The Radical Center
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The Radical Center

Clear as Mud: Australia and Guns

Vox makes a statement that needs some clarification. They note when guns were largely banned in Australia the “firearm suicide rate” declined.

First, we need to clarify what Vox said. In a tweet they said “firearm suicide rates” dropped, which is quite specific. In the headline to their story they claimed “suicides plummeted,” with no specificity about firearms at all. Next they said, “…they found… a decline in both suicide and homicide rates,” which again is a general decline in all suicides.

But they immediately followed that with “The average firearm suicide rates…. declined.”

So, it’s badly written. One moment it says all suicide rates fell and then it says “firearm suicide rates” fell. That’s clear as mud. It could be a claim that only firearm suicide rates fell, or that all suicide rates fell. We’ll see what the stats actually show in a moment.

As for the homicide rate dropping due to gun bans since 2007 the article then admits “Australia’s homicide rate was already declining before the NFA (law restricting guns), so you can’t attribute all of the drops to the new laws.” Let’s look at a chart of national homicide rates in Australia from 1989 to 2013/2014.

Australian homicide rates

The new restrictions went into effect in 1996 and homicides didn’t change at all, or they went up, between the time of the ban and 2002, which is the first time we saw a decline after the act was passed. It was at 1.6 the year the ban went into effect and remained there for the next two periods, it rose in 98/99 to 1.7 and then returned to 1.6 for the next two periods before jumping to 1.8 in 01/02.

Please note what the Vox article claims: “There is also this: 1996 and 1997, the two years in which the NFA was actually implemented, saw the largest percentage declines in the homicide rate in any two-year period in Australia between 1915 and 2004.” This flies in the face of what “Crime Statistics Australia” says on their own page, from which the above chart is taken.

There was a drop 94/95 to 95/96, but the new law was passed in 96 so the drop preceded it. From the time the bill passed the homicide rate remained steady or increased, until the period of 02/03. That’s very different from what Vox claimed.

U.S. gun violence rates have fallen

During the same time period the U.S. homicide rate has been declining rather dramatically, even as firearms in circulation increased. Some, such as John Lott, have tried to argue increased firearms results in lower homicide rates. The continuation of a previous trend can’t be attributed to an event that took place after the trend began.

Crime Statistics Australia says “homicide incidents” fell “by 22 percent over the last 25 years.” But, the U.S. saw homicides drop during the same 25 year period without gun confiscation. American homicide rates declined between 1991 and 2016 by 46%, or more than twice as fast. In addition, the American gun homicide rate, over the same period, dropped by over 50%, a decline more than double that in Australia during the same period.

As The Atlantic reported in 2016:

In the early 1990s, U.S. crime rates had been on a steep upward climb since the Lyndon B. Johnson presidency. The crack-cocaine epidemic in the mid-1980s added fuel to the fire, and handgun-related homicides more than doubled between 1985 and 1990. That year, murders peaked in New York City with 2,245 killings. Politicians embraced tough-on-crime platforms and enacted harshly punitive policies. Experts warned the worst could be yet to come.

Then crime rates went down. And then they kept going down.

By decade’s end, the homicide rate plunged 42 percent nationwide. Violent crime decreased by one-third. What turned into a precipitous decline started later in some areas and took longer in others. But it happened everywhere: in each region of the country, in cities large and small, in rural and urban areas alike. In the Northeast, which reaped the largest benefits, the homicide rate was halved. Murders plummeted by 75 percent in New York City alone as the city entered the new millennium.

As for suicide rates in Australia Vox (on May 18, 2018) says there was a 74% drop in “gun suicides” and “non-gun suicides didn’t increase to make up the decline.”

The Sydney Morning Herald, March 9, 2016 reported something a bit different:

“A steep rise in death by suicide among middle-aged Australians and young women has driven the national suicide rate to its highest level in 13 years.”

Australia’s suicide rate rose to 12 per 100,000 people in 2014, according to Bureau of Statistics figures released on Tuesday — the highest level since 2001, when it reached 12.6 per 100,000.”

The U.S. rate of 13 is only slightly higher. While Vox claims “non-gun suicides didn’t increase” official sources in Australia say otherwise. The Australian Bureau of Statistics shows suicide rates fluctuated since 2007 but increased in general. Here are the yearly rates since 2007.

2020………..12.1 (Update added 2022)

An academic paper, “Dynamic Pattern of Suicide in Australia, 1986–2005” paints a different picture as well. Where Vox claimed that “non-gun” suicide rates did NOT increase, this paper says they did, which mirrors what actual suicide rates in Australia show. In numerous places they say suicide by hanging increased. They write it is “suggestive that more strict firearm law enforcement may have led to significant lower suicide rate by firearms over an extended period at the national level after 1996.” But, and this is important, “decreased firearm suicide rate in young adults was accompanied by rising suicide rates by other methods at the national and local level.”

The paper notes that while other countries saw firearm suicide rates decline, they saw an “increased suicide rate by hanging over time” which may be due “to increased substitute methods (e.g., hanging) for firearms.” Another academic paper, “Trends in hanging and firearm suicide rates in Australia: substitution of method?” has the same conclusion. They said while gun suicides declined, suicide by hanging increased indicating “Australian males have substituted one method of suicide for another.” But Vox insists no such substitution took place. This paper synopsizes their findings and they don’t back up Vox:

Rates of suicide by hanging were found to have begun increasing prior to the decline in firearm suicide. The declining rate of firearm suicide in the 15- to 24-year-old subgroup coincided with an increase in the overall suicide rate. Relationships between trends in hanging and firearm suicide differed between states and between urban and non-urban areas within Queensland, with the firearm suicide rate falling more rapidly in urban areas, especially following the introductions of restrictions to weapon purchases. Individual suicide method choice may be related to independent changes in the social acceptability of each method, as well as to an increasing prevalence of suicide in younger males, who are more likely to use the hanging method.

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James Peron

James Peron is the president of the Moorfield Storey Institute, was the founding editor of Esteem a LGBT publication in South Africa under apartheid.