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Despite Little Evidence of Success, Australia Continues to Expand Gun Control

Monday, November 20, 2017

Despite Little Evidence of Success, Australia Continues to Expand Gun Control

In the early morning of September 14, New South Wales farmer David Dunstan was at home with his family when he heard a suspicious knock at the backdoor. Upon investigating, Dunstan discovered a man armed with a knife and a length of wood on his property.

Fearing for the safety of his wife and three children, Dunstan, a licensed gun owner, went to his gun cabinet, where he retrieved a .22-caliber rifle. Without loading the firearm, Dunstan used it to confront the knife-wielding man. Without Dunstan pointing the rifle at him, the man surrendered. Dunstan then ordered the man into his truck and delivered him to the police. 

A subsequent investigation revealed that three hours before coming to the Dunstan farm, the man allegedly broke into another home, attempted to enter a child’s bedroom, and was fought off by a homeowner armed with a hockey stick. Upon arraignment, the alleged home invader was denied bail.

It would be reasonable for those unfamiliar with Australian gun law to expect that Dunstan would be lauded for the capable defense of his family and the apprehension of an alleged intruder. However, more than 20 years into its experiment with severe gun controls, Australia looks upon even the most upstanding gun owner with unjust suspicion.

Shortly after the incident, police came to Dunstan’s home and confiscated the .22-caliber rifle Dunstan used to fend off the intruder as well as the farmer’s other two firearms. Speaking about the confiscation to the Herald Sun, Dunstan remarked, “I don’t know what, as a law-abiding citizen of Australia, we’re supposed to do?”

Further complicating matters, authorities placed Dunstan’s firearms license under review. The New South Wales Police Force also sent Dunstan’s wife a letter, making clear that she would be prohibited from storing or possessing firearms at the family home or anywhere else her husband “resides or frequents.” On October 4, the Border Mail reported that Dunstan would not face charges.

Dunstan’s story was met with widespread outrage and the farmer garnered support from some of Australia’s more reasonable politicians. Liberal Democrat Senator for New South Wales David Leyonhjelm described Dunstan’s actions as “what any normal father would do.” New South Wales Deputy Premier John Barilaro told the Border Mail, that he hoped Dunstan’s situation would start a “broader conversation and debate” about self-defense law in Australia, but noted that the police were following existing law when they confiscated Dunstan’s firearms.

Revealing that the ordeal hasn’t damaged his wit, Dunstan told the Border Mail, “My gun licence is for vermin control. I suppose, technically, trying to protect yourself is not classed as that.”

Dunstan’s plight is a sad story of gun ownership in the Land Down Under. Sadder still is the fact that so many U.S. politicians and activists remain intent on importing Australia’s gun laws to America.

Even worse, whenever guns are in the news in the U.S., Australian politicians become gun control evangelists, obsessed with converting wayward Americans into anti-gun zealots. In October, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and former Foreign Minister Bob Carr lectured the U.S. on gun control. At various times, former Prime Minister John Howard and former Deputy Prime Minister Tim Fischer, who oversaw the enactment of Australia’s burdensome gun controls, have tried to lecture American gun owners.

But just like gun control activists here, those touting Australia’s laws ignore the facts. The best available evidence on the effects of Australia’s 1996 gun control measures does not support their policy proposals.

In 1996, following a shooting in Port Arthur, Tasmania in which 35 were killed, Australia’s states and territories agreed to enact a raft of gun control legislation, the contours of which were set forth in the National Firearms Agreement (NFA). The most famous portion of the agreement banned possession of semi-automatic rifles and semi-automatic and pump-action shotguns and provided for a confiscatory “buyback” program under which gun owners were forced to turn-in their firearms for a price set by the government. The agreement also set oppressive standards for firearms licensing, under which a prospective license holder is required to have a “genuine reason” for owning a firearm. The agreement specifically resolved that “personal protection not be regarded as a genuine reason for owning, possessing or using a firearm.”

In 2016, the Journal of the American Medical Association published an article authored by a group of researchers from the University of Sydney, titled, “Association Between Gun Law Reforms and Intentional Firearm Deaths in Australia, 1979-2013.” As the name suggests, their work sought to determine the effects of Australia’s 1996 gun control measures on intentional firearm fatalities.

The researchers determined that intentional firearm fatalities fell at a more rapid pace from 1997 to 2013 than in the time period before the NFA. However, they also found that “the post-1996 decrease in the rates of non-firearm suicide and homicide was larger than the decreases for suicide and homicide involving firearms.” Therefore, the authors concluded, “it is not possible to determine whether the change in firearm deaths can be attributed to the gun law reforms.”

