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Study examines drop in mass shootings, gun deaths in Australia since gun law reforms

In the 20 years since gun law reforms and buyback programs in Australia, there have been no mass shootings and a more rapid decline in total firearm deaths, according to a study published online by JAMA.

In 1996, Australia introduced sweeping gun laws following a mass shooting in which a man used 2 semiautomatic rifles to kill 35 people and wound 19 others. The new gun laws banned rapid-fire long guns (including those already in private ownership), explicitly to reduce their availability for mass shootings. In addition, by January 1997, all 6 states and 2 territories in Australia had begun a mandatory buyback at market price of prohibited firearms. From October 1997, large criminal penalties, including imprisonment and heavy fines, applied to possession of any prohibited weapon.

Simon Chapman, Ph.D., of the University of Sydney, Australia, and colleagues examined whether enactment of the 1996 gun laws and buyback program were followed by changes in the incidence of mass firearm homicides (defined as 5 or more victims, not including the perpetrator) and total firearm deaths. The researchers used Australian government statistics on deaths caused by firearms (1979-2013) and news reports of mass shootings in Australia (1979-May 2016).

From 1979-1996 (before gun law reforms), 13 fatal mass shootings occurred in Australia, whereas from 1997 through May 2016 (after gun law reforms), no fatal mass shootings occurred. There was also significant change in the preexisting downward trends for rates of total firearm deaths prior to vs after gun law reform. From 1979-1996, the average rate of total firearm deaths was 3.6 per 100,000 population (average decline of 3 percent per year), whereas from 1997-2013 the average rate of total firearm deaths was 1.2 per 100,000 population (average decline of 4.9 percent per year).

There was a statistically significant acceleration in the preexisting downward trend for firearm suicide, but this was not statistically significant for firearm homicide. From 1979-1996, the average annual rate of total nonfirearm suicide and homicide deaths was 10.6 per 100,000 population (average increase of 2.1 percent per year), whereas from 1997-2013, the average annual rate was 11.8 per 100,000 (average decline of 1.4 percent per year). There was no evidence of substitution of other lethal methods for suicides or homicides.

The researchers note that because there was a greater magnitude decline post-1996 in total nonfirearm suicide and homicide deaths than the decreases for suicide and homicide involving firearms, it is not possible to determine whether the change in firearm deaths can be attributed to the gun law reforms.

“We are unaware of any other nation that has enacted such a substantial change in gun laws as has been implemented in Australia. Comparative studies of Australia’s experience with broadly comparable nations would provide further evidence of the effects of such law reform,” the authors write.

Article: Association Between Gun Law Reforms and Intentional Firearm Deaths in Australia, 1979-2013, Simon Chapman, PhD; Philip Alpers; Michael Jones, PhD, JAMA, doi:10.1001/jama.2016.8752, published online 22 June 2016.

All authors have completed and submitted the ICMJE Form for Disclosure of Potential Conflicts of Interest. Dr. Chapman reported being a member of the Coalition for Gun Control (Australia) from 1993-1996. Mr. Alpers reported being director of GunPolicy.org.

Editorial: Lessons From Australia’s National Firearms Agreement

“What can the United States take away from the experience of Australia’s National Firearms Agreement (NFA) and the findings reported by Chapman et al? Political, cultural, and legal challenges make it highly unlikely that the United States would implement comparable policies,” writes Daniel W. Webster, Sc.D., M.P.H., of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, in an accompanying editorial.

“Yet the experience in Australia over the past 2 decades since enactment of the NFA provides a useful example of how a nation can come together to forge life-saving policies despite political and cultural divides. Australia has comprehensive regulations to limit the misuse of handguns as well as long guns that are more restrictive than anywhere in the United States, even in those communities with the strictest gun laws. If U.S. firearm homicide rates were only 10 times as high as firearm homicide rates in Australia, rather than 23 times as high, there would be substantially fewer homicides.”

“There is evidence that some U.S. policies at the state level (e.g., handgun purchaser licensing, gun restrictions for domestic violence offenders, gun restrictions for violent misdemeanants, gun safe storage laws) are associated with reductions in firearm-related violence and fatalities. Research evidence should inform the way forward to advance the most effective policies to reduce violence. However, research alone will not be enough. Australian citizens, professional organizations, and academic researchers all played productive roles in developing and promoting evidence-informed policies and demanding that their lawmakers adopt measures to prevent the loss of life and terror of gun violence. Citizens in the United States should follow their lead.”

Editorial: Lessons From Australia’s National Firearms Agreement, Daniel W. Webster, ScD, MPH, JAMA, doi:10.1001/jama.2016.8819, published online 22 June 2016.

The author has completed and submitted the ICMJE Form for Disclosure of Potential Conflicts of Interest. Dr. Webster reported that the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research has previously received funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies to conduct and disseminate research to inform gun policy, and the center has a current grant from Everytown for Gun Safety to study Baltimore’s underground gun market.