In the wake of mass shootings, the inevitable gun control debate centers on an unfavorable comparison of the United States and Australia. Why, gun control advocates, ask, can't America respond to tragedy like Australia did after the 1996 Port Arthur massacre?
Just 12 days after 35 people were killed and 23 injured in a rampage at the Port Arthur historic site, the Australian government responded by enacting the National Firearms Agreement; a legislative package that tightly restricted private gun ownership and, most notably, included a gun buyback program that took anywhere from 650,000 and 1 million guns out of private hands.
Or did it? Research from the University of Sydney finds that the 1 million guns seized from the public in 1996 have been replaced by 1.026 million new guns. The black market for firearms, then, has been booming:
"By 2015 the arms trade had broken all previous records, and last financial year Australia ported 104,000 firearms," said University of Sydney Associate Professor Philip Alpers, founding director of GunPolicy.org.
He said the 1996 firearms laws resulted in a "gun swap" as banned rapid-fire rifles and shotguns were replaced with newly imported single-shot firearms.
"Australia claims to have 'solved the gun problem' yet this could be a temporary illusion," he said.
There is also substantial debate as to whether the National Firearms Agreement actually reduced Australia's homicide rate. In four of the first six years after the law passed, Australia's homicide total was actually higher than in 1996.
While the homicide rate did decline from 1996 to 2013, it is unclear whether the National Firearms Agreement was the reason, primarily because Australia had already seen a dramatic drop in homicides before the law took effect.
The Australian Institute of Criminology determined in 2003 that "the decline in firearm-related homicides (and suicides, as well) began before the 1996 law was enacted."
In 2007, researchers Jeanine Baker and Samara McPhedran determined that "when compared with observed values, firearm suicide was the only parameter the [National Firearms Agreement] may have influenced, although societal factors could also have influenced observed changes."
A year later, University of Melbourne professors Wang-Sheng Lee and Sandy Suardi found that "there is little evidence to suggest that [the National Firearms Agreement] had any significant effects on firearm homicides." Additionally, "the evidence so far suggests that in the Australian context, the high expenditure incurred to fund the 1996 gun buyback has not translated into any tangible reductions in terms of firearm deaths."
Moreover, the drop in homicide rates may be due in larger measure to the dramatic increase in population in Australia over the past decade-plus than in any major reduction in total or gun homicides.
In fact, the gun homicide rate in Australia was 0.2 per 100,000 in 2016. In 1995, the year before the National Firearms Agreement took effect, it was a nearly identical 0.4 per 100,000.
As the Australian Bureau of Statistics noted, while the gun homicide rate was already very low by the time the 1996 gun buyback took effect, the gun suicide rate declined rather precipitously. However, that decline had started nearly two decades before guns were taken off of the streets.
More troubling is the fact that while Australia's gun suicide rate has declined over the past 22 years, its overall suicide rate has actually increased.
This means that Australians have simply taken to using means other than firearms to take their own lives.
Has the National Firearm Agreement therefore succeeded in its stated aim of decreasing the rate of homicides and suicides? Not really.
Both rates were already moving dramatically downward in the years before 1996 and, in the case of gun homicides, the rate continued on the same trajectory--indicating that the buyback wasn't the primary reason for the decline. The decline in the gun suicide rate has been the primary driver of the decline in gun deaths in Australia, and now the country's general suicide rate is dramatically increasing even though Australians aren't using guns to kill themselves.
The bottom line is that while pining for Australian-style gun legislation in America may be tempting, Australia's gun legislation hasn't had nearly the impact on reducing gun violence that it is credited with.