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No massacres and an accelerating decline in overall gun deaths: the impact of Australia’s major 1996 gun law reforms

The Conversation

Simon Chapman, University of Sydney

Twenty years ago, Australian federal, state and territory governments united to reform our firearm laws which had allowed easy access in some states to the military-style weapons of the sort used by the gunman in Orlando, Florida. The main provisions of the new laws included:

  • a ban on semi-automatic rifles and pump action shotguns, with a market price buy-back of all now-banned guns
  • uniform gun registration
  • end of “self-defense” as an acceptable reason to own a gun
  • end of mail order gun sales.

So, after 20 years of our new gun laws, what has happened to gun deaths?

Today, our study of intentional firearm deaths in Australia between 1979 and the present has been published in JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association).

The new gun laws were introduced because of the near-universal outpouring of revulsion Australians felt over the ability of someone to go into a public place and murder lots of people quickly with rapid-fire firearms.

In the 18 years between 1979 and April 1996, Australia saw 13 massacres (five or more victims, not including the perpetrator) where 104 victims died. In the twenty years and nearly two months since the Port Arthur massacre and the passage of the law reforms that followed swiftly afterwards, we have seen precisely none.

The Gun Violence Archive reports that in the United States, the Orlando shootings were the 1000th mass shooting incident in 1,260 days. In those incidents 1,134 people were shot dead and 3,950 were injured.

Mass killings a small fraction of all gun deaths

Australia’s 104 victims of mass shootings represent a small fraction of all people intentionally shot dead in Australia across the years we examined. For every person shot in a mass killing, 139 others suicided or were murdered with guns in incidents where less than five people died (most typically one or two).

While the gun laws were introduced explicitly to reduce the likelihood of mass shootings, we were interested in whether the removal of what turned out to be some 750,000 semi-automatic and rapid fire weapons from the community may have had collateral benefits on trends in these non-mass killings.

By one argument, the outlawing of semi-automatic rifles might have made little difference to the firearm suicide rate because such firearms are irrelevant to suicide: only one shot is generally fired when people try to suicide with a gun, so a semi-automatic is not necessary. But by another argument, any firearm- semi-automatic or not – can be used, so the removal of a large number of one category of gun might nonetheless have impacts on non-mass killings.

Here’s what we found.

From 1979 to 1996 (the year of the gun law reforms), total intentional firearm deaths in Australia were declining at an average 3% per year. Since then, the decline in total firearm deaths accelerated to 5% annually.

With gun suicide deaths, over the same comparison periods, there was a statistically significant acceleration in the downward trend for firearm suicides and a non-significant acceleration in the downward trend in firearm homicides.

We also examined total all-method homicides and suicides data to assess the possibility that reduced access to firearms saw people substitute other lethal methods to commit suicide or homicide. From 1979 to 1996, the average annual rate of total non-firearm suicide and homicide deaths was rising at 2.1% per year. Since then, the average annual rate of total non-firearm suicide and homicide deaths has been declining by 1.4%. This supports a conclusion there has been no substitution of other lethal means for suicides or homicides.

Finally, we found that the post-1996 decrease in the rates of non-firearm suicide and homicide were larger than the decreases for suicide and homicide involving firearms.

There are two likely explanations for this. Another study of the decline in suicide in Australia between 1994-2007 concluded that much of the decline was explained by changes toward the use of less fatal methods. Fewer people killed themselves using motor vehicle exhaust and this explained nearly half of the overall decline in suicide deaths.

Suicide using firearms had the highest fatality rates (74%) with self-poisonings lowest at 1.4%. That study noted that “the decline in firearm deaths over the study period was due primarily to a decline in attempts; lethality remained relatively flat.”

Guns have the highest “completion” or fatality rate in suicides compared to all other methods, so with evidence that suicide method choice is moving more toward less lethal means, it’s understandable that overall suicide rates could be falling faster than those for firearms where there has been no change in the completion rate. If you shoot yourself you are highly likely to die, but not so with many other methods.

Another factor, which combined with the high lethality of guns when used in both suicides and assaults, is the proliferation of the mobile phone over the past 20 years. A 1997 study found 12% of 764 cell phone users had used their phone to call emergency services to a road crash and 6% to a non-road medical emergency. As we wrote in our JAMA paper:

With increasing cell phone use over the past 20 years, it is plausible that ambulances will have increasingly attended traumatic incidents like assaults and suicide attempts earlier than in previous times when landlines were only or more commonly used to make such calls. There have also been improvements in emergency care, and the lower lethality of non-firearm assault and suicide may explain the greater reductions in non-firearm homicide and suicide rates.

When it comes to firearms, Australia is far a safer place today than it was in the 1990s and in previous decades. We have the leadership of John Howard to thank for this.

