The NRA's favorite myth, demolished: Australia debunks the right-wing narrative that smarter gun policy can't make a difference

Australia got rid of rifles and shotguns and saw their suicide and homicide rates plunge

By Sophia Tesfaye

Senior Politics Editor

Published October 2, 2015 5:54PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)
(Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

While conservatives are busying trying to shutdown any debate on gun control following the 45th school shooting this year by yelling about Chicago's murder rates -- apparently unaware that Chicago is the third largest city in the country but not even in the top five cities with the highest murder rate per capita -- and reflexively decrying any mention of gun control as a "gun grab," what if we just entertained their wildest conspiracy theories for just a bit?

A 2015 study found that when guns are used to kill people in the United States, they are overwhelmingly used for murder rather than self-defense. That study found that in 2012, there were only 259 justifiable homicides, or what is commonly referred to as self-defense, compared to 8,342 criminal firearm homicides. In 2008-2012, the report says, guns were used in 42,419 criminal homicides and only 1,108 justifiable homicides.

So if Americans aren't using their guns for self-defense, does it make sense to do away with the charade of "sensible gun restrictions" talk and just get real about banning at least some guns outright?

Of course, America is awash in guns with approximately one gun for every U.S. citizen, but would examining Australia's model on guns, as President Obama has suggested, be instructive for our gun violence crisis?

"When Australia had a mass killing … it was just so shocking the entire country said, 'Well, we're going to completely change our gun laws,' and they did. And it hasn't happened since," the president recently told comedian Marc Maron.

So let's put obvious cultural differences aside and examine the claim.

On April 29, 1996, a a 28-year-old man went on a murderous rampage with a rifle in the former Australian colonial town of Port Arthur, Tasmania, killing 35 people and injuring 23 more before eventually being apprehended.

Shocked by the horrific magnitude of the massacre, Australian lawmakers passed sweeping new gun laws in a matter of days -- 12 to be exact.

The National Firearms Agreement and Buyback Program, as the package of legislation was called, prohibited the sale of shotguns as well as semiautomatic and self-loading rifles. Waiting periods and safety courses became mandatory for new gun owners and limits on the sale of ammunition were imposed.

Most importantly, perhaps, the legislation allocated $250 million for a gun buyback program, allowing for newly outlawed rifles and shotgun to be destroyed by the Australian government. Ultimately more than 640,000 firearms were either purchased by the Australian government or voluntarily handed in.

So did the confiscation work?

A 2012 study estimated  260,000 illegal guns were still in circulation Down Under, and a more recent report from Rupert Murdoch's NewsCorp (I can sense the eye rolls) found that 37,000 new gun licenses were issued in the last five years, reportedly resulting in no increased gun related crimes.

Of course, under Australia's reformed gun regulatory scheme, a licensed firearm owner is required to be reevaluated every five years and if authorities discovery any "reliable evidence" of a mental or physical barrier to responsible gun ownership, the license is revoked.

In the years after the Port Arthur massacre, gun-related homicides decreased 7.5 percent per year while suicide by gun dropped by a whopping 80 percent until the the risk of dying by gunshot in Australia fell by more than 50 percent in the decade following the attacks.

Pretty remarkable statistics.

Of course, mass shootings haven't been eliminated in Australia. In 2011 three people were killed and three were wounded in the Hectorville siege and last year three people (including the gunman) were killed during the Sydney hostage crisis. But compare those numbers to the 112 people killed during the 13 mass shootings in the 18 years prior to the passage of Australia's National Firearms Agreement and Buyback Program.

By Sophia Tesfaye

Sophia Tesfaye is Salon's senior editor for news and politics, and resides in Washington, D.C. You can find her on Twitter at @SophiaTesfaye.

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2nd Ammendment Australia Gun Control Gun Violence U.s. Gun Crime