Sunday, 4 February 2018

Guns in Australia and America

     I'm writing this because I am tired of having to explain the same things over and over again. Whenever there is a mass shooting in the U.S., people over here declare how lucky we are not to have their lax gun laws, while people over there demand that they copy our legislation. Many people over here will tell you that the gun buyback of 1996 and the subsequent tightening of the gun laws has reduced the homicide rate. On the other hand, many Americans imagine that we have outlawed guns and the homicide rate has gone up. Others suggest that Australians would all be safer if we were allowed to carry concealed firearms. All these beliefs are incorrect, as I intend to explain.
     First of all, there are a couple of points on which all but a few fanatics would agree.
  1. Even in the most restrictive environment, there will be legitimate reasons for possessing guns. For a start, it is difficult to disentangle farming from the need for guns. Hunting is still a legitimate pastime, even an occupation, and some people in security will need firearms for defence.
  2. Guns are dangerous. Like cars, you shouldn't be allowed to use one until you know how to do so safely, and we should try to keep them out of the hands of the mad, the bad, and the incompetent. Also, there are some firearms, such as submachine guns, for which there is no legitimate civilian use.
A Bit of History
     The original Bill of Rights, assented to by William and Mary in 1689, included the clause:
"That the subjects which are Protestants may have arms for their defence suitable to their conditions and as allowed by law."
      It was this which was the inspiration for the Second Amendment of the  U.S. Constitution. Several state constitutions included the right to bear arms before it was added to the national constitution.
     It is not, however, obvious what danger they were attempting to prevent, because it is unlikely any government would have tried to, or been able to, confiscate the citizens' arms. Most of them worked on the land. There were varmints to shoot, game to hunt, and Indians to fight. All guns were muzzle loaders, which meant that one ball at a time had to be rammed down the barrel before firing. Rifles were more accurate than smoothbore muskets, but much slower to load, because the bullet fitted very tightly in the barrel. They were useful for hunting and sharpshooting, but not normal infantry. Pistols were the same: one shot, powder in the pan, bullet stuffed down the barrel. I doubt if many men swaggered into town with a loaded pistol.
     The big revolution came with the introduction of the breech-loading six-shooter, a weapon ill-designed for hunting, whose basic target was one's fellow man. This was the gun which made the Wild West wild. Bad guys carried it in order to do bad things, good guys carried it to protect themselves from the bad guys, and the law, where it was strong enough, insisted on them being handed in on arrival in town. It was essentially the establishment of more effective law enforcement by the end of the century that caused the reduction in its use. I don't think anyone wants to go back to that situation.
     The same thing applied in other countries, to a lesser extent. The Australian frontier was never as "wild" as the American, but every man on the north Queensland mining centres carried a revolver. Down south, Ned Kelly belonged to what was essentially a peasant family, but he had no difficulty possessing a revolver, although he doesn't appear to have ever used it before the fight at Stringybark Creek. Probably it was a standard item in rural homesteads. As for Britain, to quote Peter Hitchens:
     Until 1920, Britain's gun laws made Texas look effeminate. There was no effective restriction at all on owning a firearm. Yet there was virtually no gun crime. Now we have some of the most restrictive anti-gun laws in the world, and gun crime is a serious and growing problem. Interestingly, the laws came first, the problem afterwards, and the recent ban on handguns was a completely logic-free response to the Dunblane mass-murder which preceded it.
     Here's a strange fact. If you read the Sherlock Holmes stories, you will notice just how frequently Holmes and Watson take guns out on various missions (Watson’s is usually his trusty old service revolver, retained from his brush with war in Afghanistan). On one occasion, Holmes amuses himself by picking out the Royal monogram 'VR' in bullet-pocks above the fireplace, a remarkable tribute to his shooting ability with a handgun. His skills may have been exceptional, but gun ownership was, at the time the stories were written, entirely legal and normal, and nobody thought it odd.
    It seems to me that restrictions on gun ownership have mostly developed only after gun ownership had ceased to be common.

The Number of Guns
     The basic difference between Australia and America is that we have 11 guns per 100 people, while for the U.S. it is 112. Therefore, what works, or may be necessary, in one country may not apply to the other. Obviously, they are not evenly distributed across the population. (For a start, many of the population are children.) Good reasons exist for why a farmer, hunter, or target shooter might want to have two or three guns, and there exists a hard core of gun enthusiasts who collect them in large numbers. In my humble opinion, however, this last group is the least of our worries. The Las Vegas massacre notwithstanding, a person with ten guns is not ten times as likely to kill someone as a man with just one. On the contrary, the person to worry about is the career criminal, with just one or two weapons to his name, but possibly multiple homicides to his discredit. Just the same, although the American homicide rate is four times that of Australia, I am advised that it is concentrated in certain high crime cities, and even specific areas of those cities, with the rest of the country being more or less peaceful.
     But obviously, with that many guns going around, any sort of major government buyback is not going to work. The only people who would turn them in would be law abiding citizens. Even then, many would not comply, simply because they keep their guns for self-protection, and are more scared of criminals than of the law. In some regions, even registration would be resisted, on the suspicion, not without substance, that it was a prelude to confiscation. Besides which, why would a hunter want to turn in his rifle?
     Interestingly, while gun ownership has been going up in the U.S., the homicide rate has been falling. Why is something we might speculate on. Demographics, an aging population, better policing etc may account for most of it. However, the irony is that, in the face of high gun ownership, one of the best deterrents of gun violence is more guns. Nothing turns off a bad guy like knowing that his potential victim might have a gun himself. States with "right to carry" laws on concealed weapons have the lowest rates of gun violence. There are more than a few cases of crimes being stopped by a passer-by with a gun, and it has been frequently pointed out that all the spectacular mass shootings have occurred in places where the shooter knew guns were not allowed. Of course, all this means a return to the wild west atmosphere. I don't regard that as a good thing, but what else can be done?
    Now let us look at the Australian scene.

