Australia's response to the Port Arthur massacre should be looked at by the United States as an example, Sydney experts say, while warning against complacency as new figures show people who own guns have bought more.
Gun control expert Adjunct Associate Professor Philip Alpers from the School of Public Health, Faculty of Medicine and Health, revealed the figures on the eve of the 25th anniversary of gun control since Port Arthur.
An opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald by the Head of the School of Public Health, Professor Joel Negin outlined the importance of continuing vigilance. A recently published perspective, co-authored with Associate Professor Alpers in the high-impact New England Journal of Medicine also discussed this point.
A University event, Public Health at the Forefront of Social Change: 25 Years of Gun Control since Port Arthur, discussed the impact of Australia’s post-1996 response and the future of fire-arm prevention.
Associate Professor Philip Alpers, a specialist in firearm injury prevention, says:
“In the wake of John Howard’s gun reforms, the risk of an Australian dying by gunshot quickly fell by more than half – and it’s stayed that low for 25 years.
“In those same years, there’s also been a significant shift in the country’s gun culture.”
In new figures published yesterday by the university-hosted project GunPolicy.org, Associate Professor Alpers reported: “The proportion of Australians who hold a gun licence has fallen by 48 percent, as each year a smaller segment of the population decide they need a firearm.”
In 1997, the year after the Port Arthur massacre, Australia had 6.52 licensed firearm owners per 100 population. By 2020, that proportion had almost halved, to 3.41 licensed gun owners for every 100 people.
“Although several states and territories still refuse to release their firearm licensing data, we know that today about 868,000 Australians have a current gun licence,” says Associate Professor Alpers.
In 1997, the federal firearm buyback campaign reported that 1.2 million Australians were licensed to possess firearms.
“This doesn’t mean Australians own fewer guns,” he says.
“Government figures show that imports of modern firearms for private owners fluctuate between 65,000 and 116,000 each year. But even after 25 years of importing well over a million new guns since the firearm buybacks, the rate of registered firearms per 100 population has only risen by 1.7 percent.”
In the same period, the country’s population grew by 40 percent, from 18.2 million to 25.5 million.
Australian civilians now own more than 3.5 million registered firearms, an average of four each. Private gun owners also hold an estimated 260,000 illegal firearms in the “grey market” of undeclared weapons.
“It’s clear that those who already own guns have bought more, while those who don’t own guns are becoming more numerous. Polling confirms this, with the proportion of Australian households with a firearm falling by 75 percent in recent decades.”
Australia’s firearm policy response instigated by the Port Arthur Massacre on 28 April 1996, remains an example of the significant impacts and possibilities of firearm injury prevention.
Global health and policy expert Professor Negin says: “Australia remains an exemplar of what committed public health action can achieve in terms of reducing firearm violence.”
“In the days and weeks after the Port Arthur massacre, public health researchers were integrally involved in the advocacy that led to the dramatic new firearm regulations that emerged.
“The policy changes after Port Arthur represent one of the greatest examples of public health policy in action - a multi-pronged policy response encompassing strengthened gun-owner licensing, firearm registration, safe-storage policies, and suicide-prevention programs.
“The changes contributed to a critical reduction in firearm violence – reductions that have been sustained over the past 25 years.”
Rebecca Peters AO, who played a critical role in Australia's gun law reforms, is an alumna of the University, was the first director of IANSA, the international civil society movement against gun violence, and has advised and consulted on gun laws in many countries as part of the UN small arms process.
“Every week we hear of mass shootings in the USA and wonder at that country’s inability to address its gun violence problem,” she says.
“But many young people aren’t even aware that Australia used to have mass shootings, and that assault weapons were widely owned here.
“We changed that landscape by adopting policies based on evidence rather than ideology. In doing so, we honoured the victims and survivors of Port Arthur and the previous tragedies.
“However, the very success of our guns laws means that no one worries about them anymore. This makes them vulnerable to erosion as finely-balanced parliaments look to do deals with minor parties.
“The gun lobby’s financial and political power has expanded over the past 25 years, and there is no watchdog to keep them in check. So for me, pride in our gun laws and solidarity with the victims is tempered by anxiety over the future.”