When Fear and Facts Collide
New Australian research on gun reform holds a lesson for the US.
Posted Jun 25, 2016
Gun laws are an ongoing controversial issue in the US, and every new horrific mass gun slaughter bring the arguments to the fore again. Gun reform—or not—is an important issue in the current US Presidential elections. A search on US Gun Laws on PsychologyToday brings up 6285 posts. I’m not a US citizen and do not live there (although I have lived there), but I have many friends, colleagues and contacts who do, and the general feeling of those in my US circles is resoundingly for gun reform. To most of us and I suspect the majority of the populations of the UK, Canada, Australia and NZ, to outlaw assault weapons and pistols capable of accepting large-capacity magazines for ammunition is a no-brainer. Many of us also scratch our heads and read with disbelief the rhetoric which floods out of some sections of the US about the right to defend oneself with a gun against people who also have guns and are terrorists, seriously psychologically disturbed, or perhaps husbands or partners or teenagers with ‘anger control’ problems. Then there are the police.
I have written before about the importance of high quality, peer-reviewed research ito inform decision making in all sorts of issues. In my January post, ‘Listen Up, Women! Super Strong Legs Make Super Strong Brains. Is this just headline hype or is it the real deal?” I urged readers to go to the original research paper before committing themselves to believing the headlines. This of course is a trivial issue compared with the gun laws, and people who believe the headlines about strong legs and brains without reading more deeply will do themselves no harm and probably much good by aiming for stronger legs, whether or not this means strong brains!
This month the respected Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published a research paper by Australian researchers Simon Chapman, Philip Alpers and Michael Jones (Association Between Gun Law Reforms and Intentional Firearm Deaths in Australia, 1979-2013. JAMA. Published online June 22, 2016. doi:10.1001/jama.2016.8752) on the state of Australian mass shootings twenty years after Australian Gun reform (titled the ‘National Firearms Agreement’). This reform was precipitated by a terrible gun massacre in Tasmania in 1996, where 35 people were killed and 19 injured. Following that mass shooting the Australian Prime Minister immediately gathered together the Premiers of the eight Australian States (each with their own gun laws), and by January 1997, rapid-fire long guns (including those already in private ownership), were banned, and all eight States began a mandatory buyback of prohibited firearms at market price, and destroyed them. From October 1997, large criminal penalties were imposed on anyone who possessed the prohibited firearms. In 2003 a second buyback of hand-guns commenced. Regulations, already tighter even before 1996 than those in the US today, were further tightened: firearms holders had to complete a safety course and have a genuine reason for owning a gun (registered with the police). Genuine reasons could include hunting, target shooting or occupational requirements. That is, safety-conscious, mentally stable Australian hunters were not excluded from their sport. Of interest, and an issue of great concern in the US, "personal protection" did not count as a legitimate reason for owning a firearm. Guns (unloaded) had to be stored under lock and key, and licenses expired every five years and could be revoked by the police if they had evidence that the firearm owner was no longer safe to own a gun.
Sickened by firearm killings, many Australians voluntarily delivered their guns for destruction, even those that were not outlawed. Between 1988 and 2005 the proportion of Australian households owning a gun declined by 75%. According to the editorial in the JAMA issue, the US firearm homicide rate in 2013 was nearly 23 times higher than the firearm homicide rate currently in Australia. One could speculate that in the US an equivalent reduction of guns in the community might reduce the understandable fear many people feel, and their consequent ‘need’ to have a gun of their own to defend themselves. Is the problem too great now to ever break this vicious cycle? If something isn’t done that cycle will surely be even harder to break next year.
The JAMA article had already been accepted for publication when the Orlando massacre shook the US, and as a result the editors fast-forwarded its publication. The editorial in the same journal commented on the article, and if you go to the online research article (which is freely available online) you can also listen to one of the researchers, Simon Chapman, being interviewed about the research.The article is gaining enormous traction and is rapidly becoming one of the 100 most read journal articles of 2016. As it is a research study, it doesn’t take sides, but instead reports the findings. It draws conclusions from those findings that are bound to be subjective to some degree. However, readers can come to their own conclusions. This is a social science study, and because of the complexity of the factors that go into societal change over a long time period, no-one can say for certain whether Australia’s tightening of gun laws in 1996 were the main reason for the drop in mass shootings from 13 in the seventeen years prior to the change, to zero in the following twenty years. The researchers’ definition of a massacre is that five people were killed, excluding the perpetrator. Their figures on firearm suicides and homicides are far less clear, as these were already declining prior to the gun law changes, but they have declined further and at a more rapid rate since the gun law reform. However, societal attitudes and other factors have changed as well, and the reduced availablity of guns cannot be isolated as the main cause for the decrease in firearm suicides and homicides. However, the Australian rates of firearm homicide and suicide declined more rapidly after the gun reforms were put in place than in New Zealand and Canada who had not tightened their gun laws, and in the same period in the US, firearm suicides increased.
So, whatever your views about gun control, I urge you to read the JAMA article and the editorial, and listen to the interview. If doing all of these things is too much, just listen to the interview, or read the editorial (there are a lot of tables in the research paper!) Share the link to the research (or this post with the links embedded) with others, if you think this research adds important information to the debate you may well be having with your friends and colleagues. Good information, research, and education are powerful, and in today’s world these often seem to be relegated to the bottom of the pile, especially when the issue is emotive or political.