THE FAILURE OF AUSTRALIAN GUN CONTROL LAW
As a result of a madman's killing spree in Port Arthur, Australia in April 1996, Australia enacted a set of draconian gun control measures that resulted in the destruction of 600,000 guns at a cost to the taxpayer of $500,000,000 Australian. The end result was supposed to be a safer, gentler, and kinder Australia. Too bad it just didn't happen that way. Australia today is more dangerous than it was before the new laws, and many blame the gun controllers. We've reprinted one of the most cogent analyses of the new laws from The Great Australian Gun Law Con Website and authored by Dr. James Lawson.
Dr. James B. Lawson
NEW NATIONAL GUN LAWS--ARE THEY COST EFFECTIVE?
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Arthur massacre of April 1996 was the catalyst for the new laws which resulted
in the destruction of 600,000 guns at a cost to the taxpayer of $500,000,000.
mass destruction of the legally owned property of tens of thousands of honest citizens is unprecedented and was done without any prior inquiry or any discussion with those affected.
Prime Minister Howard promised a "safer society"1, the only possible justification for such action. Is it working and how much safer are we? The public is entitled to know the essential
facts, even if they sound boring and regardless of whether this makes dramatic television footage. This article concentrates on facts and largely ignores political aspects and rights of
gun owners versus non-owners.
agrees some gun controls are necessary, such as licencing of individual
gun owners and mandatory safety training before granting a licence. Police
needed to stop criminals and unsuitable persons getting guns legally. But do further controls prevent suicide and crime or do they just impede honest citizens and cause unproductive
work and expense for our police? Australians wanted 'tougher gun laws", but tougher than what? How many knew what the current laws were? Could we have achieved a better outcome
at less cost by bringing the banned gun types under the same controls as pistols, IE for club members only, and allowing owners the choice of complying within 12 months or facing
Before Port Arthur
Inspector Colin Greenwood published an extensive study of the changes in
the gun laws of England and Wales and their effects over 6 decades2.
He found there was no
correlation between legal gun ownership and violent crime3, that gun accidents and gun suicides showed a steady decrease, although non-gun suicides steadily increased4. In 1904,
British parliamentarians could not understand why the Pistols Act of 1903 had not reduced violent crime and seemed to have encouraged people to hang themselves instead of shoot
themselves5. Have we learned anything 95 years later? Greenwood concluded that violent crime was lower prior to 1903 when their were no gun controls in Britain at all and recommended
that most controls be abolished because they achieved nothing and took up over 440,000 police man-hours per year6. More Englishmen died by choking on their food than from all gun
deaths put together!7 This was in 1967, before Dunblane and before increased controls on shotguns. Greenwood also presented evidence that abolition of the death penalty coincided
with increased willingness of professional criminals to resort to violence in pre-planned robberies8.
Richard Harding's study of 19819 was the first serious attempt
to examine Australia's firearm situation. Harding found that about 10%
of the population were gun owners,
averaging 2 guns each, and that 26% of households had one or more guns10. At that time, 40% of murders involved guns and gun ownership was increasing faster than the population.
As the USA was known to have high gun ownership rates and a high violent crime rate, Harding became alarmed that we were "going down the American path" and urged measures to
limit the number of guns. The conclusion is not unreasonable considering the limited data of the time. However Harding also found no correlation between gun availability and total
suicide, although there is a correlation with gun suicide rates. Total suicide rates were higher in the larger cities, where gun ownership is lower, although gun suicide rates were higher in
dramatic mass public shootings in the 1980s, the National Committee on
Violence was formed. The NCV12 found that macrosocial factors
predisposing to a violent society are
high levels of poverty, a wide gap between rich and poor and deteriorating social support services13. For individuals, the single most important predictive factor was a prior history of
violent behaviour. Other factors were poverty, unemployment, poor education level and alcohol abuse. Not surprisingly, Aboriginals are at greater risk than whites, with a murder rate up
to 13 times higher than white Australians. Similar risk factors applied to victims. These findings were subsequently replicated in the 1996 study "Indicators of Aggressive Behaviour",
carried out by the Australian Institute of Criminology.14
made numerous recommendations, particularly concerning which types of firearms
should be permitted15 and these subsequently formed the basis
for the new laws. However
the NCV provided no logic or evidence that such restrictions would actually reduce death or crime rates. However, the NCV did not advise arbitrary mass confiscation of legally owned
guns. NCV did produce recommendation 4:
and policies for the prevention and control of violence should be subject
to rigorous independent evaluation and provision for such evaluation should
be incorporated in
the design and budget of the program in question"
The Committee also added:
warm feelings and trendy ideas------are not a sufficient basis for the
expenditure of public funds. Measures -----should not be blindly embraced
provision for their evaluation and eventual dismantling in the event of unsatisfactory performance. Australia simply cannot afford to waste money on ineffective ventures." 16
set up the National Homicide Monitoring Program. In 1991, Strang 17published
initial findings that guns were used in only 20% of murders, knives being
the commonest weapon.
