US politicians often cite Australia as providing a model of impactful reform. Here’s why such blueprints likely won’t work to combat gun violence in the US
A disturbed man with an AR-15-style rifle walked through a popular historic site in 1996, shooting up the cafe and gift shop. He left 35 people dead and 19 seriously injured
The country’s conservative leader pushed through immediate, sweeping changes to gun laws. Chief among them was a ban and mandatory buyback of more than 600,000 semiautomatic rifles and other long guns, which were then melted down. In all, one researcher estimates, the government ultimately destroyed about a million weapons – roughly one-third of its total gun stock.
That was in Australia, a country that has not had another large-casualty mass shooting since. Officials repeatedly ask: why can’t America do the same?
“We know that other countries, in response to one mass shooting, have been able to craft laws that almost eliminate mass shootings. Friends of ours, allies of ours – Great Britain, Australia,” Barack Obama said last year after a mass shooting at a college in Oregon.
“Certainly the Australia example is worth looking at,” Hillary Clinton said that same month.
In an attack on America’s political inaction last week, comedian Samantha Bee asked why one city after another had to have its “turn” witnessing a mass shooting. In Australia, she said: “Parliament passed strict gun laws and they haven’t had a mass shooting since then.”
One reason America can’t emulate Australia is purely political: American gun rights advocates say this kind of confiscation would prompt “a civil war”.
“It’s confiscation of private property and the threat of jail, and that’s not the American way,” said Philip Alpers, a gun violence researcher at the University of Sydney.
But there are other reasons that Australia is not a good model for how the US can address gun violence. As part of a Guardian examination of what it might take to break the cycle of the American gun control debate, we looked first at how parents of children killed at Sandy Hook elementary school are trying to move the conversation forward – in part, by fighting for laws that would not have saved their children. Today, we’re looking more deeply at the reality behind America’s gun casualty numbers – and why allowing mass shootings to define the debate may get in the way of saving lives..
America’s gun problem is dramatically larger in scale than Australia’s was
In the US, more than 10,000 Americans will likely be killed in gun murders this year. Another 20,000 will likely be lost to gun suicide. The total number of gun deaths and violent injuries will be close to 100,000.
Even before the “big melt”, as one Australian gun researcher put it, Australia’s per capita rate of gun homicide was much lower than America’s. Handguns were already strictly regulated.
In 1995, before it implemented sweeping gun buybacks, Australia saw 67 gun murders, fewer than last year’s total murders in Oklahoma City. After Australia’s buyback of nearly a million guns, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, the nation’s gun murders dropped by nearly half, from 67 to about 30 gun murders per year. Researchers are still debating how much of that drop was attributable to the new gun control policies, since gun murders were already trending down.
The US also has a dramatically larger number of guns. For the US to collect and destroy the same proportion of firearms that Australia did it would require a buyback of 90m firearms, according to a leading Australian researcher, at a cost that might be in the billions if the US paid fair market value for the weapons.
The US doesn’t just have a mass shooting problem – it has an enormous, multifaceted gun violence problem
Mass shootings are a growing and alarming phenomenon in the US. By a purely numerical count, the United States has seen more than 1,000 mass shootings in 1,260 days. By a stricter definition, the number is smaller but still sobering: 19 public mass shootings since the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre in December 2012.
But by any definition, they make up only a tiny percentage of the overall toll of gun deaths.
The US could end all mass shootings today and its rates of gun violence would still be many times higher than other rich countries.
There is a stark racial disparity in gun violence
Much of America’s day-to-day gun violence is concentrated in America’s poorest, most racially segregated neighborhoods – places with high rates of unemployment, struggling school systems, and high levels of mistrust between police officers and community members.
African Americans, who represent 13% of the total population, make up more than half of overall gun murder victims. Roughly 15 of the 30 Americans murdered with guns each day are black men.
Gun violence in America, as criminologist Frank Zimring put it, is another regressive tax on the poor. Some black neighborhoods have experienced so much violence that their residents report symptoms of post-traumatic stress at rates comparable to veterans of war.
Because everyday gun violence is concentrated in racially segregated neighborhoods, it’s easy for millions of Americans to think they won’t be affected.
“As soon as it’s anybody’s kindergartener that can be at risk, we’re a hell of a lot more terrified, because there is no social class or geographic address that makes one exempt,” Zimring said.
Too much emphasis on mass shootings has a cost
America’s gun control debate continues to revolve around the exact circumstances of the shooting that is currently on the news. Is a new gun law worth it, or not? That depends on whether it might have prevented this particular shooting. While this is an understandable, human response, it is a terrible way to go about saving lives.
The shock and horror that follows mass shootings has led to an obsessive focus on the dangers of military-style rifles – even though rifles of any kind were used in less than 3% of gun murders in 2014, according to FBI data.
A tunnel focus on mass shootings has also fueled the public perception that mental illness is driving gun violence. But experts caution that even miraculously curing all schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depression in American might only lead to a 4% reduction in overall violence.
A debate conducted in the aftermath of mass shootings has also prompted a huge public investment in guarding and fortifying public schools against shootings, even though the typical school can expect to see a student homicide only once every 6,000 years, according to safety expert Dewey Cornell.
Since the 1999 school shooting at Columbine high school in Colorado, the justice department has invested nearly $1bn to help put police officers in schools, though Cornell notes there is still little evidence that school security measures reduce crime.
The political focus on mass shootings sometimes even undermines policies that are aimed at addressing the big picture of violence. Opponents of universal background checks have sought to undermine Democrats’ push for the reform by pointing out that mass shooters’ murder weapons are often purchased legally. But that’s not the point. Expanding background checks on private sales of guns is a strategy designed to help crack down on the illicit market in guns used in everyday gun violence.
A gun debate driven by focus on the most high-profile killings also plays into the hand of the National Rifle Association, whose leaders argued this weekend that tough gun control laws in Europe did not prevent the terrorists in Paris from getting guns.
That may be true. But the United States’ overall gun homicide rate is roughly 16 times higher than in France, according to statistics from the FBI and Gunpolicy.org.
To save the greatest number of lives, it’s the everyday violence – not just the mass shootings – that we need to prevent.