Opinion and Editorial

If Australia can crack on guns, why not America?

Phillip Knightley
Filed on July 29, 2006

GUNS mean a lot to many Americans. After my last column in which I concluded that there was nothing to stop Congress imposing gun control on Americans except their relatively new-found love for the gun, I was inundated with e-mails of angry protest:

"How much hashish have you been smoking. Next time the Nazis pull a blitzkrieg on you, don’t call us... the people that founded the United States wanted to get away from idiots like you. I would rather be trigger-happy than have my throat cut by a ‘mooselem’ Get out your towel, face east and hope that Allah spares you.. an armed people are citizens, a disarmed people are subjects and we Americans refuse to be subjects . .. . stay where you are you socialist moron and mind your own business." And so on.

There was only one e-mail of support, from the Bergen-Passaic chapter of the Million Mom March, a gun control group: "How the National Rifle Association has bamboozled the American public."

Part of this was my own fault. I had read about the tenth anniversary of the Port Arthur massacre in Australia. Martin Bryant, a social misfit, killed 20 innocent people with his first 29 bullets, all in the space of 90 seconds, using a type of gun sold openly by law-abiding firearm dealers as ‘assault weapons’. Twelve days later the Australian government announced nation-wide gun law reform. I thought, if Australia can do it, why not America?

I found an article I had saved from a British newspaper saying that neither America’s tradition and history nor constitution imposed an insuperable barrier to regulating gun ownership in America and I used this as a major source for what I then wrote. But I failed to notice that the article had been written in 1999 and many of its statements were out of date. For instance, it quoted Michael Bellesiles an American academic, then a professor at Emory University in Atlanta, as demolishing as a myth the idea that the gun is an essential part of America’s history and culture.

It said that Bellesiles had been able to show that at no time before 1850 did more than a tenth of the adult male population own guns. What I did not know —and I apologise for failing to check (a bad professional lapse) —was that some of Bellesiles’s statistics did not stand up to gun lobby scrutiny and attacked over his work in 2002 he lost his job and his career. The argument about whether the Second Amendment guarantees the people’s right to carry guns in a private capacity or only as members of a militia has gone on for years and will continue.

But where do we stand on the crucial question of any link between gun ownership and crime rates? Many of my American correspondents demanded that I answer this question: why, if guns cause crime, Britain and Australia had experienced soaring crime rates after banning guns. As one e-mail put it: "To use an American colloquialism, wazzup with that total gun ban in merry old England? Those darned criminals just refuse to co-operate?"

But the very day that this e-mail arrived, a headline in my Guardian newspaper read: "The murder rate for England and Wales is experiencing its first sustained fall since the 1960s, according to annual crime figures published today."

As for Australia, a study from Oxford University Press states: "Despite reports of a crime wave in Australia following recent restrictions on the private ownership of firearms, evidence actually shows sweeping reductions in gun-related death, injury, and crime." (Small Arms Survey 2004 Yearbook, June 2004)

The results in Australia are important because more than 700,000 guns were removed from the community (the equivalent figure in the USA would be 40 million guns). No other nation had ever attempted anything on this scale. In the country’s leading newspaper, the Sydney Morning Herald, the question was asked, "So, ten years later, can we see a difference?" The answer was resoundingly, yes. The results are in: Australia’s tightened gun controls have been followed by remarkable reductions in gun deaths.

It is true that in an area that arouses such passions as gun control, statistics are a minefield because of the difficulty in comparing like with like. But in all the stuff that came my way as a result of what I wrote, one point stood out: "Stick to apples and apples: real gun violence versus real gun violence. There it is indisputable that the rate of GUN homicide, and other GUN-related death, is much higher in the United States." Enough. I now plan to move on to other topics.

Phillip Knightley is a veteran journalist based in London. He can be reached at PhillipGK@aol.com

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