Firing blanks on gun reform

According to popular legend, Hitler’s master of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, said: “A lie told once is still a lie, but a lie told 1000 times becomes the truth.”

The claim that there have been no gun massacres since the introduction of John Howard’s 1996 gun laws has probably been repeated many more than 1000 times, which is perhaps why so many view it as the truth.

In the 20 years following 1996 there were 14 shootings in Australia involving multiple victims. Of these, 12 involved two or three fatalities, one involved four fatalities and one five fatalities. The death toll would have been higher but for some luck and lifesaving medical attention.
In the 20 years before 1996 there were 12 multiple fatality shootings, although there were more deaths in total.

There is no universally accepted definition of a massacre. Some argue that a mass murder can be described as a massacre only if undertaken by groups, not individuals, with a political motivation. Some historians claim that describing small-scale mass murders as massacres diminishes the large-scale mass murders that unquestionably fall within the definition.

Yet others insist a massacre is defined by the number of victims. By a remarkable coincidence, those responsible for the claim that there have been no massacres in Australia since 1996 insist there must be at least five victims.

Following the 2014 Hunt family murder-suicide in which there were five victims, it has even been suggested the minimum should be six.

It is most unlikely that any of those claiming there have been no gun massacres since 1996 have thought much about this. For them, it is sufficient to claim that massacres occurred before the gun laws but not after. They then draw the conclusion that the gun laws made the difference. It may be simplistic, but it clearly sounds compelling.

A better analysis of the impact of the 1996 gun laws would be to look at overall murders attributable to firearms.
By that measure, the laws made no difference.

Firearms death rates were declining in the 20 years before 1996 and continued to fall at precisely the same rate in the two subsequent decades. This occurred despite a substantial increase in licensed firearms ownership.

The “no massacres” claim is also usually accompanied by comparison with the US. Yet even there the facts contradict the claim. Notwithstanding some high-profile mass murders, the rate of US gun deaths during the past three decades has declined faster (albeit from a higher starting point) than in Australia.

And no one bothers to compare us with countries such as New Zealand that continue to have gun laws resembling Australia’s pre-Howard laws and that, like us, continue to see falling gun deaths.

I’m all for debate about gun laws, but let’s stick to incontrovertible facts, not those that become facts because they have been repeated many times.


Originally published in The Australian on the 7th June, 2017

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