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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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.