Australia is the envy of many nations because of its 1996 gun law reforms. These were introduced in the wake of Port Arthur, which was then the world’s second largest peace-time gun massacre in recent history. It has since been surpassed eight times
Australia had 13 mass fatal shootings (5 or more dead, not including the perpetrator) in the 18 years prior to the 1996 law reforms. It took 22 years until that period was interrupted by the family mass shooting in Margaret River, Western Australia when 8 members of a family were murdered by a grandfather.
The gun lobby has tried to talk down the 22 year absence of mass shootings by arguing that these events were rare before, and rare after, so it was impossible to argue anything other than that we were simply looking at a continuation of rare events and that nothing could be made of the 22 year gap.
In 2018, we put that proposition under the statistical microscope in a paper published in Annals of Internal Medicine, (full text and supplement) a high-ranking research journal. We tested this “rare events are still rare” dismissal. Using the eye-watering mathematics brought to our team by a senior maths academic at the University of Sydney, we tested the likelihood of rare events being truly rare (insurance companies have long used these techniques to assess risk and set premiums). We tested the null hypothesis that the rate of mass shootings in Australia in the 18 years before the 1996 law reforms remained unchanged in the 22 years afterwards. We set out to see if the very obvious, was indeed very obvious.
We concluded the probability of this 22 year absence occurring following the pattern in the preceding 18 years was about 1 in 200,000. That’s odds slightly worse than a ticket holder winning first prize in the NSW $5 jackpot lottery: 1 in 180,000. Or as I once heard a famous statistics professor telling a gormless student “about the same odds of winning if you didn’t have a ticket”.
Before 1996, approximately 3 mass shootings took place every 4 years. Had they continued at this rate, approximately 16 incidents would have been expected since then by February 2018 (the date when we wrote our paper).
This Washington Post special report chronicles the mayhem of mass shootings in the USA.
Ever since the reforms, the gun lobby in Australia has sought to erode the 1996 reforms, which were immensely popular with citizens across the country.
Three political parties intent on eroding our gun laws
In the NSW state elections being held on March 23, three parties which want to introduce major diluting reforms to our gun laws are hoping to get candidates elected, particularly in the Upper House, where they may hold significant power as a voting bloc.
David Leyonhjelm’s Liberal Democrats are unashamedly supportive of putting almost every aspect of our gun laws through the shredder. They want no restrictions on semi-automatic weapons, the sort favoured by mass killers because they can kill so many people so quickly; they want to do away with gun registration so that weapons could be traded as simply as you might sell an unwanted toy on eBay; children should be able to own guns (with no minimum age specified – why not buy an M16 for your 4 year old? None would ever take them to school to settle a grudge as happens with frightening regularity in the US: 89 school shootings since 2015 ); no restrictions on carry concealed weapons; and a loud hint that overthrowing governments by armed uprising might be a great idea (“Ownership of firearms is also the only practical means by which the people can retain any semblance of ensuring that governments remain their servants and not vice versa.”)
This is a party which retweeted a US tweet after the Charlestown church massacre, urging shooters to take their guns to church on Sunday as a mark of respect.
Pauline Hanson’s One Nation
One Nation’s gun policy is also on the front row of the grid of dreadfulness, channelling Trumpian views. Almost every one of its 20 policy positions opens up a loophole wide enough to lasso an open-cut coalmine. These were clearly penned by interests wanting to see practically every platform of our gun laws eviscerated. An assumption runs through many of these that it is criminals with a record who should be kept away from guns. A minority of Australia’s mass victim killers had any histories of violence. Hanson’s policy wold not have kept the Port Arthur killer from acquiring his weapons.
The NSW One Nation lead candidate, Mark Latham, appears to have some sympathy for some aspects of gun control, as revealed in this interview (warning do not listen after consuming food). If Latham follows the trajectory of several previous elected One Nation members, he’s likely to defect from Hanson’s party soon after being elected. But his visceral hatred of Labor may seem him side with pro-gun cross benchers, despite his apparent views.
Shooters and Fishers
Needless to say, the Shooters and Fishers party is very pro-gun. While it does not support allowing the open return on semi-automatics, it wants to bring back self-protection as a reason to own a firearm. This was explicitly disallowed in the 1996 reforms and if reintroduced would see a tsunami of guns being purchased all for the apparent noble virtue of protecting one’s family from malevolent intruders. No one has ever better deflated the utter stupidity of this argument than Australian comedian Jim Jeffries here and here, as of today watched by 16.127 million viewers.
This study of 27 high income countries found a very high positive correlation between guns per capita per country and the rate of firearm-related deaths (0.80) and no significant correlation between guns per capita per country and crime rate (0.33.) Lots of guns do not make nations safer.
I expect that few reading this blog would ever vote for any of the three parties above. But I also expect that many of you will have friends, colleagues or relatives who might. Please forward the link to this blog to them. For 99%, this will achieve nothing, But if a tiny proportion were somehow unaware of what gun control policies they were planning to vote for, and given pause when they are made aware, this could be important.
Footnote: Our 2016 JAMA paper looking at data on gun death trends in Australia 20 years after the 1996 reforms is here. And here is our detailed response the profoundly silly “yes, but…” objections made about our work by US researcher Gary Kleck, locker room pin up boy at gun clubs around the US.