About 70% of murderers were unemployed, had prior criminal records and were drunk at the time of offence. Aboriginals were greatly over -represented. Similar findings applied to
victims. Suicides accounted for 80% of gun deaths. Handguns were used in only 4% of murders18. Hence removing all legal guns could only prevent a maximum of 20% of suicides and 5% of murders, assuming there was no method substitution. Total legal handgun destruction could prevent only about 1% of murders, assuming sawed off long guns were not
substituted. Other AIC studies19 showed that the total murder rate had hardly altered since 1915, although the percentage due to guns fluctuated up to a maximum of 40%. Gun accidents
had declined steadily since 1915.
US criminologists attempted to collate and confirm the evidence that higher
gun ownership causes higher crime rates, but were unable to do this satisfactorily.
been doubts since the early 1960s as to whether legal gun ownership correlated with violent crime in the US20. Legal gun ownership was highest in rural middle-aged whites21, but this
group had the lowest murder rate22 23. Conversely, murder was commonest in the group with fewest legal guns---black inner city teenage males, who had a rate eight times higher than
their white counterparts. Most murderers had prior convictions which would preclude legal gun ownership in either Australia or the US24. The US epidemiologist Centerwall made the
most significant violence prevention contribution when he demonstrated that the racial differences in domestic murder disappeared after correcting for poverty25. Kopel claims the single best predictor of neighbourhood violent crime levels is the percentage of single parent families in the area.26 Centerwall also found, after allowing for racial differences, that adjoining US states and Canadian provinces had very similar homicide rates in spite of the 10-fold greater numbers of handguns on the US side of the border27. In addition, Kleck found that lawful
defensive gun use was 2 to 3 times more common than criminal misuse28. Criminals were rarely shot, the mere threat by the armed victim usually being all that was necessary to forestall
the attack. Victims who resisted by threat or use of a gun were injured only half as often as those who did not resist at all or used other means.29 Shooting as a means of suicide was only
marginally more effective than hanging, drowning or car exhaust gas.30
It is correct
that most murders occur between family members and acquaintances. However
violent criminals also have family and friends and in most domestic murders
there is a long
history of prior sub-lethal criminal violence. The FBI definition of acquaintance includes drug users and dealers, prostitutes and clients and members of criminal gangs---not the sort of
"acquaintance" most of us have.
buy-back would reduce the number of legally owned guns, any objective review
would have raised serious doubts whether it would succeed in reducing suicide
crime. As "success" was never defined in writing at the outset, anyone is free to make up their own definitions of "success" and change them whenever they wish! I submit that a good
definition would include a sustained and significant reduction in total murder, total suicide and total violent crime.
also a fundamental flaw of logic. If we accept that we can prevent suicide
and violent crime by preventing our fellow citizens from owning guns, then
we must believe that our
families and friends, workmates and political leaders are so dishonest and unstable that they will shoot themselves or someone else just because a gun is available. IE. We are required to
assume that the reader of this article is no better than the Port Arthur murderer and would go and commit mass murder in the nearest café merely because a gun was available. Some
readers may not agree with this assessment of themselves.
Since Port Arthur
Bureau of Statistics reported a 3% increase in murder for 1997 and an 11.5
% decrease for 1998, giving a total 2 year decrease of 8.5%31 32.