The Australian Experience
    There are reasons why gun ownership is much lower in Australia: people don't want them or need them. Farmers, particularly graziers, of course have to have them, and there exist professional kangaroo shooters. But Australia is highly urbanised, and recreational hunting is not a popular activity. There are a lot of illegal guns moving around the underworld. (The going rate for an illegal pistol, I've been told, is $7,000.) But the crims mostly use them to shoot other crims. The low life who rob convenience stores rarely do so with firearms, and the street gangs never use them. Consequently, there is no popular demand for the use of guns for self-defence.
    In 1996, in the wake of the Port Arthur massacre, the Government instituted a gun buyback scheme in which 643,726 semi-automatic rifles and pump-action shotguns were handed in, at a cost to the taxpayer of $700 million. In addition, abut 50,000 other, non-banned firearms were voluntarily handed in. Personally, I consider this a massive waste of Government resources. Hardly any of these weapons would ever have been used against a human being, and even if they had, there would have been other means of homicide available. But the point to be made was that these were specific types of firearms. The vast majority of them would have been replaced with more conventional rifles or shotguns. It is not as if, as some American fanatics think, the law abiding majority had suddenly been stripped of their weapons and left defenceless against marauding criminals.
     Other restrictions were introduced of debatable value. My sister-in-law, married to a grazier, complains that, if you see a dingo while driving around your property, you can't just reach for your rifle in the back of the vehicle and shoot it; you have return home and take the gun from its locked cabinet, by which time the dingo will have vanished.  The latest news is of farmers having difficulty in obtaining licences for pistols, which are much more convenient for killing stock in tight corners than long firearms. Needless to say, there was no mention about whether any farmer's pistols have been used to kill people.
     What has been the results? Bear in mind that there are more ways to kill a person, or oneself, than with a gun, and if a gun is not available, another method may be used. As Ryan McMaken pointed out:
[I]n Switzerland, 48 percent of homicides are committed with firearms. In neighboring Germany and Austria, the use of firearms in homicides is much lower (24 percent and 10 percent, respectively.) However, the homicide rate is slightly lower in Switzerland (0.6 per 100,000) than in Germany and Austria (0.9 and 0.8 per 100,000, respectively).
     So let's now turn to the data of the Australian Institute of Criminology. Here is a graph of the total number of homicides per year. Bearing in mind the gun buyback occurred in 1996, what trend do you see? Obviously, if you cherry pick the years you can make the case that the buyback made the rate go either down or up, depending on your prejudice, but the overall trend has been downwards since before the buyback and has continued, with the usual random fluctuations.
       Going over to The Conversation, we have a very good presentation of the evidence, along with some useful graphs (left).
    In the first graph, the red line represents all gun-related deaths, the orange gun-related homicide, and the blue gun-related suicides. In the second and third graphs, red represents the total, and blue those related to guns.
     The overall conclusion of the authors was that the legislation probably had some effect, but not much. What is completely absent from these statistics is the use of the particular weapons seized in the buyback: semi-automatic rifles and pump-action shotguns.
      Personally, I consider that the buyback had little, if any effect, but that the restrictions on firearms are generally reasonable, although some relaxation may be justified. (They weren't particularly successful in the UK, either.) Likewise, the idea that they have reduced mass shootings is incorrect.
     In any case, these laws are only applicable to a country like Australia, with a low homicide rate and a low level of gun ownership. They cannot be imported to the United States.
     Conversely, an American style solution, such as "right to carry" cannot be effectively imported into Australia. When the Lindt Café atrocity received international attention, many American commentators claimed that it couldn't have happened if some of the customers in the café had guns. Perhaps not, but why would they have them? You have to understand that the public perception of danger is what matters. If some state suddenly introduced a right to carry law, I can't see many citizens rushing out to buy one. The reason is that they do not feel unsafe. If the situation developed whereby punks were pulling guns on service station attendants and convenience store salesmen, no doubt in time the latter would acquire guns of their own. And yes, possibly some of them would carry them when they went out dining. But the point is, there would have to be a big increase in gun crime before the average Joe Citizen felt the need to pack iron. I can't help thinking that any relaxation of the gun laws would initially benefit the bad guys, with the good guys stepping in only later to catch up. It would be the wild west all over again. We don't need that.
     In summary:
  • Australian style gun control is not transferable to the U.S.
  • The best way to combat gun violence in the U.S. is to let the citizens defend themselves.
  • But this is not transferable to Australia.
  • The gun buybacks did not result in the disarming of the population or an increase in gun crime.
  • Nevertheless, they were unnecessary, and of little, if any, benefit. 
  • When one country has ten times as many guns per capita as the other, policies which work in one will not work in the other.