Australia Proves Something about Guns

The blood’s barely dried on the Orlando mass murder shooting spree, and people on Facebook are already dredging up the New York Times classics claiming that Australia’s gun ban and buyback program eliminated all mass murders forever.

To show that I’m not exaggerating the article’s implications:

In the 18 years before the Port Arthur massacre, there were 12 mass shootings in Australia, according to a 2006 study in the journal Injury Prevention. The deadliest shooting since 1996 occurred last year, when a farmer in New South Wales fatally shot his wife and three children before killing himself.

Notice the sleight of hand. We’re not told how many people actually died in mass shootings in Australia from 1968-1996, just that there were 12 mass shootings. We’re not told how many mass shootings there have been since 1996, just that the deadliest one happened last year and only took 5 lives. If you don’t read it closely, you’d get the impression that Australia has effectively ended mass shootings. But has it?

Actually, it more or less has. Wikipedia has a helpful massacres in Australia page that lays them all out – gun-involved and otherwise – for you. Interestingly, there are as good as none involving civilians before 1971. The overwhelming majority of listings up to that point involve the army killing aboriginals – so the take-home libertarian point writes itself.

In the 1970s, there’s some kind of watershed and the army stops its massacres and everything from there is banal criminality. But it is remarkable how few of the massacres after 1996 involve guns. Before 1996, they pretty much all do. I’m going to arbitrarily not count the Milperra Massacre because it involves a bunch of biker gangs killing each other – i.e. is not really the kind of thing that the public is worried about with mass shootings 1 And on the other side of the 1996 watershed, I’m going to leave out the Snowtown Murders as well, because that also doesn’t fit the profile (it’s more of a serial killing spree – some people killed 12 people over a period of 8 years and dissolved their bodies in acid vats). As a sidenote, it’s really not clear to me how many, if any, of the victims of the Cangai Seige were gunshot victims, but in any case the perpetrators had stockpiled guns that they probably intented to use for a bigger massacre later, so this one counts in the gun column, I think.

Doing that, every incident but one before 1996 was a gun incident of some kind. After 1996, there are still some gun incidents, but they’re only about a third of the total, and they’re much less deadly than the others.

So, at least prima facie, Australia’s gun control measures seem to have been successful at dramatically lowering the number of mass murders involving guns in that country. The standard retort here is that gun crime was already falling in Australia before the ban, so it’s not clear how causative the ban actually is. That’s also true, and it’s a fair point, and it’s one noted by the New York Times article linked above. Discussion on that point is healthy, especially if, as seems likely, Australia is going to be the center point of upcoming discussions about possible gun control regimes for the US. I’m confining this post to the issue of mass shootings, because I’m more interested in the media spin here than anything. Mass shootings galvanize people in a way that ordinary gun crime doesn’t, and it was only a reaction to a mass shooting in Australia that got the gun laws passed at all. The law was in that sense designed to stop mass shootings particularly, and support was drummed up on that basis.

And it seems to have worked. It’s a small dataset, granted, but 14 incidents, 13 involving guns before 1996 and 9 incidents only 3 involving guns after 1996 certainly looks like a success story … at preventing mass shootings.

But there’s another striking pattern that leaps out and grabs you from that data – and that’s that massacres continued after Port Arthur, just that people found other ways to accomplish them. On the list are stabbings, lots of arsons, and attacks with blunt instruments.

Which, I think, illustrates one of the frustrating things about this issue: that it really is focused on gun fetishism. Because the takeaway points from that dataset seem to be:

  1. People will definitely use guns if they can to commit mass murder – that is absolutely the method of choice, HOWEVER

  2. Lack of easy access to guns will not stop a determined killer either; he’ll just find another way

  3. It seems possible (though, there are like bajillions of mitigating factors, so don’t take this as signed and delivered by any means) that sharply restricting access to guns makes a somewhat significant dent in the number of deaths resulting from mass murder, HOWEVER

  4. "Significant" should not be confused with "big," and in any case the number of deaths from mass murder is so small that I don’t see any basis here for such a broad restriction of rights as gun control inevtiably involves.

This is a complicated issue with lots of fraught data on both sides, but my personal takehome point from Australia’s experience is that gun bans are definitely NOT worth it, especially if we’re talking about mass shootings. The law seems to have had some effect, but it cost well over A$500million (that’s just the cost of the tax increase to fund the buyback program, since the Australian Constitution doesn’t allow outright confiscation), and it’s had a negligible effect on overall homicides (an effect estimated to be much less than 1 per 100,000) as well as deaths from mass murder (93 mass murder deaths before Port Arthur, 72 after – a difference of 21).

