Mass killings are like airplane crashes: by the time they happen a bunch of things have gone wrong. The mental health system, law enforcement and a whole host of other social institutions may have failed. Violent movies and video games, a society that’s been at war for more than a decade, media that obsesses on every twist and turn of the killer, and other social factors yet to be discovered might all have done their dirty work. All those things may need to be addressed, but let’s not forget the one common factor, easy access to lots of rapid fire guns, and then consider this:
On April 28, 1996, a gunman opened fire on tourists in a seaside resort in Port Arthur, Tasmania. By the time he was finished, he had killed 35 people and wounded 23 more. It was the worst mass murder in Australia’s history.
Twelve days later, Australia’s government did something remarkable. Led by newly elected conservative Prime Minister John Howard, it announced a bipartisan deal with state and local governments to enact sweeping gun-control measures. A decade and a half hence, the results of these policy changes are clear: They worked really, really well.
At the heart of the push was a massive buyback of more than 600,000 semi-automatic shotguns and rifles, or about one-fifth of all firearms in circulation in Australia. The country’s new gun laws prohibited private sales, required that all weapons be individually registered to their owners, and required that gun buyers present a “genuine reason” for needing each weapon at the time of the purchase. (Self-defense did not count.) In the wake of the tragedy, polls showed public support for these measures at upwards of 90 percent.
What happened next has been the subject of several academic studies. Violent crime and gun-related deaths did not come to an end in Australia, of course. But as the Washington Post’s Wonkblog pointed out in August, homicides by firearm plunged 59 percent between 1995 and 2006, with no corresponding increase in non-firearm-related homicides. The drop in suicides by gun was even steeper: 65 percent. Studies found a close correlation between the sharp declines and the gun buybacks. Robberies involving a firearm also dropped significantly. Meanwhile, home invasions did not increase, contrary to fears that firearm ownership is needed to deter such crimes. But here’s the most stunning statistic. In the decade before the Port Arthur massacre, there had been 11 mass shootings in the country. There hasn’t been a single one in Australia since.
Part of the problem with the assault weapon “ban” was that it grandfathered a ton of weapons. A new ban would be even less useful if we don’t buy those weapons back.