Dr Lee Gordon-Brown and the others involved in
subduing and disarming Huan Xiang, the alleged perpetrator in the Monash
University shooting, have rightly been celebrated as heroes. According to
paramedic Paul Howells, quoted in The
Age: "The people on the floor at the time were just
unbelievable. They definitely saved lives." But the implications of
this seem to have been lost on Prime Minister John Howard and others
seeking to use these events to call for more gun control.
As with most crimes, it was not the police who stopped the shooter from
claiming more lives. Law enforcement activities and a police presence are
obviously important factors in deterring crime, but they do not deter all
crimes and they almost never stop crimes during their commission. As the
tragedy at Monash indicates, the task of stopping crimes during their
commission inevitably falls to private citizens.
Fortunately in the Monash case, the individuals present were able to
subdue the shooter relatively quickly before more lives were lost.
Unfortunately, this is not always the case, as the Port Arthur tragedy
demonstrated. The obvious question being asked is: what can Australia do
to prevent these tragedies and to limit the harm in cases that do occur?
The Prime Minister's answer is to further restrict the rights of
law-abiding citizens to own and use guns. Presumably the benefits he sees
in this policy are a reduction in the availability of guns to individuals
such as the alleged Monash shooter, who apparently acquired his guns
legally and, perhaps more importantly, the reduction of the flow of guns
into the illegal markets that supply most crime guns. But as the Monash
shooting demonstrated, it is law-abiding citizens who are most frequently
called upon to stop crimes. Guns make this task easier, especially for
physically weaker people such as women and the elderly.
In the rash of public school shootings in the US during the late 1990s,
several shootings were stopped by armed principals or teachers (for
example, the shootings at Pearl, Mississippi, and Edinboro, Pennsylvania),
presumably saving many lives. Much has been made of martial arts training
of one of the students who intervened in the Monash shooting, further
evidence that preparation and precaution can make a difference.
It is thus not clear that more gun control laws designed to reduce
rates of gun ownership will make Australians safer. While they may reduce
the availability of guns for the commission of crimes, they simultaneously
reduce the availability of guns for defence, reducing the ability of
private citizens to stop crimes during their commission and reducing the
deterrent effect received from the likelihood of criminals facing armed
victims. To evaluate the Prime Minister's proposals, we need to consider
these potential costs as well as their potential benefits.
Although anecdotal stories are widely available on both the costs and
the benefits, these are not sufficient to evaluate the Prime Minister's
policies. Unfortunately, there is very little systematic evidence
available on the relative magnitudes of these costs and benefits in
Australia. Contrary to the claims of some recent opinion columns and news
articles, the suggestive evidence from the gun control laws passed after
the Port Arthur tragedy is that crime has subsequently risen.
There have been comprehensive looks at the American experience and one
recent look across countries as well. The evidence is strong that recent
US restrictions on gun ownership - waiting periods for purchases,
restrictions on the number of purchases at one time, safe storage rules,
etc - have not reduced crime rates. The biggest reduction in crime seems
to come from a relaxation of gun restrictions, allowing people to carry
concealed weapons for self-defence. In a study by John
Lott and David Mustard, it was found that these laws have led to
substantial declines in most forms of violent crime in the states that
have adopted them (using the most recent data, about a 10 per cent drop in
murder, a 3 per cent drop in rape, and a 5.7 per cent drop in aggravated
assault). In Jeff Miron's recent
study of crime and gun control laws across countries, he found suggestive
evidence that greater prohibition of guns is associated with higher
Perhaps most relevant to the current debate is the impact of gun
control specifically on the horrible multiple-victim public shootings like
Monash and Port Arthur.
The most comprehensive empirical study on this to date was conducted by
Lott and William Landes and examined all such events from 1977 to 1995
in the US, excluding gang violence and shootings during the commission of
other crimes (like drug deals and robbery). They tested for the impacts of
numerous gun control laws and law enforcement activities (arrest rates,
execution rates etc). The only policy found to be associated with a
decline in multiple-victim public shootings was allowing the concealed
carrying of firearms. States that passed such laws experienced an 84 per
cent drop in the number of events and a decline of deaths of 90 per cent
and injuries of 82 per cent. The reasons directly derive from what
happened at Monash.
The shooters in these events generally desire to kill as many people as
possible and often do not plan to live through the attack. Criminal
penalties will not deter them, and it would be impossible to eliminate the
possibility of them obtaining a gun. The only effective deterrence appears
to be the prospect of failure.
The evidence is not in the Prime Minister's favour. Where studies have
been conducted, gun control of the kind he advocates has been found to
cost more lives than it saves. Australians should think twice about
accepting new gun control laws sold solely on anticipated benefits. These
benefits may not be realised and the costs may be large indeed.