“We know that other countries in response to one mass shooting have managed to craft laws that almost eliminate mass shootings. Friends of ours, allies of ours, Great Britain, Australia, countries like ours. So we know there are ways to prevent it.” — PRESIDENT OBAMA, OCT. 1, 2015
Politics nowadays are dominated by what gets attention, because what gets attention spreads the fastest and furthest. This is the dark side of social media and 24/7 news, and one event in particular in the firearms world is ground zero for this phenomenon – mass shootings.
In the wake of a mass shooting, politicians who already dislike law-abiding Americans owning guns use the tragedy to push for additional gun laws, irrespective of the existing laws already broken. This is done when emotions are at their highest (and thus rational thinking at its lowest), usually under the auspices of enacting gun laws like those in the U.K. and Australia. President Obama’s former Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said it best:
“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”
Careful analysis of these countries’ gun control experiments actually depicts a more nuanced picture of gun policy and crime. In fact, there is reason to believe that gun control may have actually not had much of an impact on crime in either country – but this sort of critical thinking takes concerted effort, and who has time for such things when politics today are less about sound, long-term policy and more about sensationalizing another’s tragedy to advance your agenda?
Below is a guide to help American gun rights activists understand the history of gun registration and gun control efforts in the U.K. and Australia, the two countries which anti-gun politicians often cite as muses for their proposed laws.
Events That Led to Gun Laws in Australia
On April 28, 1996, Australia experienced a national tragedy. A deranged murderer, Martin Bryant, went on a rampage and killed 35 people in cold blood. In response to this atrocity, known as the Port Arthur massacre, the Australian government undertook a heavy-handed gun control campaign. This included a mandatory buyback program where Australian citizens had to turn over 650,000 “assault weapons” to the government. This program was followed up by a subsequent buyback program in 2003.
At the center of Australia’s gun control policy following the Port Arthur massacre was the National Firearms Agreement of 1996. Although international media outlets portray the 1996 NFA as a ban, it was actually a draconian form of gun control that still allowed for gun ownership, albeit to a very limited degree. The only real bans that took place were ones targeting so-called “assault weapons” – long-guns such as rifles and shotguns. Handguns were still accessible to the public, but were subject to stiff restrictions.
Britain’s first gun control package passed in the modern era was the Firearms Act of 1920. Fearing a growing wave of unrest in the aftermath of World War I, British politicians passed this gun control law despite scant evidence showing that crime was on the rise during that time period.
The Firearms Act of 1920 was only the beginning – as the 20th century was a time of progressive government growth in all facets of life, and the U.K. was no exception. After the enactment of the Firearms Act of 1920, the British government passed gradually stricter laws in 1937, 1968, and 1988. Despite having comprehensive gun control at the national level, the homicide rate in Great Britain slowly grew from the 1950s into early 2005.
When it came to mass shootings, British gun control efforts proved futile. Shooting rampages in Hungerford, England and Dunblane, Scotland received international attention, which put the island nation at a major public policy crossroads. Like its Australian counterpart, the United Kingdom opted for stiffer gun control.
After the Hungerford massacre, the government responded with the passage of the Firearms Act of 1988, a new gun control measure that placed draconian restrictions on rifles and shotguns. The Dunblane massacre prompted the British government to ban the possession of handguns by passing the Firearms Act of 1997.
Arguably the most popular example of foreign gun control, advocates of tougher gun laws routinely cite Australia and its 1996 NFA law as an example of gun control causing crime to fall. Although Australia is a nation characterized by a low degree of crime, there’s more to Australia’s low crime rates than gun control.
Homicide rates have been declining across Western Europe, Canada, and the U.S. since the 1990s. Australia was not exempt from this trend, and in fact, Australia’s falling crime was essentially the norm for industrialized countries in the West. Homicides were already a rare occurrence before the passage of the 1996 NFA. In sum, we can barely learn anything meaningful from slight changes in Australian homicide rates around this time.
In Why Crime Rates Are Falling Throughout the Western World, Michael Tonry argues the following:
“There is now general agreement, at least for developed English-speaking countries and western Europe, that homicide patterns have moved in parallel since the 1950s. The precise timing of the declines has varied, but the common pattern is apparent. Homicide rates increased substantially from various dates in the 1960s, peaked in the early 1990s or slightly later, and have since fallen substantially.”
This same trend of declining violence was on display in the United States. American homicide rates reached a 51-year low in 2014. During this time period, there wasn’t a gun control measure as comprehensive as Australia’s NFA in America that we can point to in explaining this decline. In fact, American gun ownership per capita increased by 56 percent from 1993 to 2013. This was accompanied by a gun violence decrease of 49 percent. Correlation is not causation, but this goes to show the explanations behind crime rates are complex and are not necessarily about passing a so-called gun control “fix.”
According to gun researcher John Lott, homicide rates in Australia have been on a downtrend since 1969. During this timeframe, the only time homicide rates increased was from 1998 to 1999, not long after the NFA was passed. However, Ryan McMaken argues that Australian crime data is very spotty. He contends that the data is not very reliable because crime was such a non-issue that the government did not prioritize recording it. McMaken provides further context:
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