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The generally held concept is that our sweeping gun reforms in 1996 forever stopped mass shootings in this country. The truth is quite different.
When it comes to talking about Australian gun laws, people can get easily excited.
I was reminded of this yesterday, when two honorary title holders from the University of Sydney (an institute I parted ways with many years ago) – named me in a press release that was less about their just-released short report on Australian mass shootings than it was about a comment I made in 2015.
My comment was: “mass shootings are rare events, and the long gap between incidents post-1996 may simply reflect a return to a more ‘normal’ state of affairs, similar to the years before 1987.”
Putting aside this mildly flattering attention, the report that Chapman and colleagues had just published boils down to applying mathematical modelling to compare the occurrence of mass shootings in Australia between the years 1979-1996, and shootings post-1996.
When you examine the period 1979 to 1996, you see something horrifying: in that relatively short space of time, we had 12 mass shootings. Strikingly, 10 of those incidents – and all four of our “public place” shootings – took place within a single decade: 1987 to 1996.
If you just compare that experience and what has happened post-1996, it does look like something incredible happened. After 1996, and using the standard international research definition of a mass shooting as four or more people killed in a single incident, we have had one mass shooting.
Taken at face value, it is understandable why the media would write this up under headlines like “Australia’s gun laws may have stopped mass shootings”. It sounds like the ultimate success.
But the problem is that the authors of that paper have committed an error in reasoning. They have forgotten that to test whether our experience with mass shootings following 1996 is a return to “normal” after the blood-soaked decade during the mid-80s to mid-90s, or if something out of the ordinary happened, you first need to know what “normal” actually means for Australia. And that is exactly what the authors have forgotten to consider.
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When you go back further in time, and look at the years before the start point of those authors’ dataset, you see something even more remarkable than the apparent decline in mass shootings post-1996. In those years through the 1960s and 1970s, we had one mass shooting – an incident of family violence in 1971. Exactly the same as we have had post-1996.
This is more than just an esoteric point about scientific method. The implications are important. In the 1960s and 1970s, Australian gun laws were very lenient compared with today. However, history shows that we did not commonly experience mass shootings.
From this, it seems eminently reasonable to suspect that something may have changed in the 1980s to set these events off. Violence does not occur in a vacuum. Unfortunately, we have absolutely no idea what that “something” might have been. We do not know whether it was to do with guns, enforcement of existing laws, changes that took place during those years around broader factors that have long been associated with violence – such as social and economic trends – or…what else?
While it is both tempting and easy to credit our 1996 gun laws changes with stopping mass shootings, this leaves us with no explanation for why mass shootings were not something we experienced back in the decades when there were very few controls over who could own firearms and what types of firearms they could own.
These observations will doubtless be unpalatable to some, but if we want to have an honest conversation, they are also the facts that we can no longer in good conscience avoid. If we want to sell Australia to the rest of the world as having the ability to stop mass shootings, we need to gain a better understanding of what started them – because that might also be what stopped them. This is an important story for us to tell, if we are brave enough.
We have a choice. We can keep avoiding these questions, and continue to promote a comforting narrative at the expense of real enquiry into a serious issue. Or we can front up to this problem, try to understand what has really been going on in Australia over time, and learn some lessons about violence that the US, especially, may actually be willing and able to use.
So far from revealing something astonishing about our gun laws, when you apply a little bit of logic and basic principles of experimental design, it looks like the Australian experience with mass shootings post-1996 does indeed represent a return to “normal”, relative to the decidedly abnormal years of the ’80s and ’90s. This is a true piece of good news, but I won’t hold my breath waiting for a press release on it.