Joel Negin is head of the School of Public Health at the University of Sydney.
Last week, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau unveiled his party’s new gun-control strategy, which includes a number of measures including a ban on assault rifles, strengthening of safe storage laws, improved background checks on potential gun owners and a buyback plan to reduce the number of firearms in the community.
Coming in the middle of a heated election campaign, this announcement has created substantial commentary and debate about effects and implications and it comes amid a spate of gun violence in urban areas.
Firearm violence in Canada is inevitably viewed through the lens of the American experience where mass shootings in movie theatres, schools and shopping centres seem to have become the norm.
This is where the experience of Australia might be more instructive for Canada. Australia and Canada both have large rural areas of forests and farms, as well as urban centres, and a similar cultural and legal context unburdened by debates over constitutional rights to weapons.
Australian firearm policy had changed very little in the decades prior to 1996. In April of that year, 35 people were killed when a gunman opened fire in Port Arthur, Tasmania with a military-style semi-automatic rifle.
The massacre elicited a swift and dramatic policy response. Within 12 days, all state, territory and federal governments agreed to upgrade their gun laws to a new national standard and to commence a mandatory buyback of prohibited firearms. Within a year, a total of 659,940 semi-automatic rifles and shotguns were purchased and destroyed at a cost of 500-million Australian dollars. Funds for the buyback were raised by a one-off levy, which cost the average taxpayer 15 Australian dollars. In addition, thousands of gun owners voluntarily relinquished non-prohibited firearms without compensation.
The policy was not without political risk. Then-prime minister John Howard utilized considerable political capital to drive the changes. Large swaths of the population, particularly those in rural areas, were upset about them. The fact that the policy was led by a right of centre Liberal party with the support of the rural-based junior partner in the coalition government, perhaps allowed for this anger to be assuaged.
The Australian experience has had a positive impact on gun violence in the country. In the period immediately after the Port Arthur massacre, the risk of an Australian dying by gun violence fell by more than half. Australia’s rate of gun homicide per capita remains more than 20 times lower than that of the United States.
While the focus was on homicide prevention, in the years since the policy changes, suicide by firearm – by far more common than gun homicide – showed a significant decline – with no evidence of substitution in the means of suicide.
Overall, the number of firearm-related deaths in Australia fell by two-thirds comparing the 15 years before the Port Arthur massacre with the 15 years after.
It is debated in academic circles exactly how much the buyback and related policies contributed directly to these declines but the Australian population remains proud of its gun policy reform history and strong firearm control remains in the bipartisan policy arena.
How relevant is the Australian experience to Canada? Like Australia, there is strong public support for gun control and bans on assault rifles in Canada. And similar to Australia, there is likely to be opposition from rural constituents.
But the bipartisan nature of gun reform in Australia stands in stark contrast to the emerging debate in Canada where the Liberal Party is promoting gun control as a wedge issue against the Conservatives, accusing them of being “in the pocket of the gun lobby.”
It is encouraging to see gun policy being debated as a national issue, but the contentiousness of the discussion holds considerable risks for the development of a supported public-health oriented approach to reduce firearm-related violence and harms across Canada.
It took a horrific massacre that claimed the lives of 35 people for Australia to act – we can only hope it does not come to that for Canada.
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