However this is within the
normal range of annual fluctuations as shown by AIC figures over 20 years, 1975-9533. Incomplete figures for 1998-9 have been published in the media, suggesting a subsequent rise inmurder.. Armed robbery increases were 44% and 20%, for a total increase of 72%.34 AIC reported in May 1999 that total gun deaths had indeed decreased, but this was almost entirely
due to a continuation of the trend of decreasing gun suicides.35
also determined that total suicides increased, largely due to hangings
and car exhaust gas inhalation. While total murders decreased, gun murders
increased slightly. The
massive armed robbery increase involved relatively more knives, but fewer guns. This may not help. While knives may be less dangerous, robbers are more likely to use them and the two
effects largely cancel out.36 The AIC Director is now on record as stating that criminals will neither register nor surrender their guns. 37
accidents are negligible. Monash University Accident Research Centre reported
4 fatal gun accidents for the whole of Victoria over a 6 year period. This
was initially presented
in the media as 632 fatal accidents but subsequent direct telephone inquiry to MUARC confirmed that these were almost all suicides. In comparison, there were 106 bicycle deaths and 84
boating deaths for the same period and 34 deaths associated with using the bathroom! 38 39 40
the FBI and US Department of Justice found that the much criticised USA
had an 8% decrease in murder rate and a 17% decrease in armed robbery for
1997-9, for no increase
in taxes and no confiscations at all. Murder among those over 25 continued its 20% decrease over a 10 year period.41 42 This occurred in spite of a steady increase in legal gun
ownership.43 In 1998, Professors John Lott and David Mustard of the University of Chicago published nationwide time series data showing that murder and violent crime rates decreased
in those US states allowing law abiding citizens to carry concealed defensive handguns. They calculated that adoption of such laws by the remaining states would prevent 1570 murders
,4177 rapes and save US$ 6 billion annually.44In a later work, Lott found that mass public shootings began to decline immediately and almost vanished about 5 years after such laws were
enacted45, even though only 2-5% of those eligible applied for licences. Lott confirmed that states allowing concealed gun carrying by police-approved citizens had consistently lower
crime rates than states which prohibit such carrying46. According to anti-gun dogma, violent crime should have increased. Reality was the opposite of the anti-gun prediction. Lott also
found that virtually none of the licencees committed any offence or had their licences revoked for gun misuse or any other reason. Gun accidents and suicides did not increase.
is also frequently compared with Japan. Japanese gun ownership is about
2% of the Australian level, but their murder rate is about 60% of ours
and their suicide rate is almost
double that of Australia and the US47. Japan also has the death penalty, but does not have trial by jury48. Those who. urge us to adopt Japanese gun laws do not mention this.
Policy Branch of the Victorian Justice Department claimed the Victorian
registry would have annual running costs of about $7,700,000 per year.
As Victoria has about one
quarter of the population, we can expect annual costs of over $30,000,000 to keep track of guns owned by people who are already licensed by the police to have them. How will this stop
criminals? The Australian lawyer, David Fine reports that senior police officers considered him a "naive muddle-headed academic" for even asking such a question49. Former Victorian
registrar, Inspector Newgreen, called the Victorian registration system, initiated in 1983, "an elaborate system of arithmetic with no tangible aim" and stated he did not understand what
gun registration was supposed to achieve 50. He called for its abolition and calculated that 40% of guns had still not been registered after three years.. Senior Sergeant Waterman51
labelled gun registration "a political tool" and "an exercise in futility". No Australian police force has been able to provide a list of crimes solved through gun registration. If it could be
done, why have the results not been published years ago? Democrat Senator John Woodley has stated that no political party has any plan for controlling criminal misuse of firearms.52
groups now wish to ban pistols and cite the Dunblane massacre as justification.
