Sunday, December 16, 2012

Do Australian Gun Laws Work?

In the wake of the tragic events in Connecticut last Friday, where 20 children and 6 adults were murdered, there has opened up the festering wounds of the gun control debate across the media and blogosphere. Australia had its own debate after the Port Arthur massacre in Tasmania in 1996 when the then PM, John Howard, enacted a buy back scheme of semi-automatic weapons (the weapon of choice in any mass killing as there is no need to reload between shots fired). Although there were restrictions on single shot weapons (denial of self-defense as a legitimate reason to own and gun registration), the main target was the semi-automatics.

Inevitably, once these tragedies occur there are outcries from gun control advocates for tighter restrictions on the amount of weapons in circulation amongst the public and regulations surrounding the use of those weapons. But there are important critical questions that need to be asked here.

First, it is not obvious that the Howard laws were responsible for the near absence of mass murders post 1996, as some gun control advocates like Simon Chapman have argued. As Dr Jeanine Baker and Dr Samara McPhedran point out,

It is correct that there were 10 mass shootings (four or more fatalities) in the decade 1986-1996 (four of those shootings occurred in one year, 1987). However, this was a feature peculiar to that decade. When longer time series are evaluated on the basis of available, verifiable data concerning mass shootings, it emerges that in the decades prior to 1986, there were lengthy spans of time when no mass shootings took place. Thus, the absence of mass shootings in earlier years, well before the legislative reforms, suggests that the laws cannot be attributed with preventative properties. 

There have also been plenty of mass shootings in countries with much tighter gun control laws than the US.

BERLIN, March 11 [2009] -- Residents of a small German town struggled Wednesday to decipher the motives of a teenager who burst into his former high school and went on a shooting rampage, killing 15 people before taking his own life...

...Firearms are tightly regulated in Germany, but the country has been afflicted by other mass school shootings in the past several years.

In 2006, an 18-year-old student carrying explosives and rifles injured dozens of people in the northwestern German town of Emsdetten before killing himself. In 2002, a 19-year-old former student fatally shot 16 people at a high school in Erfurt, in eastern Germany, before killing himself.

John Lott jnr., writes

Contrary to public perception, Western Europe, most of whose countries have much tougher gun laws than the United States, has experienced many of the worst multiple-victim public shootings. Particularly telling, all the multiple-victim public shootings in Western Europe have occurred in places where civilians are not permitted to carry guns.

Granted, there does seem to have been a particularly sharp increase in the incidents of mass shootings in the US in very recent years and it is possible that they are now outdoing Europe, but this doesn't explain why European countries have so many incidents of mass shootings even despite tighter gun controls.

Second, the real culprit here may be the 'gun free zones', like schools, malls, and universities, that form the backdrop of just about every mass shooting in the US that has occurred in recent decades. The Columbine 1999 shooting and the recent Batman movie theater shooting were two examples. The latter was particularly telling as the movie theater picked by the gunman was the only 'gun free' movie theater within 20 minutes of his house. I wonder why he picked that one?

Indeed, the economist John Lott jnr., reports that a study of states that pass right-to-carry laws between 1977 and 1999 saw a reduction in mass shootings by a whopping 67% with a concomitant reduction in deaths. Many of these psychopaths that participate in mass shootings would not be deterred by greater sentencing or faster conviction rates as often they end up dead and probably already accept that they will be going to jail for the rest of their natural life anyway. Their only goal is to kill as many people as possible and only an armed civilian close by may thwart their intent. Further points made by Lott; unlike police, it is impossible to know who is armed amongst the public so the attacker cannot just eliminate the threat first or wait for him or her to leave, second, even if there is only a 5% chance that a citizen is armed there is almost a hundred percent change that someone is going to be armed in most public places like schools or malls.

Now what's the situation in Australia? There's been some contention on how effective the 1996 legislation has been and usually the media jumps on anything that looks like evidence in favour of the laws.

