Guns Down Under


Last spring, Australian officials complained that a TV spot produced by the National Rifle Association was misleading the public about the impact of their country's strict gun control policies. The ad, which can be viewed on the NRA's Web site (www.nra.org), says that murders with guns, assaults with guns, armed robberies, and home invasions all increased after the Australian government confiscated about 660,000 privately owned firearms in 1996. "According to the Australian government–and official statistics–the NRA has its facts wrong," The Christian Science Monitor reported.

Well, yes and no. The murder claim is somewhat misleading. According to the Australian Institute of Criminology, a government-funded think tank, the number of gun homicide victims dropped from 104 in 1996 to 79 in 1997. But since 35 of the 1996 victims died in a single episode (the Port Arthur massacre, which was the catalyst for the government's gun seizure), the number of gun homicide incidents actually rose. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the total number of homicides (with and without guns) also rose, from 350 in 1996 to 360 in 1997, before dropping to 333 in 1998. That year there were 54 gun homicides, about half as many as in 1996.

The NRA's other claims are on firmer ground. ABS figures indicate that, between 1996 and 1998, assaults rose 16 percent, armed robberies jumped a startling 73 percent, and unlawful entries went up 8 percent.

Defenders of gun control cite the 1998 decline in homicide as evidence that Australia's policies are working, while opponents cite the two-year increases in other offenses as evidence that the government has encouraged criminals by disarming law-abiding citizens. It's hard to say who is right. Homicides in Australia have been fluctuating since the late 1980s, and the upward trends in assaults, robberies, and unlawful entries began before 1996. Still, it may be significant that the robbery trend accelerated dramatically after potential victims were forced to turn in their guns.