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Sharp Drop in Gun Crime Follows Tough Australian Firearm Laws

February, 2000

Sharp Drop in Gun Crime Follows Tough Australian Firearm Laws

Latest official data from Australia shows a marked reduction in gun-related crime and injury following recent restrictions on the private ownership of firearms.

Twelve days after 35 people were shot dead by a single gunman in Tasmania, Australia's state and federal governments agreed to enact wide-ranging new gun control laws to curb firearm-related death and injury. Between July 1996 and August 1998, the new restrictions were brought into force. Since that time, key indicators for gun-related death and crime have shown encouraging results.

Firearm-Related Homicide

"There was a decrease of almost 30% in the number of homicides by firearms from 1997 to 1998."

-- Australian Crime - Facts and Figures 1999. Australian Institute of Criminology. Canberra, Oct 1999

This report shows that as gun ownership has been progressively restricted since 1915, Australia's firearm homicide rate per 100,000 population has declined to almost half its 85-year average.

Homicide by Any Method

The overall rate of homicide in Australia has also dropped to its lowest point since 1989 (National Homicide Monitoring Program, 1997-98 data). It remains one-fourth the homicide rate in the USA.

The Institute of Criminology report Australian Crime - Facts and Figures 1999 includes 1998 homicide data showing "a 9% decrease from the rate in 1997." This is the period in which most of the country's new gun laws came into force.

Gun-Related Death by Any Cause

The Australian Bureau of Statistics counts all injury deaths, whether or not they are crime-related. The most recently available ABS figures show a total of 437 firearm-related deaths (homicide, suicide and unintentional) for 1997. This is the lowest number for 18 years.

The Australian rate of gun death per 100,000 population remains one-fifth that of the United States.

"We have observed a decline in firearm-related death rates (essentially in firearm-related suicides) in most jurisdictions in Australia. We have also seen a declining trend in the percentage of robberies involving the use of firearms in Australia."

-- Mouzos, J. Firearm-related Violence: The Impact of the Nationwide Agreement on Firearms. Trends & Issues in Crime & Criminal Justice No. 116. Australian Institute of Criminology. Canberra, May 1999; 6

Assault and Robbery

Those who claim that Australia suffered a "crime wave" as a result of new gun laws often cite as evidence unrelated figures for common assault or sexual assault (no weapon) and armed robbery (any weapon). In fact less than one in five Australian armed robberies involve a firearm.

"Although armed robberies increased by nearly 20%, the number of armed robberies involving a firearm decreased to a six-year low."

-- Recorded Crime, Australia, 1998. Australian Bureau of Statistics, Jun 1999

Firearm-Related Crime in Tasmania

"A declining firearm suicide rate, a declining firearm assault rate, a stable firearm robbery rate with a declining proportion of robberies committed with a firearm and a declining proportion of damage to property offences committed with a firearm suggest that firearm regulation has been successful in Tasmania."

-- Warner, Prof K. Firearm Deaths and Firearm Crime After Gun Licensing in Tasmania. Australian Institute of Criminology, 3rd National Outlook Symposium on Crime in Australia. Canberra, 22-23 Mar 1999.

Curbing Gun Proliferation in Australia

In the 1996-97 Australian gun buy-back, two-thirds of a million semi-automatic and pump-action rifles and shotguns were sold to the government at market value. Thousands more gun owners volunteered their firearms for free, and nearly 700,000 guns were destroyed.

By destroying one-seventh of its estimated stock of firearms (the equivalent figure in the USA would be 30 million), Australia has significantly altered the composition of its civilian arsenal.

In addition, all remaining guns must be individually registered to their licensed owners, private firearm sales are no longer permitted and each gun purchase through a licensed arms dealer is scrutinised by police to establish a "genuine reason" for ownership. Possession of guns for self-defence is specifically prohibited, and very few civilians are permitted to own a handgun. All the nation's governments, police forces and police unions support the current gun laws.

Other Countries

Similar reductions in gun death and injury have been noted in several countries whose gun controls have been recently tightened.

In Canada, where new gun laws were introduced in 1991 and 1995, the number of gun deaths has reached a 30-year low.

Two years ago in the United Kingdom, civilian handguns were banned, bought back from their owners and destroyed. In the year following the law change, Scotland recorded a 17% drop in all firearm-related offences. The British Home Office reports that in the nine months following the handgun ban, firearm-related offences in England and Wales dropped by 13%.

A British citizen is still 50 times less likely to be a victim of gun homicide than an American.

Sources: (see media release 68/99, 16 Jun 1999)

Philip Alpers, gun policy researcher

Auckland & San Francisco

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