Guns, Homicide, and Suicide in Australia

Guns, Homicide, and Suicide in Australia

Australia tends to come up whenever the gun-control debate takes central stage. Following a 1996 mass shooting, the country immediately enacted incredibly strict anti-gun laws, including the forced buyback (from October of 1996 through September of 1997) of many weapons already in circulation.

What happened next? A number of studies have taken a look, and Dylan Matthews of Vox provides a pretty balanced summary, concluding that the effort reduced suicides and may have reduced homicides as well. I always find it helpful to keep the basic trendlines in mind when considering research like this, so here they are.

First, some homicide rates from the Australian government (collected by financial years, which change over on July 1):

It's obvious why studies don't make bold claims here: There was a drop around the time of the buyback — actually beginning the year before — but it was pretty small until the mid-2000s, long after the program was over. (In fairness, there was another, smaller buyback in 2003.) And a different data set counting murder and manslaughter victims, also from the Australian government, doesn't show a drop in the mid-1990s at all. So it's very possible that these aggressive gun-control measures did nothing at all to prevent people from killing each other.

The case is a little easier to make with suicide — as it usually is. Guns can deter homicide in addition to enabling it, making the overall effect difficult to tease out, but it's hard to imagine a gun preventing a suicide. (For a solid introduction to the topic of guns and suicide, I recommend the chapter on it from the National Academies' 2004 gun-violence report.)

Here are the government's numbers:

The suicide rate began falling after the buyback, though it did so slowly and the trend continued long after the effort had finished. It's not crazy to suggest that the two had something to do with each other, especially given some of the corroborating evidence Matthews has also discussed. For example, areas that bought back more guns saw steeper drops in gun suicides.

Of course, whether it's acceptable to force people to surrender their guns on the off chance it'll stop them from harming themselves — for Australian men, suicide was less than a 0.025 percent annual risk at the time of the buyback, and it remained above 0.015 percent in 2013 — is another question entirely.

Robert VerBruggen is editor of RealClearPolicy. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen

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