However, large capacity semi-automatic pistols are not new. Winston Churchill
used a 10 shot
Mauser at the battle of Omdurman in 1898, 101 years ago--a shoulder injury prevented him from using his cavalry sword53. The 9 shot Luger and 8 shot Colt 45 were adopted by armies in
1908 and 1911 respectively. The 13 shot Browning used by Australian forces first became available in 1935. The guns have not changed much; it is society which has changed-- in
particular, the graphic full colour media portrayal of gun misuse in both news and as entertainment. Centerwall found that total murder rates in US, Canada and South Africa all doubled 15 years after the introduction of television.54
for pistol licences are subject to screening similar to that of police
recruits, with interviews, background check and fingerprinting. This means
that licensed pistol owners are
just as trustworthy as the police, or, for those who insist on putting it the other way, the police are just as untrustworthy as pistol owners and should also be disarmed. Pistol owners and
police are screened much more thoroughly than politicians or election candidates! Licences are only granted to target club members, who may only use the pistols on police approved
target ranges, and to professional security guards. If a pistol club member is expelled for any reason, he no longer has any valid reason to possess a pistol. Club officials may also simply
refuse to recommend that an individual's pistol licence be renewed. For criminals, Fine quotes a senior police officer's statement that all they have to do is:
"Go to a certain pub, put money on the counter, let it be known they want a pistol---and wait about an hour."55
estimated legal pistol numbers at about 80,000 for the whole of Australia
in 197556. If we extend the buy-back to include these, we must
pay about $40,000,000, assuming a value
of about $500 each. Dealer compensation and payment for accessories would be extra. This money would then not be available for other purposes. From Strang's 1991 figures, if there
were no handguns at all, murder could not decrease by more than 4%, 57assuming no weapon substitution. Sooner or later, a criminal will substitute a sawed-off long gun, and we will
then have to look at banning all rifles and shotguns as well, at a total cost of about $5 billion58. We would then still have to deal with the suicide and violent crime problems, including
the 80% or more of murders not carried out with guns.
groups claim that the Dunblane murderer would qualify for a target pistol
licence in Australia. This is only partly true. If granted one, he would
not have legally retained it. Lord
Cullen, who conducted the Dunblane inquiry, found there were grounds for cancellation of Hamilton's licence in both 1989 and 1991 which "should have been acted upon" or at least led
to a refusal of licence renewal59. Lord Cullen names and blames a specific senior police officer for failing to take action. Of course such action would not have prevented Hamilton from
murdering in other ways. The "Yorkshire Ripper" killed the same number of people with a hammer and screwdriver, albeit over a longer time.
It is particularly
important that we do not allow dramatic emotional appeals to stampede us
into hasty action The AIC states it will take at least 5 years to fully
assess the effects ,if any, of
the buy-back60. Hence we will not have a definitive result until mid 2003. Regardless of this, the Coalition for gun control is advocating an ongoing campaign of emotional media
manipulation to prepare the public to pay for the next round of confiscations61. It is of great concern that the Australian Democrats firearms policy was largely written by Rebecca Peters
of the Coalition for Gun Control62. I shall not name the research officer who told me this as she subsequently informed me that she had lodged a complaint against me with the Federal
Police as a result of our discussion. There are strong rumours that the necessary legislation has already been drafted and will be implemented at the first excuse, presumably criminal
misuse of an unlicenced handgun, that occurs after the 2000 Olympics.
will simply throw up their hands and say "I don't care about any of this.
I just don't like guns!" This is a perfectly reasonable feeling in itself.
However, mere dislike by itself
does not justify destroying the belongings of our honest neighbours. The experiment has been done and we must now evaluate the results. We can spend more of the taxpayers money
on destroying legal guns straight after the Olympics or whenever the next outrage is committed with a (probably illegal) gun. Or we can take the necessary five years to determine what
effect our $500,000,000 buy-back has actually produced and then decide what else should be done.
