Gun control: Exploring the Australian model
Andrew Sveda | Monday, September 9, 2019
Australia has long been the go-to case study of the gun control debate. And why not? After only one mass shooting in 1996 (Port Arthur) did Parliament actually do something, rolling out sweeping gun control legislation (the NFA) including a mandatory gun buyback program and a ban on automatic and semi-automatic rifles and pump-action shotguns. Twenty-three years later, Aussies have seen less than a handful of mass shootings. And not just that: total homicides have dropped nearly 50% since 1995. Maybe that’s why it’s become a poster child and model for progressive politicians and journalists alike. What’s so wrong with that? A lot, actually.
The implicit and essential assumption by advocates of this policy is that pre-1996 Australia and present-day America are strikingly similar. This couldn’t be further from the truth. In reality, Australia’s homicide rate has always been significantly lower than that of America’s, with the 1995 U.S. rate being 4.5 times greater than 1995 Australia’s. But more misleading is the fact that Australia never had a notable problem with mass shootings — its rate for such events being so close to zero even before Port Arthur that researchers have found it “hard or impossible to detect” a correlation between the NFA and mass shootings in the country, bringing into question not just the law’s applicability to the U.S. but its effectiveness in Australia itself. To this point, the fact that New Zealand — virtually identical to Australia in almost all respects — did not institute any major gun legislation yet continued to experience the same per capita rate of mass shootings as Australia prior to and after Port Arthur is especially crippling to the narrative.
If not mass shootings, what about the homicide rate, then? The fact is that homicides were already trending downward by 1996, and the subsequent decline in firearm homicides was only marginally greater than that of pre-1996 but too small to be “statistically significant.” Even more dismal is that the non-firearm homicide rate, increasing prior to the NFA, actually decreased at a greater rate than firearm homicides, undermining any remaining evidence for causation. Plus, a 2015 review uncovered that not a single peer-reviewed study on this topic “found a significant impact [from the NFA] on…firearm homicide.” When you actually take time to look at the numbers, it becomes apparent that Australia’s aggressive gun laws didn’t reduce bloodshed and atrocities (and suicide, too, per a 2018 study). It’s time for progressives to retire the false Australia narrative. It lacks sufficient statistical backing and ultimately rests on the fallacy that correlation equals causation. This must end.
It’s even more important, however, that we deal with the underlying premise that made Australia a talking point in the first place: the rather misguided concept that simply more guns means more homicides. If such relationships were true, why would Wyoming boast a lower firearm homicide rate than Connecticut and Massachusetts, and why is California’s rate roughly equivalent to that of Texas and actually greater than West Virginia’s despite fundamental divides in gun ownership and legislation? The issue of gun violence is far more nuanced and complex than simple tag lines suggest, and they hold us back from truthful and productive dialogue. This must change, too.
But beyond these misguided mantras is something that unsettles me even more about gun control advocates’ invocation of Australia: the radical implications such a policy would have on American gun rights. That’s because the NFA implemented a ban on “all semi-automatic[,] self-loading and pump action longarms” while also instituting a mandatory buyback program that ultimately confiscated 650,000 newly-prohibited firearms from its citizens. Anyone wanting to purchase a new firearm would now have to be deemed a “fit and proper person” while also providing a “genuine reason” for wanting to buy a gun; “personal protection” would no longer be an adequate explanation for buying a firearm. It’s not hard to understand just how flagrantly unconstitutional such a policy would be if enacted in America.
In addition to the obvious problems, Australia’s weapons ban would be exceedingly illogical here due to the overwhelming volume of these weapons and that constitutional experts have suggested such a ban would infringe upon the Second Amendment as they (semi-automatic rifles and pump action shotguns) are neither, to borrow from Justice Scalia in D.C. v. Heller, uniquely “dangerous” or “unusual.”
And instituting Australia’s mandatory buyback in the States would be far worse. The amount of guns confiscated in Australia would be equivalent to the Federal government seizing up to 131 million guns from the hands of Americans. Such a policy, as we have seen from Australia, is not at all likely to reduce homicides or mass shootings, but the larger problem is that such a government confiscation flies in the face of the foundational basis for the Second Amendment, and, if it were to be implemented, Americans — unwilling to surrender their guns to the government — would face the dark and all too possible reality of tremendous carnage or even a second civil war if we even came close to replicating the NFA.
But of course those who call Americans to look at Australia as an example don’t go into how actually radical it was or how dystopian it would be to our society. After all, such elaboration would bring about a clamor from some right-wingers about how “the government is going to take your guns.” Democratic politicians have longed feared these (all too often unsubstantiated) accusations — until now. Cory Booker has explicitly called for “a buyback program and a mandatory turnover” of assault weapons; Beto O’Rourke has done the same. When asked by Anderson Cooper how he would respond “to gun owners out there who say … a Biden Administration means they’re gonna come for my guns,” the supposed “moderate” frontrunner responded with an emphatic “Bingo, you’re right if you have an assault weapon.” Although he later suggested that it wouldn’t be “legal” to confiscate them, it’s hard to not get this idea from what he’s saying here.
These instances represent fundamental — and dangerous — shifts in rhetoric. It suggests rapidly changing views on the Second Amendment’s role in our Constitution and our society and the growing (and concerning) belief of a diminished, increasing irrelevant Second Amendment in a modern, 21st century world (it’s all but). This very crucial debate at this juncture in our history deserves our utmost attention and involvement. At its heart, it deals with how we interpret the Constitution, our rights and the relationship between the government and the citizen.
At the same time, it’s imperative to remember these issues are never black and white, never all or nothing. Once we understand that, we can have genuine discussions and not just entrenched debates. But to reach healthy dialogue, we need to abandon the Australia argument and shallow tag-lines. They oversimplify a complex issue, only angering people on both sides and inhibiting true progress and legislation that can save lives.
Now it’s our turn to do something about it. Go research the subject. Discuss possible solutions with those you disagree with on campus. Act on your findings and beliefs. This is what will move us a little bit closer towards a safer, more harmonious world, but it requires that you and I step up to meet the daunting task before us.
Andrew Sveda is a freshman at Notre Dame from Pittsburgh intending to major in Political Science. Besides politics, Andrew enjoys acting, playing the piano and tennis. He can be reached at [email protected] or @SvedaAndrew on Twitter.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.