Article Summary: Australia experienced drastic decreases in firearm violence following ban on rapid-firing guns
Citation: Chapman, S, Alpers, P, Agho, K & Jones, M. Australia's 1996 gun law reforms: faster falls in firearm deaths, firearm suicides, and a decade without mass shootings. Injury Prevention 2006;12:365-372
Commentary by: Leslie Carson
In response to a 1996 mass shooting, Australia's state and federal governments enacted uniform gun control laws to prohibit rapid-fire long guns, such as pump-action and semi-automatic rifles and shotguns. The government implemented a firearms buyback and voluntary surrender program for newly prohibited guns; over 700,000 guns were collected (equivalent to about 40 million guns in the U.S).
This observational study assessed whether Australia's 1996 firearm law reforms were associated with changes in rates of mass firearm homicides, total firearm deaths, and firearm homicides and suicides. Firearm death data from 1979-2003 were obtained from the National Injury Surveillance Unit of the Australian Bureau of Statistics. These data were used to calculate population firearm death rates. The trend in firearm death rates from 1979-1996 was compared to the trend from 1997-2003 using negative binomial regression.
From 1979-1996, Australia experienced 13 mass shootings. During the 10.5-year period following firearm law reform, Australia experienced zero mass shootings. Rates of total firearm deaths had been decreasing at an average of 3% per year before the gun reform laws were enacted; after their introduction, these rates decreased by 6% per year during the study period. Similarly, firearm suicides (the largest component of total firearm deaths in Australia) decreased by an average of 3% per year before the 1996 reforms and more than doubled to 7.4% per year from 1997-2003. Both of these changes were significant (p = 0.03 and p = 0.007, respectively). Firearm homicide rates followed a similar pattern before and after 1996; however, this change was not statistically significant. Total homicides rates and total suicide rates both significantly decreased after 1996 (p = 0.05 and p < 0.001). The authors concluded there was no significant method substitution (i.e., using poison instead of a gun) among homicide perpetrators and suicide victims. Interestingly, the rate of unintentional gun deaths significantly increased by 8.5% per year from 1997-2003 (p = 0.001).
The increase in the rate of unintentional gun deaths following the gun law reforms, while small – only 1.4 deaths per 100,000 – is puzzling. The authors could not offer a plausible hypothesis for this increase. Limitations of this study include "missing data" in the form of gun deaths that were classified as being of undetermined intent (n = 200), which may have caused small variations in the results. Other limitations include questions of accuracy and completeness of death certificates. Despite these limitations, the authors argue decreased firearm-related deaths and lack of mass shootings since 1996 clearly support the effectiveness of gun control laws.
Following Australia's 1996 ban on rapid-firing firearms, there have been no mass shootings in the country. Rates of total firearm deaths, total suicides, and total homicides significantly decreased from 1996 to 2003 (all ps ≤ 0.05), yet the rate of unintentional gun deaths significantly increased (p = 0.001) during this period.