A 2013 U.S. Department of Justice memo that surveyed the research on Australia’s 1996 gun controls came to a similar conclusion. In discussing the research pertaining to Australia’s gun ban and confiscation effort, the memo concluded that the measure “appears to have had no effect on gun homicide…”

A perennial favorite of the gun control set is to point out that Australia has not had a mass shooting since the NFA was implemented. It is true that Australia experienced 13 mass shootings between 1979 and 1996 (defined as shootings with five or more fatalities, excluding the shooter), and has not experienced such an event since. However, those using this to argue for more gun control should revisit their statistics textbook.

Serious academics and statisticians who have looked at the NFA and mass shootings have been unable to determine if the ban had any effect on mass shootings. Researcher Samara McPhedran, Ph.D of Griffith University in Queensland has pointed out that “mass shootings have been such a rare event historically” and that “it's incredibly difficult to perform a reliable statistical test on such rare events.”

Examining this issue for a 2016 article, the statisticians at FiveThirtyEight came to a similar conclusion. The outlet noted, “Did Australia and Great Britain’s reforms prevent mass shootings? It’s hard to say, simply because mass shootings are relatively rare.” This point was reiterated in a 2017 Washington Post column by one of the authors of the FiveThirtyEight piece, Leah Libresco. She explained, “Mass shootings were too rare in Australia for their absence after the buyback program to be clear evidence of progress.”

The anecdotal evidence is no better, as Australian media is filled with stories lamenting the criminal misuse of firearms. A 2016 article from The Age, titled, “Young, Dumb and Armed: How Melbourne Became a Gun City,” suggests that despite the country’s severe restrictions, violent criminals have little trouble acquiring firearms. The paper reported, “criminals are now better armed than at any time since then-Prime Minister John Howard introduced a nationwide firearm buyback scheme in response to the 1996 Port Arthur massacre.”

But these facts haven’t slowed down gun control proponents even slightly.  For those interested in restricting freedom, there’s always one more step that must be taken.

From July 1 to September 30, Australia held the 2017 National Firearms Amnesty. Under the program, those in illegal possession of a firearm could surrender the gun to law enforcement, or, if the firearm was eligible for lawful possession, register the firearm or sell it through a dealer. In a press release announcing the amnesty, the government acknowledged, “While Australia has some of the strongest firearm controls in the world, illicit firearms remain the weapon of choice for criminals.” A 2016 report estimated that there were 260,000 firearms in Australia’s black market; another estimate has placed that number at roughly 600,000.

Further, while Australian politicians peddle their 1996 laws as a cure-all to Americans, anti-gun officials and activists have been pursuing even stricter controls. In a 2016 television interview, Howard was asked if Australia’s gun control laws were sufficient, to which he responded, “No, the laws are not adequate.” Howard went on to add, “I would encourage sensible strengthening of the existing laws.”

In February 2017, Australia’s Attorney-General’s Department released a non-binding revised version of the NFA. The document contained new restrictions, including increased surveillance of handgun owners. The Sporting Shooters’ Association of Australia declared that the agreement “left law-abiding shooters disenfranchised, concerned and offended.”

Australia’s legal framework and a culture of animosity towards firearms has created an environment where law-abiding gun owners like David Dunstan are harassed and even persecuted for trying to protect themselves and their loved ones. Those who believe in gun control as an article of faith likely believe that sacrificing Dunstan’s rights is a small price to pay for their illusion of safety. However, with such little evidence supporting their doctrines, these fanatics should spare Americans the proselytizing.  Even more to the point, the ongoing destruction of personal freedom in Australia stands as a stark and constant reminder of just how far gun control extremists are willing to go in their quest to disarm law-abiding citizens.

Chris W. Cox

BY Chris W. Cox

NRA-ILA Executive Director

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Chris W. Cox has served as the executive director of the Institute for Legislative Action, the political and lobbying arm of NRA, since 2002. As NRA’s principal political strategist, Cox oversees eight NRA-ILA divisions: Federal Affairs; State & Local Affairs; Public Affairs; Grassroots; Finance; Research & Information; Conservation, Wildlife & Natural Resources; and Office of Legislative Counsel. Cox also serves as chairman of NRA’s Political Victory Fund (NRA-PVF), the Association’s political action committee; president of the NRA Freedom Action Foundation (NRA-FAF), which focuses on non-partisan voter registration and citizen education; and chairman of NRA Country, an effort to bring country music artists together with NRA members in support of our Second Amendment freedoms and hunting heritage.

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Established in 1975, the Institute for Legislative Action (ILA) is the "lobbying" arm of the National Rifle Association of America. ILA is responsible for preserving the right of all law-abiding individuals in the legislative, political, and legal arenas, to purchase, possess and use firearms for legitimate purposes as guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.