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No massacres since 1996?

By David Leyonhjelm - posted Tuesday, 11 July 2017


According to popular legend, Hitler's master of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, said, "A lie told once is still a lie, but a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth."

The claim that there have been no gun massacres since the introduction of John Howard's 1996 gun laws has probably been repeated well over a thousand times, which is perhaps why so many view it as the truth.

In the 20 years following 1996 there were 14 shootings in Australia involving multiple victims. Of these, twelve involved either two or three fatalities, one involved four fatalities and one five fatalities. The fatality toll would have been higher but for some luck and lifesaving medical attention.

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In the 20 years prior to 1996 there were 12 mass fatality shootings. The number of victims was higher, which resulted in more fatalities in total.

There is no universally accepted definition of a massacre. Some argue that a mass murder can only be described as a massacre if undertaken by groups, not individuals, with a political motivation. Some historians claim that describing small scale mass murders as massacres diminishes the large scale mass murders that unquestionably fall within the definition.

Yet others insist that a massacre is defined by the number of victims. By a remarkable coincidence, those responsible for the claim that there have been no massacres in Australia since 1996 insist there must be at least five victims. Following the 2014 Hunt family murder-suicide in which there were five victims, it is even suggested the minimum should be six.

Those repeating the claim that there have been no gun massacres since 1996 have probably never thought much about this. For them it is sufficient to claim that massacres occurred prior to the gun laws but not after. They then draw the conclusion that the gun laws made the difference. It sounds compelling, superficially at least.

A better analysis of the impact of the 1996 gun laws would be to look at overall murders attributable to firearms. By that measure, the laws made no difference. Firearms death rates were declining in the 20 years prior to 1996 and continued to fall at precisely the same rate in the 20 years subsequently. This occurred in spite of a substantial increase in licensed firearm ownership.

The no massacres claim is usually accompanied by comparison with America. Yet even there the facts contradict the claim. Notwithstanding some high profile mass murders, the rate of US gun deaths over the last thirty years has declined faster (albeit from a higher starting point) than in Australia. And no one bothers to compare us with countries like New Zealand, which continue to have gun laws resembling Australia's pre-Howard laws and which, like us, continue to see falling gun deaths.

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I'm all for debate about gun laws, but let's stick to real facts, not those that become facts because they have been repeated many times.

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About the Author

David Leyonhjelm is the Liberal Democrat Senator for NSW.

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