Gun Related Deaths: What has really happened in Australia?

Dr Samara McPhedran and Dr Jeanine Baker expose misleading claims made by gun prohibitionists about Australia’s experience with firearms legislation.

As the United States struggles to develop meaningful ways to reduce firearm related deaths, it is imperative that these efforts be guided by sound evidence and informed by robust debate. Although the US and Australia differ substantially in terms of society, history, and culture, some have suggested that the United States can learn from the Australian experience with gun control.

Given the importance of this topic, it is disappointing to see that Simon Chapman and Philip Alpers, in an article in the Annals of Internal Medicine, provide only a superficial and highly selective account of evidence around Australia’s firearms legislative reforms.

Citing their own work, they state that Australia’s legislative changes have had significant impacts, and imply that only one paper written by ‘gun lobby researchers’ has disputed this view. This is incorrect. Indeed, on the basis of detailed review of many studies, it has recently been proposed that Australia’s gun laws do not represent a cost-effective intervention.

Aside from Baker and McPhedran, there is a body of research into the impacts of Australia’s 1996 gun laws. Using a range of different statistical methods and time periods, none of these studies has found a significant impact of the legislative changes on the pre-existing downward trend in firearm homicide. Nor does the decline in firearm homicides in Australia appear unique, with other Commonwealth countries experiencing similar or greater declines over time, despite less restrictive legislative approaches to firearms control.

Findings for impacts of the legislative changes on pre-existing downwards trends in firearm suicide are inconsistent. Some studies find evidence of an impact, while others find little or no evidence of an impact and/or document substitution to other methods.

Chapman and Alpers imply Australia’s gun laws have stopped mass shootings, and allow no possibility that any factor other than gun bans could produce this outcome. They fail to mention that Australia’s close neighbour New Zealand – a country that is genuinely similar to Australia in terms of history, culture, and economic trends – has experienced an almost identical time period with no mass shooting events despite the continued widespread availability of the types of firearms banned in Australia.

The absence of mass shootings in New Zealand despite ongoing availability of semi-automatic firearms cannot be reasonably attributed to pre-existing differences between the two countries. Using standardised data to control for population size differences, it was found that the occurrence of mass shootings before 1996/1997 was comparable between countries.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, both Australia and New Zealand experienced high levels of unemployment, followed by a decade of relative economic stability and growth from the mid-1990s onward. The clustering of mass shootings around a period of economic downturn and high unemployment, followed by the absence of such events during a period of economic stability and relatively low unemployment, may reflect broader relationships between economic wellbeing and violence.

Despite accepting that many external factors contribute to the incidence of firearm-related deaths, Chapman and Alpers imply that discussion of these factors as contributors to declines in deaths is somehow unreasonable.

However, a wide range of potential contributors to declines in Australian firearm-related deaths have been recognised by a number of sources. These include improved suicide prevention efforts and treatments for psychiatric illness, mental health literacy and stigma reduction, socioeconomic trends and an unprecedented period of economic prosperity, improved social programs, community-based policing and intelligence-led disruption of criminal activity (references include this and this). It is entirely appropriate to incorporate these factors into any explanatory model around firearm-related deaths, and to encourage otherwise represents an irresponsible and simplistic approach to policy-making.

Finally, in an ‘appeal to authority,’ Chapman and Alpers claim that Baker and McPhedran’s paper has been ‘heavily criticised’ by Hemenway and by Neill and Leigh. Perplexingly, having deemed criticism by others a relevant point to make, Chapman and Alpers omit to mention that Leigh and Neill’s findings have also been criticised.

Neill and Leigh’s claims about our paper are demonstrably incorrect, and our response to these is publicly available. Regarding Hemenway’s criticisms of our work, we previously sought to place a right of response on record, to correct a number of misleading claims. Unfortunately, despite publishing ethics dictating that authors whose work has been criticised should be allowed a right of response, the editors of that journal refused to publish our reply. Consequently, the record stands uncorrected, allowing authors such as Chapman and Alpers to continue making misguided assertions about our work.

We agree that the United States can learn valuable lessons from Australia. One of these is to avoid going down the Australian path of attempting to silence debate and censoring, or trying to discredit, scientific findings that do not fit a particular ideological view about firearms. We understand some may find evidence showing a lack of impact of Australia’s gun laws unpalatable, and seek to dismiss such findings. However, critical inquiry and the ability to engage in robust and honest debate remain the foundation of good science and effective injury prevention.

Unlinked references

1. Baker J, McPhedran S. Gun laws and sudden death: did the Australian firearms legislation of 1996 make a difference? Br. J. Criminology. 2007; 47:455-69.

2. Lee W-S, Suardi S. The Australian firearms buyback and its effect on gun deaths. Contemp. Econ. Policy. 2010; 28(1):65-79.

3. McPhedran S, Baker J, Singh P. Firearm homicide in Australia, Canada and New Zealand: What can we learn from long-term international comparisons? J. Interpers. Viol. 2011; 26(2): 348-59.

4. Leigh A, Neill C. Do gun buybacks save lives? Evidence from panel data. American Law and Economics Review. 2010;12:462-508.

5. Ozanne-Smith J, Ashby K, Newstead S, et al. Firearm related deaths: the impact of regulatory reform. Inj. Prev. 2004; 10: 280-86.

6. Chapman S, Alpers P, Agho K, Jones M. Australia’s 1996 gun law reforms: faster falls in firearm deaths, firearm suicides, and a decade without mass shootings. Inj Prev. 2006;12:365-72.

7. De Leo D, Evans R, Neulinger K. Hanging, firearm, and non-domestic gas suicides among males: A comparative study. Aust. NZ J. Psychiatry. 2002; 36:183-89.

8. De Leo D, Dwyer J, Firman D, Neulinger K. Trends in hanging and firearm suicide rates in Australia: Substitution of method? Suicide and Life-Threatening Behav. 2003; 33(2): 151-64.

9. Klieve H, Barnes M, De Leo D. Controlling firearms use in Australia: Has the 1996 gun law reform produced the decrease in rates of suicide with this method? Soc. Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiol. 2009; 44: 285-92.

10. McPhedran S, Baker J. Suicide prevention and method restriction: evaluating the impact of limiting access to lethal means among young Australians. Arch. Suicide. Res. 2012; 16(2): 135-46.

11. McPhedran S, Baker J. Mass shootings in Australia and New Zealand: a descriptive study of incidence. Justice Policy J.; 8(1).

12. Williams S, Poynton S. Firearms and violent crime in New South Wales, 1995-2005. Contemporary Issues in Crime and Justice. 2006; 98: 1-8.

13. Hemenway D. How to find nothing. J. Public Health Policy. 2009;30:260-8. 18. Neill C, Leigh A. Weak Tests and Strong Conclusion: A Reanalysis of Gun Deaths and the Australian Firearms Buyback. EPS Journal Discussion Paper 555. Canberra, Australia: The Australian National University, Centre for Economic Policy Research; 2007.

14. Hemenway D, Vriniotis M. The Australian gun buyback. Harvard Injury Control Research Centre Bulletins: 2011; 4 (Spring):1-4.

You can access the original opinion piece, and McPhedran and Baker’s response (under ‘comments’), here.




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