How Australia Eliminated Mass Shootings, Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Several readers scrutinize the email from our Australian reader:

That Australian gun “buyback” was just sugar-coated confiscation. The guns were registered, and the government knew who the owners were and where they lived. The unstated threat was: “We’re making you a deal you can’t refuse. Either sell your guns to the government for whatever pittance we offer, or we’ll send some armed men to kick your door down and take those guns by force.”

And that’s a one-way process. Even if the law is repealed through the political process, those gun owners will never get their guns back and will probably never be compensated for their fair-market value. Anti-gunners like to scoff at the “slippery slope” argument, but it’s also clear that they envision the issue as an irreversible, one-way process.

Another reader:

Well. You’re gonna get a lot of email about this one! I hope mine adds something useful. To state my biases up front: I’m a gun owner.

But I’m not rabid about it. I’m fine with many gun control proposals (stepped-up background checks and closing the gun show loophole, for examples) but generally not in favor of banning anything.

It’s worth addressing the NYT article your colleague Uri cites, showing the decrease in homicides in Australia. The chart shows Australia’s homicides already in a steep decline before the gun laws. A similar decline has happened here in the U.S. Our rather high homicide rate dropped by half from a peak in 1991. So it seems hard to credit the gun buyback for doing much for the homicide rate in Australia.

On the other hand, the law does seem to have had some affect on the mass murder rate. Zero in almost 20 years is not an anomaly, even if the rate of <1 awfully="" before="" but="" here="" low.="" per="" was="" year="">

People say you can't place a value on a human life, but we do it all the time. It may be crass, but implicit trade-offs between expense and safety are made all the time. In this case we are talking about a substantial amount of economic activity and simple human enjoyment of the shooting sports in order to maybe make a very small affect on total homicides. In Australia a very rare event happened, and in the name of safety sweeping changes were made. Remind you of anything? (Patriot Act?)

Something that bothers me: The hard core of the gun rights movement has been pushing for so hard and so long, that it has become brittle and inflexible. As the number of gun owners declines, at some point the hold the NRA crowd has over politicians is going to give, and when it does it is likely to shatter in a million pieces, bringing who knows what new forms of gun control onto the scene nationally. It could be like gay marriage: first a long string of defeats, followed by a couple of wins, followed by total victory everywhere.

Breaking the NRA stranglehold on sensible legislation does not bother me. What concerns me is that breaking that logjam is apt to result in a flood, a flood that may well sweep away almost all rights for gun owners. That is the nigh inevitable cost of the NRA’s current implacable stance. It may already be too late to try to come to a reasonable accommodation between gun rights and gun safety. I hope not.

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Jim Elliott, our long-time reader commentator on guns, also downplays the impact of gun violence in the United States:

If you look at violent crime between the U.S. and Australia, and control for differences between what they categorize as violent crime (i.e. the U.S. includes aggravated assault but Australia does not), they don’t look as different as people might want to think. In 2012, the overall Australian violent crime rate, if you remove kidnapping like the FBI does, was 197.3 (homicide, sexual assault, and robbery). Whereas the U.S., if you remove aggravated assault as Australia does, was 144.5.

While the U.S.’s homicide rate was three times Australia’s (4.7 to 1.3), Australia’s sexual assault rate was three times ours (80 to 26.9). This is not perfect, since these are not identical measures, and of course you must include that asterisk, but the intellectually honest must also recognize the questions this does raise.

And, again, let’s never hesitate to put this into scale: Firearm homicides, nationally, in 2013 were 12,253 out of 314 million people. That’s 0.004 percent of the U.S. population. Comparatively, an estimated 440,000 preventable deaths occurred in hospitals in 2013. That’s 0.14 percent of the population. Medical errors in hospitals kill exponentially more people annually. Something to keep in mind when we throw out terms like “epidemics” and “crisis.”

Firearm homicide is consistently about 80 percent of U.S. homicides. Homicides, according to the FBI, are down to about 1 percent (1.2 percent in 2012 based on the FBI data I used) of violent crime. It seems a reasonable conclusion, though it is not reliably tracked, that firearm use during assaults is significant—I could not find 2012 figures, but in 2011, 8 percent of all violent crime involved a handgun (and homicides made up 2 percent of firearm-related violent crime).

Clearly, when Americans decide to assault each other, they often reach for guns, and guns are really good at killing. I’m not saying don’t be concerned. I’m not saying don’t do anything. But have a sense of scale when it comes to the rhetoric and how you treat people who disagree with you about the calamity or urgency of the situation.  

(Sources: here, here, here, here, here, and here)

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