Are Australian gun laws a viable model for the U.S.?

Australia has taken a much more restrictive approach than any laws that exist in American books

Photo by: Fuzzy Gerdes
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Nearly every mass shooting in the U.S. sparks a relitigation of the country’s gun laws, or lack thereof.

Policy proponents say more regulation will keep firearms out of the hands of those who intend to harm others, while gun-rights groups say criminals don’t follow laws and would ignore gun laws as well.

The Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees citizens the right to bear arms, but many other developed countries do not have a reciprocal right.

After a mass shooting in 1996, Australia passed strict measures on which guns people were allowed to own and how one bought a firearm. Australia even instituted a government buyback of the more dangerous weapons. There have been no mass shootings in Australia since 1996.

Australia reacted quickly to the incident, but it never had the same gun culture as the U.S. In 1996, there were approximately 17 guns for every 100 people in Australia.

According to an Australian gun-law advocacy group supported by the University of Sydney, gunpolicy.org, the U.S. has over 101 guns per 100 people, or, in other words, it has slightly more privately owned guns than citizens. This is nearly three times the highest rate of other high-income countries like Finland, Norway, France and Canada.

No other country has more firearms per person than the U.S.

The high rate translates into Americans owning nearly half of all privately owned guns in the world, despite making up only about 5 percent of the world’s population. 

The ownership numbers coincide with roughly two-thirds of all homicides involving guns in 2014 in the U.S. and guns were used just under half of all suicides.

America leads developed world in deadly gun crimes

Not only do guns play a role in a large portion of these crimes, but they occur far more frequently in the U.S. than in other countries.

The number of gun-related suicides is nearly double the rate of homicide in the U.S.

However, correlation is not always causation. Gun-rights groups say gun-crime rates have been declining on their own for years and the drop is part of a bigger trend rather than a result of tightening restrictions.

National Rifle Association board member, Ken Blackwell, recently wrote an opinion piece in The Hill in which he argued that even with laws similar to what Democrats have suggested in the past, the Las Vegas shooter would still have been able to purchase firearms.

“Guns provide protection,” Blackwell wrote, “Especially for poorer Americans who live in neighborhoods which receive less police attention.”

Many South American countries have strict laws when it comes to gun ownership, but still report gun-related homicide numbers much higher than the U.S. For instance, gunpolicy.org lists overall gun regulation in Brazil as “restrictive.” Not only are all guns registered in a national database, but citizens must also prove a “genuine reason” to possess one.

Despite these measures, Brazil had over 40,000 firearm-related homicides, roughly double the U.S. in the same year.

“Australia, like the rest of the British Commonwealth, you have no right to keep and bear arms,” Cottrol said. “You may have a privilege for certain types of gaming and hunting, but no right.”

In a phone interview, George Washington University Law Professor, Robert Cottrol, framed the differences in the U.S. and abroad as rights vs. privileges.

“Australia, like the rest of the British Commonwealth, you have no right to keep and bear arms,” Cottrol said. “You may have a privilege for certain types of gaming and hunting, but no right.”

Cottrol said he thinks gun law supporters often focus on the wrong issues. He said that after every shooting like the one in Las Vegas, there is a rush to ban “so-called assault rifles” even though only two or three hundred gun homicides per year are carried out with rifles of any kind.

Cottrol said that he is not in favor of legalizing fully automatic weapons, and banning devices that can alter semi-automatic weapons in more lethal ones is probably a good idea.

“Basically, since 1934 where we had the National Firearms Act, we’ve said that automatic weapons are on one side of the line, and semi-automatic and manual fire on the other,” Cottrol said, adding that he’d like to keep it this way.

Cottrol said enhanced penalties for people who criminally misuse firearms would be a more effective strategy, “rather than focusing our time on something that is as freakish as getting struck by lightning.”

A recent poll shows both parties agree some gun restrictions need to be put in place. According to the data, the majority of both political parties and independents want to see more laws put in place, but sweeping reforms like those in Australia seem as unlikely as ever.

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