Tim Blair blogs an item about Australian gun laws and crime rates:
Despite Australia having “the most up-to-date” gun laws, gun crimes still happen somehow:
From 1999 to 2002 the number of robberies involving firearms in Sydney’s most populated areas rose by 34 per cent, while handgun homicide has grown from 13 to 50 per cent since Martin Bryant killed 35 people at the Port Arthur tourist site in Tasmania in April 1996.
Those stats are from a UN conference, by the way. The proposed solution? More laws!
Being a curious little armadillo, I went to the Australian Bureau of Statistics website and checked the latest figures.
I found that in fact the homicide rate involving firearms has remained static between 1996 and 2001 (the latest figures). The number of murders using firearms fell from 0.5 per 100,000 population to 0.3, while the number of attempted murders rose slightly from 0.6 to 0.7. As for robberies, the number of robberies using firearms was 8.7 per 100,000 people in 1996 and exactly the same number in 2001 (although it rose and then fell in between those years).
Why the discrepancy between the official statistics and those quoted by Tim? Well, I think it has something to do with the qualifying words to both quoted figures: robberies … in Sydney’s most populated areas and handgun homicide. The statistics simply show that while overall firearm robbery rates didn’t change at all, there are some hotspot suburbs where they rose significantly. Hardly a surprise, and it says nothing at all about the efficacy or otherwise of gun laws (one way or the other).
However, the fact that homicides by handgun rose by 13 to 50 percent (presumably as a proportion of the total number of firearm homicides which, as we know, didn’t rise at all) appears to be rather more significant. It must mean that homicides using rifles and shotguns (i.e. firearms which are not “handguns”) actually fell by the same amount. Since rifles and shotguns (at least the semi-automatic variety) have been subject to the post-Port Arthur gun laws promoted by PM John Howard, while handguns haven’t, the figures strongly suggest that the Howard gun laws have been effective (contrary to the fond wishes of the gun lobby). No doubt that’s why, as Tim observed, the conference paper presenter was suggesting that similar restrictive laws concerning handguns might well have a similarly beneficial effect on crime rates. I’m indebted to Tim Blair for drawing my attention to these very interesting figures.
What appears to be occurring is a substitution effect. Because it’s more difficult for potential offenders to get their hands on a semi-automatic rifle or shotgun, they’re using handguns or knives or syringes instead. Now, on one view that doesn’t provide much cause for rejoicing. The victim ends up equally dead whatever weapon is used. However, it’s much less likely that a situation involving a junkie holding up a chemist shop, or an irate spouse or neighbour in a domestic situation, will spiral out of control and result in homicide where a gun is not involved. I strongly suspect the vastly greater gun proliferation in the US is the main reason for their much higher homicide rate. We’d be much better off if all junkies robbing chemist shops were armed with knives or syringes rather than guns (of whatever sort). There’d be many fewer deaths, although the same number of robberies.
As I wouldn’t want to be equally guilty of making selective or misleading use of statistics, I should also mention that, although firearm crime rates for homicide and robbery haven’t risen since 1996, rates for use of firearms during kidnappings have risen significantly, while firearm useage rates during other categories of violent crime (assault; sexual assault) have fluctuated but shown no clear pattern either upwards or downwards.
Also, although the use of firearms during violent crimes generally hasn’t risen at all, the total number of those violent crimes rose quite substantially right through the 1990s (that is, there is significantly more crime, but no increase in the use of guns to commit them). That in itself tends to suggest that gun laws have been effective. However, it isn’t possible to draw any rational connection between the increase in overall crime and changes in gun laws (not least because the increases began long before the Port Arthur laws were introduced). By the same token, and despite the discredited attempts of John Lott Jnr, it also isn’t possible to draw any rational connection between American gun laws and the fairly dramatic fall in US crime rates during the 1990s. Instead, Peter Saunders and Nicole Billante make a quite persuasive case that both the US and Australian trends are explained, at least in part, by changing law enforcement and sentencing patterns. US policing has become tougher and more effective, as has criminal sentencing, and that has been reflected in a significant fall in crime rates. The opposite pattern has been evident in Australia (and the UK).
The bottom line? The lefties are correct that tougher gun laws are effective in reducing the commission of crimes using guns. The righties are correct that tougher policing and sentencing are effective in reducing crime rates overall. As the title to Saunders and Billante’s article succinctly puts it: “Find ’em, catch em’, put ’em in prison: how to reduce the crime rate.” It isn’t really rocket science, it’s just that prevailing left ideology prohibits any admission that “law and order” policies actually seem to work, while prevailing right ideology doesn’t allow the possibility that restrictive gun laws work too.