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After every gun massacre in the United States, gun control advocates hold up Australia as an example of how things could be different. The analogy isn’t perfect, and there is an ongoing debate about how exactly to interpret Australia’s experience. Still, a close look at the evidence supports the view that the country’s gun control policies have been successful—especially when compared to ours.
As I recounted in a Slate story that went viral after the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012, Australia’s government responded to 1996’s Port Arthur massacre—in which 35 people were killed—by enacting sweeping measures aimed at preventing a repeat of that national nightmare. The most dramatic of these was a buyback program in which the government purchased and destroyed more than 600,000 long guns, nearly halving the number of gun-owning households in the country.
The precise effects of those measures can never be fully understood because we can’t study the counterfactual scenario in which no such laws were passed.
Still, the past five years have brought some additional clarity. And one core fact has remained strikingly unchanged: In the 18 years before Port Arthur, Australia witnessed 13 mass shootings, defined as shootings in which five or more people were killed. In the 21 years since, there have been none.
That’s unlikely to continue forever, of course. Already the streak rests on some more or less arbitrary distinctions, such as the choice of five fatalities (not counting the shooter) as the threshold for a “mass shooting.” A 2002 shooting spree at a Melbourne University injured five but killed only two, so it doesn’t get counted. Nor does the 2014 Sydney siege, in which three people including the gunman died and four others were injured by gunfire from police. And a mass stabbing that left eight children dead in 2014 was a reminder that gun massacres aren’t the only kind. Eventually, odds are there will be another shooting that claims five lives.
Meanwhile, researchers have delved into other trends around gun violence in Australia to try to get a better picture of just what the policies have achieved, and what they haven’t.
Identifying what has happened to gun violence in the country since 1996 is the easy part: It has gone down, down, down. Not only are mass shootings down (to zero, by at least one definition), but total firearm deaths are way down, too—both homicides and, especially, suicides.
The hard part is figuring out just how much of these trends to attribute to the gun buyback and related gun-control policies. That’s complicated by the fact that non-firearm homicides and suicides have also dropped off in the years since Australia enacted its gun control laws.
In my 2012 Slate piece, I weighed the available evidence, drawing on a handful of studies that were available at the time, along with a persuasive analysis of the data by Dylan Matthews, then of the Washington Post’s Wonkblog. At the time, the consensus view was that the policies had played a significant role in both preventing mass shootings and the decline in gun homicides. A study suggesting that these declines represented a mere continuation of pre-existing trends was largely dismissed, both in the academic literature and in Matthews’ and my stories.
The years since have yielded more studies, including a peer-reviewed 2016 paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association that probably now stands as the most authoritative on the topic. That study, by researchers at the University of Sydney and Macquarie University, is careful in its conclusions, and is worth reading in full. It finds that, while the policies correlated strongly with declines in firearm suicides and homicides, the corresponding declines in non-firearm suicides and homicides preclude a definitive assignment of causality. The authors do have some theories that point in the direction of suggesting that the policies were at least partly responsible for the declines. For instance, the declines in non-firearm homicides could be partly due to improved life-saving technologies (including the proliferation of cellphones, which lead to faster emergency response) for attacks involving less lethal weapons. But the researchers can’t prove anything. In other words, we know for sure that wonderful things happened after Australia passed its tighter gun laws, but we don’t know for sure that they happened as a direct result of those laws.
It’s worth remembering, however, that the gun buyback’s primary goal wasn’t reducing homicides or suicides by firearm. Its goal was to reduce the likelihood of something like the Port Arthur massacre happening again, by restricting the availability of assault weapons designed to take lives on a mass scale. And while we can never say “never,” the passage of 21 years without a major gun massacre in Australia is about as clear a sign of success as any of the policy’s advocates could have hoped for.
By contrast, the United States has suffered hundreds of mass shootings over that same time period. In 2015, the country averaged more than a mass shooting per day, albeit by a looser definition of the term. (The FBI’s definition requires four victims other than the perpetrator, killed indiscriminately. But some organizations use a definition that requires only four people besides the perpetrator to be wounded by gunfire, not killed.)
In short, it’s fair to quibble over exactly how much of the Australian miracle is attributable directly to the laws that country passed following the 1996 Port Arthur massacre. It’s also fair to question how such policies could possibly be enacted in the United States, with its Second Amendment protections and deeply influential pro-gun lobby.
But let’s not forget the big picture: The United States is a country with a serious mass shooting problem. Australia no longer is.