Gun violence is nothing new to America. In fact, research recently found that, although the U.S. boasts only 5 percent of the world’s population, America is home to 31 percent of all public shootings. The most deadly mass shooting to ever take place on U.S. soil is also the most recent one: the attack in Orlando, Florida.
With these tragic events occurring more often, government officials are seeking new ways to keep our country safe. Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have referenced Australia’s evident success with its gun buy-back program. But is Australia really an example of success – and would the U.S. benefit from following their lead?
To find out about gun violence and prevention in America, ENTITY talked with Adam Winkler, a UCLA law professor who specializes in American constitutional law, and Paul Helmke, a professor at Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs and the founding director of the Civic Leaders Living-Learning Center.
Here’s what these experts want you to know about Australia’s buy-back program, and how it could apply to the U.S.
Australia’s buy-back program has its roots in a 1996 mass shooting. That year, a man used his semiautomatic weapons to kill 35 and wound 23 people in Port Arthur, Tasmania.
What happened next? “Australia moved quickly to make it harder for such tragedies to occur again by restricting the sale and possession of particularly dangerous and lethal weapons, and by requiring such weapons to be sold to the authorities,” explains Helmke.
In particular, the government banned automatic and semiautomatic rifles and shotguns. John Howard, the prime minister at the time, also led a gun “buy-back program” (though some Australians argue it was pure confiscation). With this program, over 600,000 weapons were bought and destroyed while Australians paid a one-time tax.
Many, like Helmke, have concluded that “such efforts appear to have been successful at reducing gun violence in Australia.” A 2012 study examined crime rates a decade after the law was introduced and found “the firearm homicide rate fell by 59 percent, and the firearm suicide rate fell by 65 percent, without a parallel increase in non-firearm homicides and suicides.” Numbers like these are probably why Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have both publicly suggested that America consider adopting a similar strategy.
However, like Winkler, others point out that “it is not clear at all that [the buy-back program] was effective in Australia. While people often tout the fact that there have been no mass shootings, that can’t be because of the gun buy-back program. Levels of gun ownership in Australia are still very high.”
In fact, the Sporting Shooters’ Association of Australia estimates that only 19 percent of banned firearms were turned in. Even worse, the country’s underground black market for firearms is flourishing. One study revealed a 300 percent increase in pistol-related crimes in parts of Australia between 2005/06 and 2014/15.
Early this March, the Australian government announced that there were over 600,000 illegal firearms in the country and scheduled another firearms amnesty program to take place in July. While state-wide amnesties have occurred since 1996, this program will be the first Australia-wide amnesty initiative since the first one in 1996.
So, Australia’s program isn’t completely successful – but is it still a good blueprint for the U.S. to tweak and follow?
The experts we interviewed are torn. “A gun buy-back program like the one in Australia would not likely be effective in the US,” says Winkler. “Most mass shootings in the US, for example, are committed with handguns, which remain lawful in Australia.” However, Helmke argues, “To the extent that there would be fewer of these particularly dangerous and lethal weapons in circulation, the hope – and my belief – is that there would be less gun violence.”
Even the research is conflicting. Some studies have tied gun numbers to violence, with one 2013 report concluding: “For each percentage point increase in gun ownership, the firearm homicide rate increased by 0.9 percent.” On the other hand, a 2007 study found, “There is no consistent significant positive association between gun ownership levels and violence rates.”
There are also legal complications in applying Australia’s method to the U.S. Australia’s constitution does not give its citizens the right to bear arms, while the United States’ does. As a result, “A mandatory buy-back program would be a clear violation of the Second Amendment,” says Winkler.
Helmke argues, though, that there is some wiggle room for lawmakers to work with: “According to the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Antonin Scalia, Second Amendment rights are ‘not unlimited’ and restrictions on who can get guns, how guns are sold, how guns are stored, how and where guns are carried, and what kinds of guns are available for purchase are ‘presumptively lawful.'”
Australia also does not have a large organization like the National Rifle Association in the United States that would oppose such an initiative. When Clinton argued for more gun control at a 2015 campaign event in Keene, New Hampshire, the N.R.A. quickly replied: “The real goal of gun control supporters is gun confiscation. Hillary Clinton, echoing President Obama’s recent remarks on the same issue, made that very clear.” Most Americans agree with the NRA to some extent, according to a 2016 survey. In fact, only 53 percent of respondents wanted stricter gun laws.
Even if Australia’s buy-back program was perfect, plenty of work would need to be done to make it perfect for Americans.
If a buy-back program isn’t the answer, what is? Both of the experts ENTITY talked to agreed on this point: “We need universal background checks and better enforcement of our current gun laws,” in the words of Winkler.
“We know that guns found at crime scenes disproportionately come from states without universal background checks,” says Winkler. “We can and should do more to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill.” Helmke takes this tactic a step further by suggesting that individuals with dangerous records be put “into a national data base of ‘prohibited [firearm] purchasers'” and that U.S. officials “restrict access to particularly dangerous and lethal weapons and the large capacity magazines they use.”
According to that same 2016 survey, 41 percent of Americans believe that federal law already requires universal background checks for all gun purchases – but that isn’t the case. Instead, background checks are only required to purchase certain guns in certain states. Could increasing permit-to-purchase laws and background check requirements decrease crime? Research says “maybe.” One study found that a 1995 Connecticut law requiring gun permits was associated with a 40 percent and a 15 percent drop respectively in gun homicides and suicides. And when Missouri repealed its gun permit law in 2007, gun homicides jumped by 23 percent and suicides by 16 percent.
As for dealing with the black market, Helmke and Winkler agree that America needs to start at the source. “There will always be a black market for guns,” explains Winkler. “We should do more to crack down on the rogue gun dealers that enable those guns to enter the stream of black market commerce.”
Regardless of whatever restrictions, laws or programs the U.S. decides to take to curb gun violence, “it may take years…to have much of an impact,” says Hilmke. However, “What we need now is a willingness to take action to reduce the continuing tragedies of gun homicides, gun suicides, and accidental deaths – as well as the numbers of those who survive such shootings with serious injuries – in the U.S.”
Gun use and control has always been controversial in the United States. If we want to avoid more tragedies like Orlando, though, pro and anti-gun Americans need to find some common ground. Perhaps the biggest lesson the U.S. can learn from Australia’s buy-back program? A buy-back program may not be the perfect solution; however, doing something seems to be more commendable than doing nothing at all.
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