Whenever there is a public shooting in America, Australian media and politicians give a sigh and shake their heads in mock despair. How is it, they ask, that a smart country like America cannot do what is necessary to stop this from occurring, by implementing gun laws similar to those in Australia?

The gun laws Australia introduced in 1997 were some of the most restrictive in the world.  They included bans on many types of firearms, universal gun registration, and a gun confiscation program costing taxpayers a billion dollars. 

1997 Australian Gun Confiscation Program

It has become perceived wisdom that the laws reduced gun violence and prevented further mass shootings. That perception has spread outside the country too. When she was running for president in 2016, Hillary Clinton argued that the US should follow Australia’s lead.

Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s master of propaganda, is infamous for his claim that
a lie told once is still a lie, but a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth. Australia’s 1996 gun laws did not make Australia safer, did not prevent mass shootings and are not an example for other countries, but you will have a hard time convincing most people of that. They have heard the opposite so often.

The data shows that Australia’s murder rate, already steadily declining prior to 1996, continued to decline at the same rate after the laws took effect. Several academic studies using Australian Bureau of Statistics data have confirmed this. Furthermore, there have been several mass shootings since the gun laws were introduced.

There is a simple explanation for this.

There is no correlation between gun control and crime.

Some countries with low crime rates have strict gun control while others have relaxed gun control. Some with high crime rates have strict gun laws while others have relaxed gun laws.

Malaysia, for example, has both corporal and capital punishment for using a gun to commit a crime, yet its murder rate is roughly double that of Australia’s. On the other hand, the Czech Republic has very relaxed gun laws including the right to carry a gun for self-defence, similar to most states of America, yet its murder rate is the same as Australia’s.

It is the same within the US, notwithstanding assumptions that it is uniformly violent. The places with the worst gun violence, Chicago and Washington DC for example, have quite strict gun laws while other places, such as the state of Vermont, have virtually no restrictions on gun ownership and a murder rate comparable to that of Australia’s.

The conclusion is unavoidable. If Australia were to adopt the same relaxed gun laws as Vermont, there would be no change in the crime rate. If Vermont were to adopt the same gun control laws as Australia, it would remain a safe, non-violent place. Gun control and crime are independent variables.

The obvious question from this is, what purpose do gun control laws serve? Some people feel nervous about guns and are happier knowing they are heavily restricted, but feelings should never be the basis for placing restrictions on other people. Moreover, such people are rarely nervous about police carrying guns.

Another awkward fact is that gun control laws have a sinister history. For example, their origins are deeply racist, being introduced to keep guns out of the hands of freed slaves in America, aborigines in Australia and Māoris in New Zealand. In Britain they were introduced soon after the First World War in response to concerns that returning soldiers might be tempted to emulate the recent Communist revolution in Russia.

If there is one purpose for gun laws that users and anti-gun people agree on, it is that they should seek to keep guns away from those who are likely to become violent, whether the mentally ill or those with violent intentions. How to achieve this in a sensible manner, without imposing on the freedom of those who are not violent, is what ought to be the subject of debate by reasonable people. 

David Leyonhjelm was a senator from 2014 to 2019. His book Gun Control – What Australia did, what other countries do and is any of it sensible, is available from Connor Court and online booksellers.

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