Tough gun laws in Australia eliminate mass shootings

Study finds legislation effective in wake of 1996 massacre

man with guns

BUYBACK  In 1996, Australia initiated a program to purchase and destroy certain types of long guns, including semiautomatic weapons.  Over the next four years, the country collected more than 650,000 guns. 


Australia has seen zero mass shootings in the 20 years since it enacted strict gun control laws and a mandatory gun buyback program, researchers report June 22 in JAMA.

Key to this success is probably the reduction in people’s exposure to semiautomatic weapons, Johns Hopkins University health policy researcher Daniel Webster writes in an accompanying editorial.

“Here’s a society that recognized a public safety threat, found it unacceptable, and took measures to address the problem,” Webster says.

In April 1996, a man with two semiautomatic rifles shot and killed 35 people in Tasmania and wounded at least 18 others. Two months after the shooting, known as the Port Arthur massacre, Australia began implementing a comprehensive set of gun regulations, called the National Firearms Agreement.

The NFA is famous for banning semiautomatic long guns (including the ones used by the Port Arthur shooter), but, as Webster points out, it also made buying other guns a lot harder too. People have to document a “genuine need,” pass a safety test, wait a minimum of 28 days, have no restraining orders for violence and demonstrate good moral character, among other restrictions, Webster writes.

“In Australia, they look at someone’s full record and ask, ‘Is this a good idea to let this person have a firearm?’” Webster says. In the United States, “we do pretty much the opposite. The burden is on the government to show that you are too dangerous to have a firearm.”

Australia also initiated a mandatory gun buyback program in 1996, leading to the purchase and destruction of more than 650,000 semiautomatic and pump-action rifles and shotguns.

Simon Chapman of the University of Sydney and colleagues tallied up mass shootings before and after the NFA and analyzed 35 years of mortality data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

From 1979 to 1996, Australia had 13 fatal mass shootings involving five or more victims (not including the shooter), Chapman and colleagues report. From 1997 to May 2016, the country has had none. (Three shootings, however, have killed three or four victims.) Chapman’s team also found that the rate of gun deaths dropped rapidly after 1996 but can’t confirm that this reduction is due to the gun laws.

Meghan Rosen is a staff writer who reports on the life sciences for Science News. She earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology with an emphasis in biotechnology from the University of California, Davis, and later graduated from the science communication program at UC Santa Cruz.

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