The 21-person difference in mass homicides from the period 1971-1996 2 and 1996-2016 seems like the kind of thing that would be attributable to the general drop in Australia’s violent crime rate, particularly gun crime rate, that was already observed from the middle of the 1980s. Lots of people like to claim that the firearms law accelerated the trend, which is fine, but you’re still committing yourself, with that position, to the admission that the law saved very few lives, especially so in terms of the mass homicides that it was ostensibly designed to prevent. Some people will take issue with my leaving the Port Arthur victims out of my totals here – which I do because it’s an obvious outlier. If you insist, you can add them to the pre-1996 total, bringing it to a difference of 56 people. It still seems like a silly small number of people to base a guns policy on. Australia had about 24 million people at the last census, so even if you use the 56-person number you’re talking about 0.0002% of the population. If saving lives is your motivation, virtually anything else you could advocate for would be more effective.

To be fair, that’s just limiting it to deaths in mass murder. Obviously, that’s not even remotely the whole of the issue. When you start talking about gun control and the overall homicide rate, it gets a hell of a lot dicier, and gun control arguments, while still not persuasive to me, start to at least sound rational.

But there is simply no way that I can see to make a rational argument for gun control on the basis of preventing mass murder – with the emphasis on murder. What Australia illustrates, when you actually look at it, is what everyone has always said: gun control can be reasonably effective at controlling guns, but it doesn’t seem to do such a great job of preventing violent crime, up to and including homicide. If your goal is to reduce the prevelence of mass shootings, then there’s some evidence from Australia that stricter gun control will achieve your goal. And if your goal is to reduce gun homicide, then there’s plenty of evidence from the UK that super-strict gun control laws will achieve your goal. But no one rational is interested in preventing mass shootings and gun homicide particularly. Surely the goal is reducing homicide. And there, the data on gun control isn’t nearly as convincing.

To put a fine point on it, ask yourself seriously – I mean, just you, with none of your hip friends around to give you shit for having the wrong opinion, just you and your conscience alone in a room talking about policy – if you think that the guy who gunned down 35 people at Port Arthur, directly leading to Australia’s strict gun regime, would have restrained himself if he couldn’t have bought guns? Or would he have committed one of these arson attacks that have become popular in the wake of the law instead? And ask yourself seriously if you think that someone who is determined to kill as many people as he can in a gay disco in Florida would have been stopped by gun laws? It’s particularly clear in the case of a disco that gun laws won’t make a whit of difference. That’s an enclosed, packed area where poison gas and explosives are likely to do the trick much better than guns regardless.

I can’t make myself believe that gun laws would have stopped Martin Bryant at Port Arthur. I can’t make myself believe that gun laws would have stopped Omar Mateen in Orlando. More to the point, neither can any gun control supporter – not if they’re being honest. As I’ve said before, I’m willing to talk gun policy over dinner and data with anyone, but not while he’s worked up over mass shootings. Mass shootings trigger something in people that shuts off their rational mind – which is no doubt why attention-seekers like them so much. Call me old-fashioned, but I want rationality in my politics.

  1. Your mileage may vary. My assumption here is that the reason mass shootings freak people out, and the reason they (irrationally, in my opinion) lead to calls for stricter gun control, is because of the (not at all irrational) supposition that guns are (a) dramatic and (b) make killing easy, so that they allow attention-seekers (whether of the mentally deranged or politically motivated type, it doesn’t matter) access to easy gratification, which would be fine except that this gratification hurts innocents. It’s the fact that mass shootings target random victims that makes them so attractive as propaganda tools for gun control advocates; they prey on people’s fears. Two motorcycle gangs shooting each other doesn’t really fit the profile, obviously. In this case, everyone gets that they weren’t targeting random passers-by. Furthermore, they get that no amount of gun control is going to prevent it. If gangsters feel the need to massacre each other to settle turf war scores, they’ll find ways to do it. Now, I personally transfer that argument to the attention-seekers as well, but I recognize that there are some important differences that require elaboration.

  2. Remember, I’m not counting the army’s massacres of natives; that’s a separate issue that seems to have stopped completely by the 70s

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