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What the US can learn from Australia about gun control

Australia’s response to the 1996 Port Arthur massacre offers a model for the US to emulate.

Names of victims of the Sandy Hook school shooting are displayed on a flag in the business area in Newtown, Connecticut. Photograph: Getty Images.

The Sandy Hook school shooting is the 15th mass shooting in the US in 2012. With the state of American gun laws, it is unsurprising that you are forty times more likely to be shot there than in the United Kingdom.

But here’s the really shocking thing. Horrific as such tragedies are, they form a minute proportion of the number of people who will be killed by guns this year in the US. While at least 88 people have been killed in mass shootings so far this year (defined as leading to the deaths of at least four people), nearly 10,000 Americans are murdered each year by guns. The vast majority of those killed are in isolated attacks.

And even this number is under half of those killed in the US each year by guns. By far the most common cause of American gun fatalities is suicides. Death by firearms is the fastest growing method of suicide in the country. Consider, too, that there were 592 firearm accident deaths in 2008, the last year for which there are statistics. While periodic massacres dominate the media coverage of guns in the US, they are merely the most egregious examples of America’s gun laws.

No one would pretend changing these would be easy; the BBC's Justin Webb said that any attempt to lower gun ownership could result in "something like a new civil war" The National Rifle Association has over four million members; its "Political Victory Fund" supports "pro-gun" candidates – and provides a reminder to all others of what would be unleashed against them if they voted in favour of anti-gun legislation. Consider, too, that civilian ownership of guns has increased by almost 100 million between 1995 and today; by 2020, there could be more guns in the US than people.

Yet the raw and graphic nature of the tragedy has created a more real opportunity to introduce meaningful gun-control laws than the mere statistic of 30,000 people killed by guns a year ever could. Australia, a country with a love of ‘freedom’ and guns that bears some resemblance to the US, may provide lessons on how this could be done.

In 1996, 35 people were killed in the worst gun massacre in Australian history. But the next decade saw the firearm homicide rate fall by 59 per cent, and the firearm suicide rate fall by 65 per cent, without a corresponding rise in non-firearm deaths.

Australia’s response to the 1996 massacre was comprehensive. Admittedly, policies such as its government gun "buyback" policy could not conceivably be passed in the US. But other Australian policies, including a 28-day waiting period before purchase, and a complete ban on semi-automatic weapons could be imitated. The extent of America’s gun problems are so huge that even comparatively small improvements in their gun laws are worthwhile: a 1 per cent drop in gun fatalities would equate to a fall in deaths of 300.

Whatever happens, gun deaths in the US will remain far too high: it would take a ban on guns, utterly unthinkable, to end that fact. But the profound emotional impact of the massacre in Newtown does present an opportunity to improve America’s gun laws, however unsatisfactorily.