Today, politicians like the National Rifle Association’s local Australian hero Senator David Leyonhjelm are doing what they can to water down aspects of our gun laws as occurred with Leyonhjelm’s deal with the government to allow the importation of the massacre-ready Adler shotgun. Will the Prime Minister after the July 2 election have sufficinet Howard-like leadership to ban the Adler?

The ConversationSimon Chapman, Emeritus Professor in Public Health, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

 

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Singer and Fisher preach to their flocks in euthanasia debate

The Conversation

Benjamin T. Jones, University of Western Sydney

When the University of Sydney’s Catholic Society decided to organise a debate on legalising voluntary euthanasia, it was envisaged as a modest event to be held on campus. Interest in the topic and the high profile of the speakers soon saw the debate moved to Sydney’s Town Hall, which sold out over a week in advance.

The two protagonists symbolised forces far larger than themselves. His Grace, the Most Revered Anthony Fisher, Archbishop of Sydney, represented the power and prestige of the Roman Catholic Church. He had a strong support base in the crowd, which included nuns, priests and young Catholic students.

In contrast to his stern and authoritarian predecessor, George Pell, Fisher carried himself with a relaxed charm, happy to joke about his “strange clothes” and former life of sin – he was a lawyer before studying for the priesthood.

Peter Singer is Australia’s most prominent philosopher and the current Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University. A key figure in the animal liberation movement and a foundational member of the Australian Greens, his advocacy, under certain circumstances, of abortion, euthanasia, infanticide – and even bestiality – has certainly courted controversy. To his religious critics, he is very much the atheist bogeyman.

Euthanasia is a sensitive topic that elicits strong emotions. The moderator, the ABC’s online editor of Religion and Ethics, Scott Stevens, urged the speakers and audience to be more civil and respectful than the Q&A norm. It was a request mostly adhered to.

The full Singer-Fisher debate.

Singer spoke first and his argument was relatively straightforward. The audience was asked:

Why do we consider killing an innocent person to be wrong?

The answer is twofold. First, killing someone is a violation of their autonomy. But in the case of voluntary euthanasia, a person’s autonomy is not taken away but supported.

Second, killing an innocent person deprives them of the good things in life they would have otherwise experienced. At this juncture, Singer makes an important qualification. He is not an “absolutist” about autonomy. If a healthy young person is lovesick or depressed, they may temporarily feel that life is not worth living. However, there is much reason to suspect these feelings will pass.

Singer endorses the Canadian Supreme Court’s recent ruling that allows euthanasia only for people with:

… grievous and irremediable medical conditions.

Fisher drew on the movie The Water Diviner, where a young Australian soldier agrees to kill his mortally wounded brother rather than let him slowly and painfully bleed to death. The question put to the audience was:

Is it better to kill someone than let them suffer?

Fisher asserted that comforting people through their suffering requires more from us, but it also places more value on humanity and endorses the intrinsic value of life.

Fisher’s main argument was concerned with bracket creep. If we accept some people who suffer should be able to end their lives, what about others who suffer? Rather than respect for all life, euthanasia would lead to two classes of existence. The terminally sick could soon be joined by the mentally ill, clinically depressed, severely disabled, the elderly and unwanted babies in a growing group considered better off dead.

Singer strongly rejected this claim. He argued that there was no evidence of a slippery slope towards euthanasia becoming a widespread practice to remove undesirable people for financial or other motives. He pointed to the US state of Oregon, where only 105 people took advantage of the Death with Dignity Act in 2014.

Fisher insisted that the example of the Netherlands where, he said, euthanasia has rapidly increased proves that bracket creep is real. Once you accept some people are better off dead a moral line is crossed.

The questions from the audience hinted at its makeup. Of the 12 questions asked, ten were openly hostile to Singer or supportive of Fisher. Singer was asked if he supported the killing of babies with severe disabilities or elderly people with dementia. He became increasingly impatient and regularly reminded the audience he was only advocating voluntary euthanasia – which automatically excludes babies and those unable to consent.

One questioner was even ejected by the moderator for trying to start an infanticide debate stemming from Singer’s 1979 book, Practical Ethics.

So who won the debate? No-one really. Had there been a show of hands, Fisher would have been the likely victor but that would only have reflected the Catholic Society’s strong presence.

For much of the debate, the two did not address the other’s arguments. Singer kept a small target, advocating voluntary euthanasia only for competent adults with a terminal illness.

Fisher, and the questioners, wanted a broader discussion on the sanctity of life. As one questioner demanded to much applause:

Mr Singer, who are you to decide that some lives are worth more than others?

Singer responded, also to applause, that he could not see the connection between the question and what he had advocated. It summed up the night; arguments flew in both directions but rarely met.

With the debate finished, supporters of each man formed an excited line to buy a signed book and take the obligatory selfie. As with the debates about the existence of God made so popular by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, the goal was never to change anyone’s mind but to speak to an existing base. Both camps left the majestic building satisfied that they had won.

The ConversationBenjamin T. Jones is Adjunct Research Fellow, School of Humanities and Communication Arts at University of Western Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.


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