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Shooting down arguments against tough gun laws

By Andrew Leigh - posted Thursday, 26 June 2014

In the decade up to 1996, Australia averaged one mass shooting every year. Places like Hoddle Street, Queen Street, Strathfield, Surry Hills, the Central Coast and Port Arthur all became synonymous with killings in which five or more people died.

In the decade after the 1997 National Firearms Agreement (NFA), Australia did not have a single mass shooting.

Some argue that it's just a coincidence that we went from mass shootings being annual to non-existent. Fortunately, statistics can help us work out the odds of that. They are less than 1 in 100.


Put another way, there is better than a 99 in 100 chance that Australia's gun buyback helped avert mass shootings.

And yet in this newspaper last Friday, an article ('The unsettled science of gun laws') argued that the NFA was a failure, criticising research by Christine Neill and myself on the effectiveness of the buyback.

Our studies – carried out while I was an economics professor at the Australian National University – used two different approaches to assess the effectiveness of the 1997 changes. First, we analysed the time trends. Overall gun deaths have been trending downwards over recent decades (the same is true in New Zealand). So the challenge is to test for a faster rate of decline after the NFA. To the extent that the data show a pattern, it is a more rapid fall in gun deaths post-1997.

The more reliable approach is to compare states where more guns were bought back with those where fewer guns were bought back. Again, Neill and I found that the buyback saved lives. Both studies suggest that the NFA saved around 200 lives per year, most of them averted suicides rather than homicides. And it doesn't appear that non-firearms deaths rose after the NFA.

As a Labor MP, I don't have any political interest in arguing the effectiveness of the gun buyback. But I think it is important to acknowledge political courage when you see it. With Labor's support, John Howard and Tim Fischer stared down the extremists in their ranks. Thousands of Australians are alive today as a result.

In a recent radio interview with Canberra talk show host Mark Parton, he told me the story of how his father had kept a .22 rifle in the closet. Unbeknownst to his dad, Mark and his brother would take the gun out and play with it when they were alone in the house. When the NFA came along, this rifle was one of the 650,000 firearms that were handed back.


Much as Hollywood would like us to believe that having a gun makes you safer, the data clearly show that the reverse is true. The typical gun death is a suicide or a spousal shooting, not an innocent gun owner defending herself against an unprovoked attack. The 'Dirty Harry' fantasy rarely plays out in life as it does on the silver screen.

To see this, you only need to compare Australia with the US. Today, there are more guns than people in the US, while Australia has one gun for every seven people. More than 1 in 10,000 Americans will be killed by a gun this year, compared with fewer than 1 in 100,000 Australians. The US has over seven times more guns per capita, and over ten times more gun deaths per capita.

Earlier this month, I wrote an article on the NFA that was published in several US outlets, including Time and the Huffington Post. So I was especially pleased to see President Barack Obama citing Australia's gun buyback as a model for his country to follow.

The Australian model does not undermine sports shooting. In my own electorate, I have a rifle range and a pistol club, and I'm as proud as anyone else of the success of our sporting shooters on the world stage, including Adam Vella, Warren Potent and Stacy Roiall. When I chat with sporting shooters, I'll find many are as concerned as anyone about the prospect of teens taking handguns out with them on a Saturday night, as happens in parts of the US.

Social science should always be critically analysed, but the statistical evidence in favour of the 1997 gun buyback is extremely strong. The odds that it had no effect on gun deaths are less than 1 in 100.

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The studies summarised in this article are available at This article was first published in the Australian Financial Review.

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About the Author

Andrew Leigh is the member for Fraser (ACT). Prior to his election in 2010, he was a professor in the Research School of Economics at the Australian National University, and has previously worked as associate to Justice Michael Kirby of the High Court of Australia, a lawyer for Clifford Chance (London), and a researcher for the Progressive Policy Institute (Washington DC). He holds a PhD from Harvard University and has published three books and over 50 journal articles. His books include Disconnected (2010), Battlers and Billionaires (2013) and The Economics of Just About Everything (2014).

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