In 1995-96, I worked as a summer clerk at the Sydney office of law firm Minter Ellison. Each of us was assigned a mentor. Mine was 28-year-old Zoe Hall. Whip-smart, generous and perpetually smiling, Zoe was the perfect mentor. Surrounded by egos and timesheets, I felt like Zoe always had time to chat, and wanted to help me feel welcome in the firm.
That autumn, Zoe took a holiday to Port Arthur. She was filling the car at a petrol station when she was shot by Martin Bryant – the second-last of his 35 victims.
In the decade leading up to the Port Arthur massacre, mass shootings (in which five or more people are killed) had been a regular feature of Australian life. Between 1987 and 1996, a total of 94 victims were killed in mass shootings. Australia averaged a mass shooting every year, with places such as Strathfield, Hoddle Street and Canley Vale becoming synonymous with gun violence.
Then, after the massacre, Australia changed its gun laws. Prime Minister John Howard – with the full support of then-Opposition Leader Kim Beazley – initiated a buyback that reduced the stock of guns by about one-fifth, and significantly restricted nationwide gun ownership.
But did it save lives? Over the past two decades, the U.S. National Rifle Association and its allies have carried out an ongoing campaign to discredit Australia’s 1996 reforms. So it’s worth reviewing what we know about the policy’s impact on gun deaths.
First, there’s mass shootings. Prior to the gun buyback, mass shootings were an annual occurrence. Since 1996, Australia has experienced just one event that fits the definition. In Lockhart, NSW last year, Geoff Hunt killed his wife and their three children before turning the gun on himself. The rarity of mass shootings is almost certainly a direct result of the gun buyback.
Second, there’s gun homicides. In academic articles co-authored with Wilfrid Laurier University’s Christine Neill, we looked at the rate at which gun homicides fell after the buyback, and at the states which saw the most significant fall. We found that the firearms homicide rate fell more sharply after the buyback, and that it fell most in states where more firearms were bought back.
Third, gun suicides. Statistically, the person most likely to kill you with a gun is yourself, so Christine Neill and I also looked at the impact of the buyback on firearms suicide rates. Again, we found that the firearms suicide rates fell more rapidly after the buyback, and that there was a strong correlation between the share of weapons bought back and the drop in suicide rates. For example, the greatest reduction in weapons occurred in Tasmania, which was also the jurisdiction that saw the biggest drop in firearms suicide. Meanwhile, the smallest reduction in firearms per person was in Canberra, which also had the smallest drop in the firearms suicide rate.
Overall, Christine Neill and I estimate that the Australian gun buyback saved at least 200 lives per year – mostly suicides. For a policy that saved this many lives, governments would typically be willing to pay at least half a billion dollars every year. Because the one-off cost of the buyback was about that much, the policy has paid for itself many times over since 1996.
It’s no surprise that the NRA persist in trying to discredit the Australian gun buyback. In 2000, the NRA ran advertisements on US television, fabricating statistics about Australian crime rates. NRA President Charlton Heston refused requests from Attorney-General Daryl Williams to correct the ads.
Fifteen years later, the NRA’s relationship with the truth remains as loose as ever. Their hardline stance against sensible gun control reflects the extreme nature of the NRA – an organisation that campaigned against armour-piercing bullets (so called ‘cop killers’), and went ahead with its annual convention in Colorado just days after the school shootings in Columbine.
The NRA’s real fear isn’t progressives like me. It’s that US conservatives will follow the example of Australian conservatives such as John Howard and Tim Fischer. A proliferation of weapons in US bedside drawers, glove compartments and teenagers’ waistbands is a key reason why 30 Americans a day are killed by guns.
The legacy of Port Arthur victims like Zoe Hall was to show the world a smarter way: gun laws that allow farmers and sporting shooters to get weapons when needed, but prevent the proliferation of weapons in our homes. There is a better way to control guns, and the Australian gun buyback has a great deal to teach America.