Port Arthur and gun control: we cannot rest on our laurels

As the Australian community acknowledges the 25th anniversary of the Port Arthur massacre and remembers those murdered and injured, we also recognise the swift and dramatic policy response that ensued – and which has been followed by sustained and considerable reductions in firearm deaths and violence.

Yet, despite this progress, challenges remain in Australia’s world-leading public health response to gun violence. We honour the memory of that horrific day through continued vigilance to reduce firearm injury and death in our community.

A truck unloads prohibited firearms at a scrapmetal yard in 1997 after the Port Arthur massacre a year earlier.Credit:Reuters

On April 28,1996, a gunman opened fire in Port Arthur with military-style semi-automatic rifles, killing 35 people. Within days, with considerable leadership by new prime minister John Howard, deputy prime minister Tim Fischer of the National Party and numerous advocates, the National Firearms Agreement was established which strengthened gun-owner licensing and firearm registration. At the same time, a mandatory buy-back of newly prohibited firearms commenced. Over about 18 months, 659,940 firearms were purchased and destroyed.

In the 22 years after Port Arthur, there were no mass shootings (defined as shootings in which five or more people – not including the perpetrator – are killed), compared to 11 in the 20 years before Port Arthur. Average annual firearm-related deaths dropped from 3.6 per 100,000 population in the 17 years before Port Arthur to 1.2 per 100,000 in the 17 years after. Compared to the US – which has had nine mass shootings in 2021 alone – Australia’s rate of gun homicide is 25 times lower.

Yet Australia’s success is fragile and incomplete.

While assaults and mass shootings garner the most attention here and overseas, more than two-thirds of firearm deaths in Australia are suicides. Our data from NSW over the period 2002 to 2016 shows that firearm-related suicides were highest among those aged 60 years and older and were highest in rural and remote areas. Suggestions are also arising about the risk to our veterans and serving defence personnel which has contributed to the announcement of the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide.

Page one of the Sydney Morning Herald on April 29, 1996. The photo was taken by a Port Arthur tourist soon after the rampage began at the Broad Arrow Cafe, where the gunman left more than 20 dead. Credit:Sydney Morning Herald

The other area of firearm violence that has received insufficient attention is domestic and family violence. The recent case in Sydney where John Edwards murdered his children following a lengthy divorce and custody dispute with his former wife led the State Coroner to highlight information gaps that allowed the individual to legally purchase firearms despite a long documented history of violence.

While the proportion of Australians owning guns has dropped by about half between 1997 and 2020, the number of registered firearms in Australia now exceeds 3.5 million. International studies show domestic partner homicides are up to 12 times higher when firearms are accessible; and suicide rates up to 19 times higher.

The National Firearms Agreement that contributed to reductions in firearm violence was never fully implemented and has been chipped away at in various parts of Australia over the past 20 years. NFA-prohibited gun silencers, whose main advantage is to criminals, are creeping back in. Previously banned semi-automatic and other rapid-fire weapons and their ammunition are now more available to those who want them. The nationally-agreed ban on gun ownership by under-18 year-olds is ignored by every state and territory. Public complacency exploited by powerful lobby groups undermines Australia’s successes.

In light of cases of criminals exploiting gaps in the different gun registration systems in the various Australian jurisdictions to funnel firearms into the black market, the Commonwealth government continues a 25-year effort with states and territories to improve information sharing between jurisdictions and to create a nationally consistent registry system.

Australians are rightly proud of gun control in this country. Yet we cannot rest on our laurels. The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the effectiveness of public health approaches based on evidence and partnerships. Collaborations to improve safe storage of firearms, to improve information sharing between domestic violence data and firearm registries, to keep better track of guns to prevent movement to the black market, to support those struggling with mental health will all help reduce firearm violence in our community and keep Australians safe.

Professor Joel Negin is the head of the School of Public Health in the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Medicine and Health.

Crisis support is available from Lifeline on 13 11 14.

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