Politics & Policy

Australia’s 1996 Gun Confiscation Didn’t Work – And it Wouldn’t Work in America

Sitting atop some results of the Australia gun-buyback program, September 8, 1996 (William West/AFP/Getty)

Within hours of the gunfire falling silent on the campus of Umpqua Community College in Oregon Thursday, President Obama stepped up to a podium and declared that America should follow the path of our Anglosphere cousins to reduce gun violence.

“We know that other countries, in response to one mass shooting, have been able to craft laws that almost eliminate mass shootings,” the president said. “Friends of ours, allies of ours — Great Britain, Australia, countries like ours. So we know there are ways to prevent it.”

“Australia” is Obama’s preferred euphemism for that most cherished of gun-control ideals: mass confiscation of the citizenry’s weapons.

You will notice that the president doesn’t exactly spell out what following Australia’s model would entail. He speaks instead of “commonsense gun-control legislation,” “closing the gun-show loophole,” and “universal background checks.”

In the last 24 hours, New York magazine, CNN, and NBC have also sung the virtues of the Australian model.

But the Australian 1996 National Agreement on Firearms was not a benign set of commonsense gun-control rules: It was a gun-confiscation program rushed through the Australian parliament just twelve days after a 28-year-old man killed 35 people with a semi-automatic rifle in the Tasmanian city of Port Arthur. The Council of Foreign relations summarizes the Aussie measure nicely:

The National Agreement on Firearms all but prohibited automatic and semiautomatic assault rifles, stiffened licensing and ownership rules, and instituted a temporary gun buyback program that took some 650,000 assault weapons (about one-sixth of the national stock) out of public circulation. Among other things, the law also required licensees to demonstrate a “genuine need” for a particular type of gun and take a firearm safety course.

The council’s laudatory section on Australian gun-control policy concludes that “many [read: gun-control activists] suggest the policy response in the wake of Port Arthur could serve as a model for the United States.”

Two questions should be asked and answered: (1) Did the post–Port Arthur laws lead to a clear reduction of gun violence, and (2) What would an American version of the “Australian model” look like?

Gun-control activists claim that the Australian model directly resulted in a pronounced fall in the gun-suicide rate and the gun-homicide rate. But these claims are disputable.

In August, Vox’s German Lopez wrote a piece that included a chart attempting to show a causal relationship between the Australian gun-confiscation regime and a reduction in the Australian suicide rate. “When countries reduced access to guns, they saw a drop in the number of firearm suicides,” Lopez wrote.

I noted at the time that:

While the chart does show a steady decline in gun-related suicides, the reduction occurred at the same time as an overall reduction in the Australian suicide rate. What’s more, firearm-related suicides had been declining in Australia for nearly ten years before the 1996 restrictions on gun ownership.

Vox’s own chart does not appear to show a causal link between gun control and a reduction in suicide rates in Australia.

Moreover, a look at other developed countries with very strict gun-control laws (such as Japan and South Korea) shows that the lack of guns does not lead to a reduced suicide rate. Unfortunately, people who want to kill themselves often find a way to do so — guns or no guns.

Did the Australian model at least reduce gun-related homicides?

That is hotly disputed.

University of Melbourne researchers Wang-Sheng Lee and Sandy Suardi concluded their 2008 report on the matter with the statement, “There is little evidence to suggest that [the Australian mandatory gun-buyback program] had any significant effects on firearm homicides.”

“Although gun buybacks appear to be a logical and sensible policy that helps to placate the public’s fears,” the reported continued, “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.”

A 2007 report, “Gun Laws and Sudden Death: Did the Australian Firearms Legislation of 1996 Make a Difference?” by Jeanine Baker and Samara McPhedran similarly concluded that the buyback program did not have a significant long-term effect on the Australian homicide rate.

The Australian gun-homicide rate had already been quite low and had been steadily falling in the 15 years prior to the Port Arthur massacre. And while the mandatory buyback program did appear to reduce the rate of accidental firearm deaths, Baker and McPhedran found that “the gun buy-back and restrictive legislative changes had no influence on firearm homicide in Australia.”

Would an American version of the “Australian model” perform any better?

#related#In all likelihood it would fare worse. The Federalist’s Varad Mehta set down the facts in June:

Gun confiscation is not happening in the United States any time soon. But let’s suppose it did. How would it work? Australia’s program netted, at the low end, 650,000 guns, and at the high end, a million. That was approximately a fifth to a third of Australian firearms. There are about as many guns in America as there are people: 310 million of both in 2009. A fifth to a third would be between 60 and 105 million guns. To achieve in America what was done in Australia, in other words, the government would have to confiscate as many as 105 million firearms.

And an American mandatory gun-confiscation program — in addition to being unconstitutional — would be extraordinarily coercive, and perhaps even violent.

There is no other way around it: The mandatory confiscation of the American citizenry’s guns would involve tens of thousands of heavily armed federal agents going door-to-door to demand of millions of Americans that they surrender their guns.

That. Is. Not. Going. To. Happen.

If the president and gun-control activists want to keep saying “Australia” in response to every shooting in America, they should at least be honest about what exactly they are proposing.

—Mark Antonio Wright is an assistant editor at National Review.

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