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Tight gun controls: the most powerful weapon

By Philip Alpers and Simon Chapman - posted Thursday, 4 May 2006

Just over ten years ago at Port Arthur, Martin Bryant killed 20 innocent people with his first 29 bullets, all in the space of 90 seconds in the Broad Arrow Cafe and an adjacent souvenir shop.

This lone "pathetic social misfit" (the judge's words) was empowered to achieve his record final toll of 35 people dead and 18 seriously wounded with a type of gun openly sold by law-abiding firearm dealers as an "assault weapon".

No more. Attitudes to firearms and gun laws changed almost overnight. After a decade of very public gun massacres - Queen and Hoddle streets in Melbourne and at Strathfield Plaza - people had overwhelmingly had enough of anyone with a grudge gaining easy, mostly legal, access to weapons designed expressly to kill a lot of people in a very short time.


Just 12 days after the Port Arthur shootings John Howard's first major act of leadership, and by far his most popular in his first year as prime minister, was to announce nationwide gun law reform. The new laws specifically addressed mass shootings, banning rapid-fire rifles and shotguns.

In the 1996-97 Australian firearms buyback, 643,726 of the newly prohibited guns were purchased by the Government from owners at market value, funded by a small surcharge on the Medicare levy. Tens of thousands of gun owners also voluntarily surrendered non-prohibited firearms without compensation.

In all, more than 700,000 guns were removed from the community and destroyed. No other nation had ever attempted anything on this scale.

So, 10 years later, can we see a difference? Resoundingly, yes. The results are in: Australia's tightened gun controls have been followed by remarkable reductions in gun deaths.

In the decade up to and including the Port Arthur event, Australia experienced 11 mass shootings, which are defined as taking five or more victims. One hundred people were shot dead and another 52 wounded. In the 10 years since Port Arthur and the new gun laws, not one mass shooting has occurred in Australia. For this reason alone Australia is a safer place.

But for each Australian killed in a mass shooting in the past 17 years, 80 have died by gunshot in less high-profile events, many of them in family violence. It is here, in the day-to-day tragedy of firearms-related homicide and suicide, that Australia's new restrictions and, perhaps equally importantly, changing attitudes to guns and gun owners, can plausibly claim to have had the most effect.


Even before Port Arthur, gun-related deaths - suicides, homicides and unintentional shootings - were declining slowly. But the rate of decline accelerated markedly after the tragedy.

From 1979 to 1996, 11,110 Australians died by gunshot, with an annual average of 617. In the seven years after new gun laws were announced (1997-2003), the yearly average almost halved, to 331.

With firearm homicide - the gun deaths that attract the most attention - the downward trend has been even more dramatic. In the same two periods, the average annual number of gun homicides fell from 93 to 56.

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Article edited by Melanie Olding.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

First published in the Sydney Morning Herald on April 27, 2006.

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About the Authors

Philip Alpers is Adjunct Associate Professor at the School of Public Health, The University of Sydney. He edits Gun Policy News, the daily international firearm injury prevention news service, and recently published Gun-running in Papua New Guinea: from arrows to assault weapons in the Southern Highlands.

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.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Philip Alpers
All articles by Simon Chapman

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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