Gun Myths: Australia

Did Australia's Gun Buyback Program "Work"?

by Scott Hoadley | August 14, 2019 3:58 PM

You have heard it in the news. You have seen it in the Facebook comments. You have heard it from Moms Demand Action, and other gun control groups. You’ve heard it from Australian Prime Ministers and politicians, and even American politicians. "Australia banned guns, and it worked."

Australia is the model success story for gun control. The solution is simple. Just do what Australia did. Or so it goes.

First, let us establish some criteria for how this argument is framed. Take this article from The Atlantic as an example.

Between 1995 and 2006, gun-related homicides and suicides in the country dropped by 59 percent and 65 percent, respectively...Last year, on the 20th anniversary of the Port Arthur massacre, John Howard, the center-right leader whose government introduced and passed the legislation, said: "It is incontestable that gun-related homicides have fallen quite significantly in Australia, incontestable." In the interview, he also cited a 74 percent decline in gun-involved suicide rates as evidence of the legislation working.

There you have it. Australia banned guns, and then they saw a decrease in gun related homicides and suicides. It seems very cut and dry, doesn't it?

But wait, should any of us actually be surprised by this? In fact, anytime you decrease the availability of X, deaths related to X also decrease. No matter what X is. X could be cars. It could be water heaters. It could be ladders. It could be baseballs. It could be alcohol. It could be pitbulls. No one should be jumping for joy upon finding out deaths from X decreased when X was banned. It fails to answer the question of causality.

You ever hear that phrase "correlation is not causation"? Let’s pretend for a moment someone set out on a political platform to reduce access to antibiotics. "It is time to do something about this!" After they successfully institute "antibiotic control", deaths related to allergic reactions to antibiotics suddenly decrease. The politician, being the crafty person they are, points to this fact and says "wow look at how many lives we are saving!" Well, no, actually there is nothing about this statistic that indicates any lives have been saved on the whole. You have no way of knowing that any lives have been saved from this one data point. In fact, given what we know about antibiotics and their life-saving capabilities, you probably have killed more people by banning them than you have saved. That is the problem we face when focusing our view only on gun-related deaths after banning guns. It doesn't really tell us anything.

Nearly all gun related deaths are intentional. In fact, according to the CDC, 486 firearm deaths out of the 39,773 firearm deaths in the US were accidental, meaning the other 39,287 (just close to 99%) were intentional. For the vast majority of cases, people are either intentionally killing other people, or intentionally killing themselves. Because the deaths are intentional, when guns become unavailable, you run into the problem of substitution. Someone highly intent on killing themselves or killing other people might very well just proceed with their intention by using other means.

For example, look at this publication over at the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) from 2003:

despite an overall increase in homicide victimisation in 2001-02, there was a decrease in the number of recorded homicides where the type of weapon used was a firearm.

Did you catch that? Homicides increased, but the percentage of homicides using firearms decreased. More people died, but fewer died by gun. The gun control community would certainly try to spin this as some kind of win. "Gun deaths have gone down!" In reality, homicides went up.

What actually happens when you ban guns is gun-related homicides begin to decrease, and homicides by other means begin to increase. If gun restrictions do decrease gun homicides, that effect may well be offset by an increase in other homicides. The end result is a widening gap between gun-related homicides and other forms of homicides. This gap grows over time as firearm availability diminishes. This can be seen graphically, again from the AIC:

Are people safer than they were before?

Furthermore, like antibiotics, guns save lives. To limit their availability or ban them is to condemn people to die who might not otherwise have died if they had access to firearms. You have to weigh this unavoidable fact with any analysis of the problem.

To get a true picture of the net benefit (or detriment) of gun control, you have to look at more than just the singular measure of "gun deaths".

Like most of the developed world, homicides have indeed been on the decline in Australia in recent years:
(Homicide victims, 1989-90 to 2005-06)

Comparing that to the homicide rate in the United States, we see a very similar downward trend:

This is the same situation most Western developed nations have seen: a peak in violent crime in the 1980s followed by a steep descent. Sociologists are still debating what the cause for this decline is, some even speculating it is related to unleaded gasoline or legalized abortion.

In the meantime, firearms sales have skyrocketed over the last two decades in the United States:

If firearms availability is causal to violence, and more specifically homicide, we should be seeing a spike in homicide rates. Instead, homicide rates are half of what they were 40 years ago.

What about mass shootings?

Again, from the article in The Atlantic :

The number of mass shootings in Australia—defined as incidents in which a gunman killed five or more people other than himself, which is notably a higher casualty count than is generally applied for tallying mass shootings in the U.S.—dropped from 13 in the 18-year period before 1996 to zero after the Port Arthur massacre.

The craftiness with which this narrative operates to twist the truth is astounding and pervasive. There have been many mass shootings in Australia since the 1996 Port Arthur shooting, including these:

Although yes, if we narrow the threshold to 5 deaths we can eliminate most of the list, it has hardly been for a lack of trying. If anything Australia has been extremely lucky to not have a more drastic outlier so far.

But wait, these are just the shootings! The article focuses on just shooting deaths after the gun buyback. This is akin to looking at deaths from motorcycle accidents after banning motorcycles. There will always be correlation with this kind of analysis. It does not give us any information as to whether or not deaths are lower on the whole.

Because of the problem of substitution, mass killers will often seek to accomplish their goal of causing as much death as possible via other more available means. In Australia this is exactly the case. Mass shootings may have lowered in frequency or casualty count, but deaths from other forms of massacre are just as prevalent.

All told, 125 people died in massacres since the 1996 gun buyback program began (the past 22 years). Compare that to the 106 who died between 1974 and 1996, excluding the Port Arthur outlier. More people died in mass shootings after Australia began their national gun buyback program than before. And if we factor in Port Arthur, that brings the total to 131 deaths which is nearly equivalent. For a rare statistical anomaly like mass killings, these figures are practically identical.

The Inequity of an Australia-U.S. Comparison

Consider this:

Australia ranks higher than the United States on the United Nations Human Development Index. It has universal healthcare, government funded parental leave of $622.10 per week for up to 18 weeks, a minimum wage of $18.93 per hour, government-subsidized higher education, social security benefits for college students, and free psychological care through public hospitals and community health services.

We know crime is affected by factors such as population density, poverty, neglect, low self-esteem, and drug abuse. Making a face value comparison between Australia and the United States fails to account for the systemic issues that cause violence. It fails to account for the desperation of the American people in the face of ruthless capitalistic exploitation, and a federal government that is completely inept to tackle the challenges of social inequality and alienation that produce crime.

When we talk about "gun violence", we are often talking about issues with class character. Gun violence is deadly, but its primacy lies in institutional violence. When we speak of "mass shootings", we are almost always talking about white supremacy or alienation of labor. The Mandalay Bay shooter and the Virginia Tech shooter weren't motivated by race, for example. But it is clear from investigation they had dissociated from feeling empathy toward other people. It is important that we ask why and Marx may have a few answers.

School shooters are particularly interesting. Wealthy suburbanites living in gated communities are alienated from the struggle of the working-class and inevitably raise children who lack empathy for poor people. It is easy to gun down other people if their humanity has been reduced to labor value. Absent class consciousness, the working class are dehumanized and transformed into commodities valued only by their production.

So by correcting the record on Australia, we can dispel with a certain liberal notion of gun control as a solution to end violence. We are forced then to consider alternative narratives. And this will aid in finding real solutions.