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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Gun Control in Australia, Updated

In 2009, we wrote an Ask FactCheck item for readers who wanted to know, “Did gun control in Australia lead to more murders there last year?” The answer at the time was “no,” and that’s still the case.

In fact, the most recent government report on crime trends in Australia says, “Homicide in Australia has declined over the last 25 years. The current homicide incidence rate is the lowest on record in the past 25 years.”

We thought it was time to update our 2009 article on Australian gun laws, because that story — which is now more than eight years old — has seen a sudden spike in traffic as a result of the horrific gun massacre at an outdoor country music concert in Las Vegas.

As reported by the New York Times, the gunman, Stephen Craig Paddock, 64, used semi-automatic weapons outfitted with a “bump stock” device that allowed him to quickly fire multiple rounds at concertgoers from his luxury suite on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino. He killed nearly 60 people and wounded more than 500 others.

In 1996, Australia passed the National Firearms Agreement after a mass shooting in Tasmania in April of that year. In that incident, a 28-year-old man, armed with a semi-automatic rifle, shot and killed 35 people, and injured 18 others, in what was known as the Port Arthur Massacre.

Under the 1996 law, Australia banned certain semi-automatic, self-loading rifles and shotguns, and imposed stricter licensing and registration requirements. It also instituted a mandatory buyback program for firearms banned by the 1996 law.

During the buyback program, Australians sold 640,000 prohibited firearms to the government, and voluntarily surrendered about 60,000 non-prohibited firearms. In all, more than 700,000 weapons were surrendered, according to a Library of Congress report on Australian gun policy. One study says that the program reduced the number of guns in private hands by 20 percent.

In 2002, Australia further tightened gun laws, restricting the caliber, barrel length and capacity for sport shooting handguns.

Since 1996, the number and rate of homicides — defined as murder and manslaughter — has fallen. Below is the chart that appeared in our 2009 Ask FactCheck article, showing a 20 percent decline in homicides from 1996 to 2007.

We wrote at the time: “Have murders increased since the gun law change, as claimed? Actually, Australian crime statistics show a marked decrease in homicides since the gun law change. According to the Australian Institute of Criminology, a government agency, the number of homicides in Australia did increase slightly in 1997 and peaked in 1999, but has since declined to the lowest number on record in 2007, the most recent year for which official figures are available.”

The crime statistics above were taken from the AIC’s annual report called “Australian crime: facts and figures 2008.” The most recent report, “Australian crime: facts and figures 2014,” which was released last year, shows that homicides remained low through 2013.

The previous low in 2007 was surpassed in 2010, when the number of homicides dropped to 261. The numbers have varied since then, but there were 23 percent fewer homicides in 2013 than there were in 1996 — a slight improvement from our last report, which covered a 12-year period ending in 2007.

The chart below illustrates the number of homicides in Australia since our 2009 article.

With Australia’s population steadily increasing, the nation’s homicide incident rate has fallen even more than the number of homicides — from 1.6 per 100,000 in 1995-96 to 1 per 100,000 in 2013-2014, according to a government report on crime trends. That was the lowest homicide incident rate at the time in 25 years, as we mentioned earlier.

The number of firearm-related homicides also has dropped substantially since the 1996 gun law was enacted.

“The number of homicide incidents involving a firearm decreased by 57 percent between 1989-90 and 2013-14,” the government crime trends report says. “Firearms were used in 13 percent of homicide incidents (n=32) in 2013-14. In 1989-90 it was 24 percent (n=75) of incidents.”

Is this evidence that Australia’s laws reduced gun violence and homicides? In our 2009 story, we wrote that there was no consensus on that point.

For example, we wrote that a 2003 AIC study looked at rates of firearm-related deaths between 1991 and 2001 and found that some of the decline in firearm-related homicides (and suicides, as well) began before the 1996 law was enacted.

On the other hand, a 2006 analysis by scholars at the University of Sydney concluded that gun fatalities decreased more quickly after the gun law passed. “Australia’s 1996 gun law reforms were followed by more than a decade free of fatal mass shootings, and accelerated declines in firearm deaths, particularly suicides,” the authors of that study wrote.

In 2011, David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, co-authored a paper that reviewed the available studies, as of 2011, on the effect of Australia’s buyback program on firearm deaths. He wrote that “many studies … found strong evidence for a beneficial effect of the law.”

Hemenway and his Harvard colleague and co-author, Mary Vriniotis, summarized the evidence in support of the theory that the buyback program saved lives:

  • “While 13 gun massacres (the killing of 4 or more people at one time) occurred in Australia in the 18 years before the NFA, resulting in more than one hundred deaths, in the 14 following years (and up to the present), there were no gun massacres.”
  • “In the seven years before the NFA (1989-1995), the average annual firearm suicide death rate per 100,000 was 2.6 (with a yearly range of 2.2 to 2.9); in the seven years after the buyback was fully implemented (1998-2004), the average annual firearm suicide rate was 1.1 (yearly range 0.8 to 1.4).”
  • “In the seven years before the NFA, the average annual firearm homicide rate per 100,000 was .43 (range .27 to .60) while for the seven years post NFA, the average annual firearm homicide rate was .25 (range .16 to .33).”
  • “[T]he drop in firearm deaths was largest among the type of firearms most affected by the buyback.”

The authors, however, noted that “no study has explained why gun deaths were falling, or why they might be expected to continue to fall.” That poses difficulty in trying to definitively determine the impact of the law, they write.

“Whether or not one wants to attribute the effects as being due to the law, everyone should be pleased with what happened in Australia after the NFA — the elimination of firearm massacres (at least up to the present) and an immediate, and continuing, reduction in firearm suicide and firearm homicide,” the authors write.

Update, Oct. 6: A reader took issue with our chart for homicides in Australia from 2008 to 2013, because we didn’t use a zero-based vertical axis. That’s a fair point. We have updated this article to replace that chart with one that uses a zero-based vertical axis. 

We also now provide a new chart (see below) that uses a zero-based vertical axis and combines the data from both charts. The new chart covers homicides in Australia from 1996, when the National Firearms Agreement was enacted, through 2013, which is the most recent data available in the annual Australian crime reports.