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Editorial: Debate: Is Australia a good model for the U.S.?

Dec. 20, 2012

Abridged USA TODAY editorial and opposing view that ran Wednesday.

Australia has much in common with the United States. It was settled by teeming masses — in its case, largely convicts — fleeing England. Its identity was forged in the populating of its vast, empty spaces. And today it retains a considerable frontier mentality, and a considerable amount of ranching and hunting.

But the similarities end when it comes to guns. While gun ownership has been a part of Australians’ way of life, they have a much more utilitarian view of their purpose.

So, when a gunman killed 35 people in 1996 with a semi-automatic rifle in the tourist town of Port Arthur, on the island of Tasmania, the Australian people decided it was time for a change.

A new law, backed by a conservative prime minister, divided firearms into five categories. Some of the deadliest assault-style weapons and large ammunition clips are now all but impossible for individuals to lawfully own.

Firearms are subject to a strict permitting process, and dealers are required to record sales, which are tracked by the national and territorial governments. What’s more, the law encouraged people to sell their firearms back to the government, which purchased and destroyed about 700,000 of them.

The results are hard to argue with. According to a Harvard University study, 13 gun massacres (in which four or more people died) occurred in the 18 years before the law was enacted. In the 16 years since there has been none.

The overall firearm homicide rate dropped from 0.43 per 100,000 in the seven years before the law to 0.25 in the seven years after. By 2009, the rate had dropped further, to just 0.1 per 100,000, or one per million.

In the U.S., the 2009 firearm homicide rate was 3.3 per 100,000, some 33 times higher than Australia’s.

As the debate takes shape in coming weeks, lawmakers would do well to focus on the successes in Australia. That country has shown how tighter gun laws, and sensible attitudes about the role of guns in society, can make a real difference.

(Page 2 of 2)

Opposing view: Homicide rate was already declining

Why not emulate Australia’s rigorous gun control model in the United States?

For starters, it hasn’t worked. Twelve years after the new regulations were implemented, Time reported on new research suggesting the new regime “was a waste of public money and has made no difference to the country’s gun-related death rates.” The homicide rate had been declining before the 1996 ban; its post-ban decline has merely been a continuation of that trend. Indeed, not one other country that has banned guns has lowered its murder rate.

That doesn’t mean our existing gun controls are optimal. Early detection and treatment of mental illness might lead to firearms access restrictions that the most ardent gun rights advocates could support. But regulations must be fashioned with great care, not simply as a formulaic response to the Newtown tragedy. Multivictim killings — heart-rending and horrifying — are but a fraction of 1 percent of all murders in the United States, and they will sadly occur even where stringent gun controls are imposed.

Here’s the overriding principle: The Supreme Court has affirmed an individual right to bear arms for self-defense and other purposes. Such rights are not absolute. But the court’s decisions mean that government must show its proposed regulations will enhance public safety.

Yet 18 national studies in peer-reviewed journals establish that right-to-carry laws, for example, reduce violent crime; 10 studies indicate no discernible effect. No reliable evidence indicates that such laws increase crime.

By all means, let’s re-evaluate our gun laws in the aftermath of last week’s disaster. But there are significant costs when rights are compromised. Let’s be sure the ends justify the means.

Robert A. Levy is chairman of the board at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington.

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