As federal lawmakers continue to debate a legislative response to the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, a new study of the two-decade old gun control program in Australia may offer them an instructive example.
A partisan U.S. Senate voted down competing gun control measures in recent days in the aftermath of the shooting deaths of 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla. Although similar measures also failed to pass after other mass shootings, House Democrats held a "sit-in" on Wednesday to demand some action.
In contrast, after a mass shooting in Australia in 1996 where a man used semiautomatic rifles to kill 35 people, the government quickly banned rapid-fire long guns, including those already privately owned. The Australian officals acted with the explicit purpose of reducing mass violence. A buyback program was launched the following year and large penalties were enacted.
A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association by researchers at the University of Sydney found that since the law was changed there have been no mass shooting, defined as five or more victims. The study also found a dramatic decline in firearm deaths, though the study authors couldn’t specifically tie the reduction to the laws.
“We are unaware of any other nation that has enacted such a substantial change in gun laws as has been implemented in Australia,” the authors wrote. “Comparative studies of Australia's experience with broadly comparable nations would provide further evidence of the effects of such law reform.”
An accompanying editorial to the study by a researcher at Johns Hopkins University said it’s highly unlikely the United States would adopt such laws, which are more restrictive than those in any American locality. But lawmakers should use research, as well as input from citizens and professional organizations, in forging a plan to reduce firearm violence, wrote Daniel W. Webster, a professor in the Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Already, he said there is evidence of the effectiveness of state-level policies in reducing gun violence, including handgun purchaser licensing, gun restrictions for domestic violence offenders, gun restrictions for those convicted of violent misdemeanors and gun safe storage laws.
Reducing gun-related homicides to 10 times as high as the rates in Australia, rather than the current rate of 23 times as high, would mean a lot fewer deaths, Webster said.
Australia provides “a useful example of how a nation can come together to forge life-saving policies despite political and cultural divides,” he said.