Ever since the enactment of the National Firearm Agreement (NFA) in 1996 in Australia, the country has witnessed a steep decline in mass shooting incidents. But can the model be replicated in the United States where the firearm homicide rate is 23 times higher? In an editorial published recently in JAMA, Daniel Webster, ScD, of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School, Baltimore, Maryland, discusses the potential of gun law reforms in the US in the wake of the Orlando massacre.
Rapid-fire weapons, such as semiautomatic rifles and pump-action shotguns, are used ubiquitously by perpetrators in mass shooting incidents. In the recent mass shooting at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, the gunman used a rifle to kill over 49 people and injure 53 others. The dreadful incident has fueled a heated debate within the country about the swift implementation of strict gun laws to prevent future shootings.
A similar mass shooting occurred in Tasmania, Australia in 1996 where a 28-year old gunned down 35 people and injured 19 others, using an assault rifle. The incident shocked millions worldwide and precipitated the introduction of major gun law reforms including a complete ban on pump-action shotguns and semiautomatic rifles. The government also initiated a program for the buy-back of firearms.
In an attempt to determine whether the 1996 gun law reforms have brought any substantial decrease in mass shooting incidents in the country, Dr Simon Chapman and team, of the School of Public Health, University of Sydney, Australia, conducted an observational study. The study comprised analyzing statistics on death caused by firearms from 1979 – 2016. The team of researchers noted an overwhelmingly positive outcome of the law enactment, i.e., 13 mass shootings occurred in Australia from 1979 to 1996, after which the number came down to an absolute zero from 1997 to 2016,. Since 1997, Australia has not witnessed even a single mass shooting episode. Moreover, since the enactment of the law, there has also been a sharp decline in the reported cases of non-firearm suicide and homicide. This sheer contrast kept the researchers from completely attributing firearm deaths to gun law reforms.
“Can the US learn lessons from Australia’s National Firearms Agreement (NFA)?”, questions Webster, in his editorial published in JAMA on June 22, 2016. He said Australia’s political and policy responses to the Tasmania 1996 shooting “stand in a stark contrast” with the United States since both countries have different political, cultural and legal challenges.
In his editorial, Webster opines: “In the United States—where the firearm homicide rate in 2013 was nearly 23 times higher than the firearm homicide rate Chapman et al report in this issue of JAMA for Australia (3.54 vs 0.15 per 100 000 population)—mass shootings occur on an all too regular basis with no definitive response from Congress.”
While the public outcry in Australia led the government to address the threat and act promptly, in the US, Congress did not address the weaknesses in federal drug policies despite horrendous tragedies involving mass murder shootings. A prime example is the murder of 20 children in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012.
Nevertheless, the recent incident in Orlando has left everyone shocked and re-ignited the debate of implementing the strictest possible laws all over the country. Feeling the public’s heat, the Congress is likely to vote on gun safety measures soon, with President Obama also calling for gun control actions.
The author of the editorial has built his narrative on Australia’s NFA tenet. While there have been firearm regulations in the country before 1996, restricting purchase, possession and storage of handguns, they were only implemented in some states and territories. The NFA, currently implemented in all six states and two territories of the country, mandates all firearms holders to obtain registration and licenses of their weapons. To obtain a license, every Australian national must prove a genuine need for owning a firearm, a history of “not being involved” in any crime in past five years and pass a gun safety test.
However, Webster and other authors, believe that Chapman et al, did not provide any comparison jurisdiction that could allow comparing the effects in places where gun laws were and were not implemented and operated. All Chapman and co provided was a comparison of pre-law and post-law trend in the country that Webster believes is not sufficient let alone convincing. Moreover, Webster is skeptical about which aspect of Australia’s policy contributed towards the elimination of mass killings with firearms.
Nonetheless, the fact remains incontrovertible that a reduction in general population’s exposure to semiautomatic long guns capable of accepting large-capacity magazines (LCMs) led to a massive decrease in the threat of mass shootings in the country.
In the US, assault weapons and LCMs account for 64% of incidents and 81% of victims. From 1994-2004, the federal government banned the sale of assault weapons and LCMs but the law had several loopholes allowing gun manufacturers to tweak the law to make military-style weapons legal for sale. Moreover, the past decade has seen a surge in the sale of semiautomatic assault rifles.
Webster and co concluded that it is unlikely that Australia’s NFA model can be successfully simulated in the US. Nonetheless, the enactment of the law in Australia and its success in curbing crime for over two decades provide a useful example of how the nation and the government can come together to devise life-saving policies irrespective of political and cultural divides.