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.

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.

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

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.