on violent crimes, suicides and accidental injuries. This despite the huge data set.
Since 1999 there have been almost a dozen academic studies of the impact of the Howard gun laws. All used Australian Bureau of Statistics cause of death figures. Probably the most authoritative was a paper by two female researchers, Baker and McPhedran. Peer reviewed and published in a credible journal, it showed no effect of the gun laws.
Based on the paper, the head of the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, Dr Don Weatherburn, said:
“I too strongly supported the introduction of tougher gun laws after the Port Arthur massacre.
“The fact is, however, that the introduction of those laws did not result in any acceleration of the downward trend in gun homicide. They may have reduced the risk of mass shootings but we cannot be sure because no one has done the rigorous statistical work required to verify this possibility.
“It is always unpleasant to acknowledge facts that are inconsistent with your own point of view. But I thought that was what distinguished science from popular prejudice.”
A 2008 publication (Lee and Suardi) was probably the most statistically exhaustive. It applied a battery of statistical tests to homicide and suicide data for the entire period 1915 to 2004, looking for a break point in the long term trend that could be attributed to the new laws. What they concluded was: “… there is little evidence to suggest that [the National Firearms Agreement] had any significant effects on firearm homicides and suicides. In addition, there also does not appear to be any substitution effects – that reduced access to firearms may have led those bent on committing homicide or suicide to use alternative methods.”
Some have pointed to more than a decade free of fatal mass shootings as evidence of the impact. But mass shootings are rare and also did not occur in the 1950s, 60s and 70s despite easy firearm availability and minimal licensing.
On the other hand, mass murders have continued since the Howard gun laws. Examples include the Childers backpacker hostel fire and the nursing home fire at Quakers Hill. Furthermore, Australia’s second worst mass murder, after Port Arthur, was a deliberately lit fire at the Whisky a Go Go disco in Brisbane in 1973.
It is also false to assume that strict gun laws have prevented massacres elsewhere. Despite tight regulation of firearms in Germany, in Berlin in 1999 a teenager went on a rampage killing 15 people before taking his own life. In 2002 in Erfurt a 19 year-old former student shot 16 people before killing himself.
The assumption that guns are freely available throughout America is equally false. Gun laws vary enormously within the country, from virtual prohibition to virtual laissez faire. There are also federal laws that severely restrict ownership of certain firearms.
Never acknowledged by those who endorse gun control is the fact that the states and cities with the strictest gun laws are those with the highest violent crime rates. Chief among these are Washington and Chicago.
Washington DC has one of the worst murder rates in the country. But the murder rate was declining up to 1976 when a blanket ban on handguns and ready to use long arms was introduced. Between 1976 and 1991 the murder rate rose 200% while the overall US rate rose only 9%.
The State of New Hampshire, on the other hand, is one of 41 with a permit system for concealed carry of pistols for self-defence. Its Bill of Rights says, “All persons have the right to keep and bear arms in defences of themselves, their families, their property and the state”.
New Hampshire has some of the lowest crime rates in the US and is nationally regarded as one of the safest places in which to live.
Since the early 1990s gun laws have been considerably relaxed in the US, particularly regarding self-defence, yet there has been no resulting increase in crime. The US national murder rate in 1991 was 9.8 per 100,000 but fell to 5.6 in 2006 and has continued to fall since.
The main change has been a big increase in states that allow concealed carry. Over five million Americans have concealed carry permits, just over two percent of the adult population.
In the states in which permits are issued, multiple victim public killings of the kind seen at Sandy Hook and Port Arthur have declined substantially. On hundreds of occasions, rarely mentioned in the media, armed citizens have either prevented massacres or reduced their impact by shooting back. Indeed, the only significant massacres in those states have occurred where guns were not permitted, such as schools and shopping malls.
Israel has had similar success in stopping mass public shootings. When it was realised that the police and military simply couldn’t be there to protect people all the time when terrorists attack, a change of policy led to Israelis encouraged to carry concealed handguns. Since then terrorist gun attacks have been rare.
Today about 15 percent of Jewish adults in Israel have permits to carry concealed handguns. Thus in large public gatherings many citizens – unknown beforehand to the terrorists – are able to shoot back at them. During waves of terror attacks, Israel’s national police chief will call on concealed handgun permit holders to make sure they carry firearms at all times.
The assumption that stricter gun laws can prevent the misuse of guns is just as misguided as the notion that strict drug laws prevent the misuse of drugs. Prohibition merely sends the business underground and increases the profits available to criminals. It cannot make something disappear.
If America had not declared its schools to be Gun Free Zones, one of the school’s teachers at Sandy Hook may have been legally carrying a gun and thus able to save many lives.
This tragedy should be a wakeup call to those who want to prevent them from occurring again. Arming the good guys is how you prevent the bad guys from causing harm.
David Leyonhjelm is the registered officer of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).