The ‘Myth’ of Firearms Legislation? The Gun Control Measures in the United States vis-à-vis Australia

Conventionally, gun rights advocates have sought to claim that stricter firearms legislation “does not hit the target” (Charles Cooke) and that the success of Australia’s prohibitive firearms regime in particular, is a “myth” (Ryan McMaken). Nonetheless, as this article will seek to demonstrate, such contentions rest on false presumptions. Legislation in Australia has proven strikingly efficacious and assumptions of the inherent inapplicability of such laws to America are exposed as largely unfounded. The Australian model of rigorous checks and limitations, coupled with the role of civil society actors in utilising major incidences of firearms-related violence to seize the normative initiative and present the nation with stark choices over the future direction of its society, is here posited as the key to passing successful legislation on guns.

U.S. Policies to Combat Firearms-related Violence

To gain an understanding of this complex issue, it is firstly necessary to give a brief outline of the various policies that have been introduced in the U.S. and Australia to combat firearms-related violence. In America, the 1968 Gun Control Act (GCA) bans the possession of fully automatic weapons, while the 1993 Brady Bill prohibits those with prior convictions, mental health issues or addiction problems from purchasing firearms. However, significant exemptions remain in both cases. Although the GCA was amended in 1994 to outlaw the possession of assault rifles, Congress allowed this to expire in 2004. Thus, Americans can still legally buy semiautomatic weapons, as used in each of the five deadliest mass shootings in the U.S. Additionally, under the so-called ‘gun show loophole’, federal law does not restrict intrastate transactions between private citizens, allowing gun owners and potential buyers to sell to each other privately, as long as they do not have ‘reasonable cause’ to believe that the purchaser would be banned under Brady’s Bill. Hence, the acquisition of semiautomatic weapons is still relatively straightforward under American law.

Australian More Restrictive Situation

In contrast, Australian gun laws are far more restrictive. Under the 1996 National Firearms Agreement (NFA) civilian ownership of automatic and semiautomatic weapons is proscribed, while the National Handgun Agreement of 2002 further limits even small arms possession to magazines with less than 10 rounds capacity. Crucially, private firearms transactions between citizens are also prohibited, unless conducted by a licensed gun dealer. Potential buyers need to pass criminal record, mental health, addiction, domestic violence and residential checks. Australians are also required to prove a genuine need to possess firearms (such as for hunting, pest control or occupational uses). Unlike in America, self-defence is not considered a ‘genuine reason’.

The claim that these more restrictive laws “do not hit their target” is largely unsupported by the evidence. Most obviously, in the eighteen years prior to the introduction of the NFA in 1996 there were thirteen firearms massacres in Australia, since 1996 there has been only one. Moreover, the rate of firearms-related deaths per one hundred thousand people stood at 2.6 in 1996, this has now dropped to only 0.98.

Gun rights advocates have sought to dismiss such evidence in several ways. These dismissals have tended to be based on a 2007 study which posited that the effect of firearms legislation in Australia was largely epiphenomenal, and that observed declines in gun-related deaths were simply the continuation of pre-existing homicide trends. However, as David Hemenway has pointed out, this study utilised 1979, the year with the highest levels of recorded gun violence, as its starting point. If one takes instead the entire period since 1945, the NFA has a clear effect. In the two years following its implementation, firearms-related homicides dropped by 46%.

“Gun shows loophole”

Some critics have also pointed out that the U.S. has a much higher rate of firearms possession than Australia, and that thus gun controls might be expected to have little effect. This claim also lacks any evidential basis. On the contrary, Australian gun laws seem to be disproportionately effective, taking into consideration per capita rates of firearms possession. Per capita, American citizens own 8.76 times as many guns as Australians, however suffer 12.46 times as many firearms-related deaths. This near fifty percent increase suggests not only that Australia’s gun laws are more efficacious in preventing casualties, but also that their controls determining who actually comes to possess guns, are better implemented. The disproportionately larger amount of deaths caused by firearms in the U.S, compared to rates of ownership, indicates that more citizens unsuited to the possession of lethal weapons are acquiring such weapons in the U.S. Perhaps the ‘gun shows loophole’ is more of a problem than is often realised.

If one accepts the strong evidence that stricter gun controls can prove efficacious in reducing firearms-related violence, the question arises as to why America has not followed a similar path. Typically, commentators have pointed to the well-funded U.S. gun lobby as the main reason for Congress’s lack of action. This accusation, however, does not lend itself to the facts, the Australian gun lobby spent more per capita on political donations in 2018 than its American counterpart. Instead, attention might be better placed on the proficiency of domestic social activist movements in campaigning for the extension of firearms legislation.

Firearms Regulatory Legislation

The ability of activist groups to socially construct and frame largescale incidences of gun violence as “defining moments” (to use the terminology of Adele Kirsten), proved crucial in the implementation of Australia’s stricter firearms laws in 1996. Following the Port Arthur massacre in Tasmania in which 35 people lost their lives, the Coalition for Gun Control (CGC) framed Australia’s future as a choice between ‘the American path’ or the normative priority of the sanctity of human life. The social construction of this defining choice in the nation’s future allowed the CGC to expose an ‘expectations gap’, between the norms Australians had come to define their society by, and the reality that prevalent possession of lethal weapons seemed to present. Largescale protests were organised in several major Australian cities and the libertarian Prime Minister John Howard implemented the NFA within six weeks. Clearly, when activist groups can create sufficient pressure democratically elected leaders are faced with little choice but to follow through on popular demands, no matter the scale of gun-lobby funding.

Thus far, American gun control activists have failed in their attempts to win widespread support for similar legislation. Nonetheless, the Australian example provides a clear model of how such support might be won and, more pertinently, there are signs that the tide might be turning. A recent Gallup poll indicated that 61% of Americans now support stricter gun legislation, while in 2018 38/59 Democrat congressional candidates hoping to win Republican-held districts openly supported gun law reform, in comparison in 2016 only 4/36 made similar pledges. American politicians are now beginning to actively campaign – and win – on this policy platform.

Hence, there might be some hope for future legislation, provided that activists groups can capitalise on the next major incidence in the same way that their Australian counterparts did in 1996. If activist movements can mobilise widespread support among key constituencies, engage in the social construction of major incidences as “defining moments” and expose ‘expectations gaps’ between societal norms and the realities of widespread gun violence, there is no reason to suppose that Australia’s successes cannot be replicated. Nevertheless, there remains a long road ahead before the real myth that firearms legislation ‘does not hit the target’ is fully dispersed.

About the author

Sam Burry is a former intern at the IIR, and is currently a finalist at the University of Cambridge studying History and Politics.

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