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Maybe it won't stop all violent deaths, but a ban on handguns will help

By Simon Chapman - posted Friday, 15 November 2002

Following the Monash University killings, the Australian police ministers' plan to ban most handguns not used in target shooting has smoked out the same claptrap arguments from the gun lobby that insulted the community after Port Arthur. In The Sydney Morning Herald on 11 November, Lisa Oldfield, spokeswoman for gun dealers, fired a volley of blanks in a memorable Canute-like effort to turn the tide of gun law reform.

Her most astonishing statement was "no reasonable person can confuse guns used by criminals as having any relationship to firearms owned by licensed, law-abiding sporting shooters". Call me unreasonable, but the Australian Institute of Criminology website reveals that 25,171 guns were reported stolen between 1994 and 2000 - about 12 a day, with 81 per cent stolen from homes and 14 per cent being handguns.

Like a broken record from 1996, Oldfield provided a series of health problems, comparing their larger death tolls with those from guns, saying we "accept" these other problems and then arguing that we should just leave gun deaths alone because only 60 people are murdered with guns each year. So we should all give up trying to control measles, polio and other now thankfully rare infectious diseases.


Cervical and breast cancer specialists should down tools and work on lung cancer because far more die from smoking. And backyard pool infant drowning? Forget it - only a few dozen a year now.

And then she claimed nothing is being done about road deaths (federal budget expenditure alone, an average of $38.1 million from 1996) and medical accidents (every hospital in the country has expensive quality assurance procedures). Efforts to reduce speed "have done little". So why does Australia have the world's best record of reducing the road toll - 38 per cent between 1988 and 1997?

Oldfield's straw man nonsense is that those who want to prevent gun deaths believe that these would "miraculously stop if all guns were banned", pointing to the failure of other public health control measures to completely eliminate illicit drug use and speeding. With the exception of the amazing track record of immunisation against diseases like smallpox (eliminated) and polio (on the same track), public health workers only dream of eliminating all disease. The main objective is to reduce it.

Perhaps most appalling is her questioning whether the 1996 gun law reforms and buyback saved any lives. After Port Arthur, our police ministers banned semi-automatic and pump-action shotguns preferred in mass killings because of their capacity to fire many rounds quickly and keep police at bay.

In the six years since Port Arthur there have been no incidents in Australia where four or more people were shot. Between 1987 and 1996, 100 people were shot dead in Australia in mass shootings including those at Strathfield, Hoddle and Queen streets in Melbourne, and Port Arthur.

John Howard's leadership on this issue is again magnificent. We should have as much sympathy for Oldfield's Firearm Dealers Association as we should have for job losses among panel beaters as the road toll falls.

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This article was first published in The Sydney Morning Herald on November 12 2002.

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About the Author

Professor Simon Chapman is professor of public health at the University of Sydney and author of Over Our Dead Bodies: Port Arthur and Australia's Fight for Gun Control.

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