When 28-year-old Martin Bryant walked into the Broad Arrow Cafe on one early afternoon during the Australian autumn of 1996, few people undoubtedly had any idea that they would find themselves staring down the barrel of an L1A1, semi-automatic battle rifle wielded by a blonde-haired Tasmanian devil who would then go on to slaughter 35 innocent people in cold-blood, and injure 24 others in what would come to be known as the Port Arthur massacre. As protocol dictates when such tragedies occur, widespread debate on the merits of gun ownership could be found on the lips of politicians, quickly prompting the Howard administration to implement some of the strictest gun control measures not only within the Commonwealth but within the entire world, outlawing such weapons as semi-automatic rifles and pump-action shotguns, all the while keeping a strong grip and a close eye on those who wished to buy other, less dangerous firearms.
There is something admirable in a leader’s wish to protect his citizenry from the destructive effects of gun-based violence, and one would be hard-pressed to prove that any such motives were, in fact, prompted by a conspiratorial program meant to disarm the general populace for nefarious political ends. Keeping mentally ill and criminally-inclined hands off certain forms of weaponry seems reasonable enough. And, as expected, firearm-based massacres declined in the years following Australia’s legal reforms. Howard’s gun control was a success — if by success we mean only three fewer mass killing fatalities in the 18 years following its institution as compared with the 18 years preceding it. True, this includes the Snowtown murders, which were drawn out over a period of seven years, starting in 1992 and ending in 1999, which make this incident of a somewhat different sort. But even excluding these particular statistics, we’re left with 71 massacre fatalities before and 62 after — a difference of only nine. And this difference, while no doubt significant in its own right, can easily be attributed to the declining homicide rate, which, I might add, had already been declining in the years prior to 1996 as demonstrated by the Australian Institute of Criminology’s own data. What’s more, firearm homicides began their downward trend all the way back in 1969 and continued despite the proliferation of military-grade rifles throughout some regions of the continent. In short: nothing changed since the adoption of the National Firearms Agreement, and more violent-minded individuals have since turned to burning retirement homes and stabbing children to satisfy their macabre desire to inflict harm.
The United Kingdom has fared similarly. With strict gun legislation already on the books, the Prime Minister decided to ban nearly all personal handguns at the prompting of Lord Cullen and due to the tragic shooting of 16 Dunblane school children in the spring of 1996. We’re now told jubilantly by some that the control measures must have worked since the British lasted 14 years before another firearm-based massacre took place, as if this means anything at all. Within the 14 years prior to Dunblane there had only been one firearm-based massacre and apparently none in the 14 years prior to that. Guns were rarely a problem in the Isles and one may, of course, argue that this dearth of gun violence is a product of the draconian regulations that had been implemented, beginning in the 1920s and strengthened in 1937 and 1968. This is fair. Be that as it may, however, such regulations can hardly be considered satisfactorily successful when the homicide rate has virtually been increasing ever since and, after a sharp rise in the early 2000s, has finally evened out to a level not showing any drastic improvement over those seen prior to 1997. Whereas for Australia we could say that nothing changed, for the Kingdom, if it hasn’t gotten worse, it hasn’t gotten much better either. And the British disgruntled sure seem to have a peculiar affinity for explosive devices.
In 2003, a CDC task force reviewed the scholarly literature on gun control in an attempt to ascertain the efficacy of such legislation and was ultimately forced to conclude that there existed no actual evidence that any of the policies theretofore instituted worked. One year later, the National Academy of the Sciences essentially agreed after reviewing hundreds of documents, writing, “despite a large body of research, the committee found no credible evidence that the passage of right-to-carry laws decreases or increases violent crime, and there is almost no empirical evidence that the more than 80 prevention programs focused on gun-related violence have any effect on children’s behavior, knowledge, attitudes, or beliefs about firearms.” Both publications rightly urge caution, noting the lack of research on a number of questions that would be relevant to the topic. But I still find myself asking, “if, after all of this, the effectiveness of such policies is so hard to discern, how effective can they be?”
The greatest difficulty one encounters in combing through the research is the persistent emphasis on gun availability and gun-based violence, which, to my mind, means very little. Most people, after all, don’t care all too much if they die in a shooting, bombing, burning, or stabbing since they die anyway (although, for my money, a bullet through the spinal cord would probably be best). To whatever extent authors have focused on firearm legislation and overall homicide rates as opposed to just one particular form of homicide, the conclusions seem to be virtually unanimous: little to no impact exists at all. Which just goes to demonstrate that all this talk about gun control as if it can adequately make a substantial difference in curbing American violence is just empty conversation with no basis in reality. Banning assault rifles and mandating restrictive licensing requirements might appear to make a good bit of sense, but at the end of the day, it really doesn’t, since too many other factors drive people to kill and since the deranged have proven themselves quite capable of causing widespread devastation using just about any method.