But here are some of the most salient facts

  • The vast majority of firearms (over 90%) used in a murder are unregistered. In other words, most of those that surrendered their firearms during the buy back or under police monitor are law abiding citizens. There's been a massive spate of shootings in Sydney recently which suggests that criminal elements aren't so quick to give up their guns. As Jack the Insider put it; "The people who had been forced to give their guns up were never a threat to social order. Meanwhile prohibition has created yet another branch of profit for those who use guns without conscience or hindrance."
  • Only a minority of murders are caused by firearm (the third most common weapon). In fact "...the most common types of weapons used in homicide in Australia are weapons of opportunity, such as knives or sharp instruments and hands and/or feet, weapon use tends to differ based on the gender of the victim." This makes sense as those intent on murdering will probably find the means no matter what. Witness the 'Razor Gangs' in Sydney, Australia after the 1927 Pistol Licensing Act; criminals merely substituted razors for guns, the 1991 Strathfield knife massacre of 7, 9/11 with box cutters and 747s, and the McVeigh bombing. Just a few days ago 22 children were attacked at a school by a man with a knife in China. Are we now going to ban knives, fists and feet? 
  • Although the worst, the Port Arthur massacre, was by firearm, in terms of mass killings, only 6 of the 13 between 1989 and 1999 were by firearm. 2 were by knife, 2 by arson, and 3 by assault/blunt instrument.
  • Australia's homicide rate started falling during the late 80's and continued throughout the 90's. Even if a fall in homicides can be pointed to after '96 that is no proof of the law's effectiveness if it is merely a continuation of the trend happening pre-'96.
  • The head of the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, Don Weatherburn, is skeptical that the laws have impacted violent crime; "There has been a drop in firearm-related crime, particularly in homicide, but it began long before the new laws and has continued on afterwards. I don't think anyone really understands why. A lot of people assume that the tougher laws did it, but I would need more specific, convincing evidence …"
  • Most of the research that has come out after the buy back legislation has revealed no acceleration in the pre-existing decrease of firearm caused homicide. A paper by Baker and McPhedran in 2006 found no evidence of impact from the laws. The most definitive study by Wang-Sheng Lee and Sandy Suardi revealed: "Despite the fact that several researchers using the same data have examined the impact of the NFA on firearm deaths, a consensus does not appear to have been reached. In this paper, we re-analyze the same data on firearm deaths used in previous research, using tests for unknown structural breaks as a means to identifying impacts of the NFA. The results of these tests suggest that the NFA did not have any large effects on reducing firearm homicide or suicide rates." 
  • Even gun control zealot Simon Chapman's own research finds that the drop in firearm homicide rates pre-'96 did not accelerate in the years afterwards, even if he concludes the opposite to his own findings. The same can be said about the Ozanne-Smith et al., 2004 paper. Interestingly, the findings of these two papers were identical to that of Baker and McPhedran (2006). Its also interesting that the research by Australian Labor Party MP, Andrew Leigh and Christine Neill (2010), that criticised the BM paper (and the models they used) did not ciriticise the Ozanne-Smith and Chapman papers that produced the identical results (this observation is made by BM's response to Leigh here).
  • Weatherburn disagreed with the critics of BM's research and concluded that it was "reputable" and "well conducted". What's notable is that even Chapman disagrees with Leigh's claim that the buy back saved 128 lives a year in the forms of both homicide and suicide, but only makes the more modest claim that it ended the mass shootings.
  • But as Weatherburn notes, Chapman has dishonestly claimed in an article in The Age that the laws were responsible for a decrease in homicide which he contradicts in the linked ABC interview and his own research.
  • Both the claims of Chapman and Leigh that gun violence continued to drop after the once off buy back scheme is completely illogical (BM label Leigh and Neill 'disingenuous'). If the legislation had proven effective then there would have been a once off drop in suicide/homicides, not a continued drop over subsequent years. This would only make sense if there were a continued removal of weapons from circulation each year. 
  • Papers here and here have also found that the buy back laws did not decrease suicide and that there was possibly substitution with other methods (most notably hanging). 
UPDATE: To see the utterly emotional and bombastic nature of the pro-ban side then watch Piers Morgan in action:

And here are some useful charts from John Lott on what happened to island nations after gun bans/restrictions were put into place. Without exception all three - England/Wales, Ireland and Jamaica - saw homicides sky rocket after the bans. Interestingly, the growth in homicides don't even seem to be a continuation of the pre-existing trend.

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