Could we and would we enforce it?
that we are discussing 10% of the population and 25% of Australian homes,
what powers and what extra funding should we give our police to enforce
confiscations? Do we want the police to pay citizens for dobbing in their mates for mere gun possession? Should we legislate to allow surprise night searches of homes without warrant
or random searches of vehicles and pedestrians? Should we cordon off buildings or city blocks and herd all those therein through metal detectors? Should we allow internal strip
searches in case a citizen has concealed one round of ammunition in a body cavity? Do we have enough police to do this? What other duties should the police neglect in order to enforce
the new gun laws? If we don't have enough police, should we use the army to search the homes of anyone suspected of having an illegal gun? Who decides what constitutes
"reasonable suspicion"? Naturally, the police conducting such operations must be well organised and armed because guns are said to be so dangerous. If guns and their owners are not
that dangerous, there will not be a lot of benefit in getting rid of them. All these questions must be thoroughly assessed before we change the laws again.
we prepared to pay in money, time and loss of liberty in order to achieve
a gun free society? The only attempt at calculating monetary value was
made by Kates, who calculated
for the US a setup cost in 1975 of US$2.6 billion and annual costs of US$9.7 billion, allowing for searches, arrests, trials and extra prisons63. Assuming Australia has 10% of the US
population and 10% of the gun ownership rate, this leaves us with a very rough approximation for Australia of $100,000,000 per year, without adjusting for inflation since 1975.
Enforcement costs are a particular worry in view of Wilmoth's estimate, from the government's own figures, that only about 20% of banned guns were handed in64. Which political party
will legislate for the necessary police powers? Would the government of the day try to sneak the provisions through as amendments to regulations so as to avoid Parliamentary scrutiny?
How will the voters respond? Would we actually enforce such laws or would we simply have a statute which looks good, but which the police cannot enforce in practice? Would the laws
only be enforced against unpopular minorities or individuals the police dislike?
must not fall into the same trap as Jamaica. In 1974, Jamaica passed draconian
laws with mandatory life imprisonment even for possessing a single round
of ammunition. This
worked well for about two years but did nothing about the underlying social problems. By 1987, the homicide rate had risen 500% to 22.6 / 100,000, double that of the US. Professional
criminals and political thugs favoured guns and the common people used machetes65.
If the people
of Australia want to get rid of all legal guns, then they may do so, but
the people will have to lose some liberties and pay about $5 billion for
it and then still deal with most of
the suicide and violent crime problems we have now. They should therefore think carefully about what benefit, if any, they can expect and what other services must be forgone. To repeat
the NCV's words:
"Good intentions, warm feelings and trendy ideas-------are not a sufficient basis for the expenditure of public funds."
this article, the East Timor genocide crisis has erupted on our northern
border. Public mass destruction of Australian guns seems even less of a
good idea in the long term. If
there are to be any further confiscations, the guns should not be destroyed, but should be stored by the army. While an armed civil populace is useless on a modern battlefield, it does
add immensely to the cost of holding a conquered territory after the main battles are over. Australia and the East Timorese have had fine moral support from other nations, but no troops
as yet. Australians should not assume that others will send troops to save us if we are invaded. We must provide our own deterrent.
James B. Lawson at email@example.com
1. Sunday Telegraph 21-7-97. New South Wales
2. Greenwood C. Firearms Control. A Study of Armed Crime and Firearms Control in England and Wales. Routledge & Kegan Paul London 1972.
3. ibid. pp 242-3,254.
4. ibid. pp178-9.
5. ibid. pp30-31.
6. ibid pp226-8.
7. ibid. p177.
8. ibid. p260-1.
9. Harding R. Firearms and Violence in Australian Life. An Examination of Gun Ownership and Use in Australia. University of Western Australia Press 1981.
10. ibid. pp48-9.
11. ibid. p114-5.
12. National Committee on Violence. Violence: Directions for Australia. Australian Institute of Criminology. 1990.
13. ibid pp96-8 and introduction pp xxii-xxvi.
14. McDonald D, Brown M. Indicators of Aggressive Behaviour. Australian Institute of Criminology August 1996.
15. ibid. pp175-7
16. ibid p122.
17. Strang H. Homicides in Australia 1991-2. Australian Institute of Criminology.
19. Mukherjee S, Carcach C. Violent Deaths and Firearms in Australia: Data and Trends. Australian institute of Criminology. 1996.
20. Kates D. Ed. Restricting Handguns. The Liberal Skeptics Speak Out. North River Press. 1979.
21 Kleck G. Targeting Guns: firearms and their control. Walter de Gruyter 1977 p71
22. Kopel D. Guns : who should have them? Prometheus books 1995. pp338-341.
23. Nisbet L. Ed. The Gun Control Debate : you decide. Prometheus Books 1990. pp246-9
24. ibid. p271
25. Centerwall B. Race, Socioeconomic Dtatus, and Domestic Homicide. Journal of the American medical Association Vol 273--No 22.pp1755-8. June 14 1995.
26. Kopel. Op cit. P419.
27. Centerwall B. Homicide and the Prevalence of Handguns in Canada and the US. 1976-86. American Journal of Epidemiology. Vol 134 No 11. pp1245-60. December 1991.
28. Kleck op cit. p151, 160
29. Kleck op cit. p171 and Table 5.2.
30. ibid. p265-66.
31. Australian Bureau of Statistics. Recorded Crime Australia 1997. Cat. No. 4510.0.
32. ABS Recorded Crime Australia 1998. Cat. No. 5410.0
33. Mukherjee and Carcach op cit. p18.
34. Australian bureau of statistics op cit 1997, 1998.
35. Mouzos J. Firearms-related violence: The Impact of the Nationwide Firearms Agreement. Trends and Issues paper 116. Australian Institute of Criminology.
36. Kleck. Op cit p238
37. Station 5RN South Australia. "Life Matters" 11-3-99. 0905hrs..
Edition no 38. March 1999. Victorian Injury Surveillance System. Monash
University Accident Research Centre, Building 70, Monash University Wellington
Vic. 3168. Tel 03 9905 1808.
39. Author's telephone discussion with Dr. G. Scott of MUARC , June 1999.
40. Ozanne-Smith J. Letter to Herald-Sun, Melbourne, 25-6-99, p17.
41. Criminal victimisation 1997. US Dept of Justice. www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/press/cv9/.pr accessed 8-5-99.
42.Homicide trends in the United States. Jan 2 1999. US Dept of Justice. www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/press/htius.pr accessed 8-5-99.
43. Kleck op cit pp96-7
44. Lott JR, Mustard DB. Crime, Deterrence and Right-to-Carry Concealed Handguns. Journal of Legal Studies Jan 1997.
45. Lott J. More Guns, Less Crime. University of Chicago press 1998. Pp 100-102.
46. ibid pp46-7.
of Firearms Statistics and Regulations in Selected Countries. Draft document.
Research, Statistics and Evaluation directorate. Dept of Justice Canada.
April 25, 1995,
particularly Table 1.1.
48. Kopel D. The Samurai, the Mountie and the Cowboy: Should America adopt the Gun Controls of other Democracies? Prometheus Books 1992. p50, footnotes 67,69. See also p407.
49 Fine J.D., Gun Laws--Proposals for Reform. Federation Press, Sydney.1998.
50. Newgreen A. Internal Report 26-2-1987. Originally obtained under Freedom of Information Act.
51. Waterman S. Paper for Victoria Police College Inspectors Course 51-1986. Originally obtained under Freedom of Information Act.
52. Letter to Keith Tidswell, Executive Director, Sporting Shooters Association of Australia. 10-9-98
53. Churchill WS. Frontiers and Wars.
54. Centerwall B. Television and Violence. Journal of the American Medical Association Vol 267 no. 22. pp3059-63. June 10 1992.
55. Fine. op cit p57.
56. Harding op cit. p38.
57. Strang op cit p17.
Harding and Victorian Registry figures, we have 1.9 million licenced gun
owners with 2.7 guns each giving 1.9x2.7=5.13 million registered guns.
We paid $500 million to destroy
about 600,000guns, or about 11% of the total. Ignores unregistered guns and enforcement costs.
59. Lord Cullens Report on Dunblane. Her Majesty's Stationery office 1996. Introduction--Section 1.6. and chapter 6.
60. Mouzos J. op cit.
61. Chapman S. Over Our Dead Bodies: Port Arthur and the Fight for Gun Control. Pluto press Australia 1998. pp1,5.
62. Telephone call by author to Senator M. Lees office in Adelaide, 8-9-98.
63. Kates. Op cit. pp87-9
64. Wilmoth R. "Buy-Back analysis". Unpublished paper november 1997. Copies available from author.
D. The Samurai , the Mountie and the Cowboy. op cit. pp257-278.