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Original Investigation |

Association Between Gun Law Reforms and Intentional Firearm Deaths in Australia, 1979-2013

Simon Chapman, PhD1; Philip Alpers1; Michael Jones, PhD2
[+] Author Affiliations
1School of Public Health, University of Sydney, Sydney, Australia
2Department of Psychology, Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia
JAMA. 2016;316(3):291-299. doi:10.1001/jama.2016.8752.
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Importance  Rapid-fire weapons are often used by perpetrators in mass shooting incidents. In 1996 Australia introduced major gun law reforms that included a ban on semiautomatic rifles and pump-action shotguns and rifles and also initiated a program for buyback of firearms.

Objective  To determine whether enactment of the 1996 gun laws and buyback program were followed by changes in the incidence of mass firearm homicides and total firearm deaths.

Design  Observational study using Australian government statistics on deaths caused by firearms (1979-2013) and news reports of mass shootings in Australia (1979–May 2016). Changes in intentional firearm death rates were analyzed with negative binomial regression, and data on firearm-related mass killings were compared.

Exposures  Implementation of major national gun law reforms.

Main Outcomes and Measures  Changes in mass fatal shooting incidents (defined as ≥5 victims, not including the perpetrator) and in trends of rates of total firearm deaths, firearm homicides and suicides, and total homicides and suicides per 100 000 population.

Results  From 1979-1996 (before gun law reforms), 13 fatal mass shootings occurred in Australia, whereas from 1997 through May 2016 (after gun law reforms), no fatal mass shootings occurred. There was also significant change in the preexisting downward trends for rates of total firearm deaths prior to vs after gun law reform. From 1979-1996, the mean rate of total firearm deaths was 3.6 (95% CI, 3.3-3.9) per 100 000 population (average decline of 3% per year; annual trend, 0.970; 95% CI, 0.963-0.976), whereas from 1997-2013 (after gun law reforms), the mean rate of total firearm deaths was 1.2 (95% CI, 1.0-1.4) per 100 000 population (average decline of 4.9% per year; annual trend, 0.951; 95% CI, 0.940-0.962), with a ratio of trends in annual death rates of 0.981 (95% CI, 0.968-0.993). There was a statistically significant acceleration in the preexisting downward trend for firearm suicide (ratio of trends, 0.981; 95% CI, 0.970-0.993), but this was not statistically significant for firearm homicide (ratio of trends, 0.975; 95% CI, 0.949-1.001). From 1979-1996, the mean annual rate of total nonfirearm suicide and homicide deaths was 10.6 (95% CI, 10.0-11.2) per 100 000 population (average increase of 2.1% per year; annual trend, 1.021; 95% CI, 1.016-1.026), whereas from 1997-2013, the mean annual rate was 11.8 (95% CI, 11.3-12.3) per 100 000 (average decline of 1.4% per year; annual trend, 0.986; 95% CI, 0.980-0.993), with a ratio of trends of 0.966 (95% CI, 0.958-0.973). There was no evidence of substitution of other lethal methods for suicides or homicides.

Conclusions and Relevance  Following enactment of gun law reforms in Australia in 1996, there were no mass firearm killings through May 2016. There was a more rapid decline in firearm deaths between 1997 and 2013 compared with before 1997 but also a decline in total nonfirearm suicide and homicide deaths of a greater magnitude. Because of this, it is not possible to determine whether the change in firearm deaths can be attributed to the gun law reforms.

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Figure.
Suicide and Homicide Death Rates According to Firearm Involvement (1979-2013)

The shape of the fitted lines involves 2 components. One component of interest is how much the slopes of the change in annual death rates differ between the periods before and after the gun law enactment (vertical dotted lines). Although it can be difficult to judge the magnitude from the graph itself, this is quantified in the RT column of Table 3, which provides estimates of the relative slopes (ratio: postlaw slope to prelaw slope) of the postlaw-to-prelaw trends in annual death rates. A ratio <1.0 indicates a stronger decline in annual death rates after the introduction of new gun laws compared with before. The second component of interest is the change in level of death rate, which is reported in the RL column of Table 3. This value represents the ratio of death rate at the start of the period 1997 onward to the death rate at the end of the period up to 1996. The distinction between these 2 components is illustrated by comparing panel C (nonfirearm suicide) and panel F (nonfirearm homicide). From C, the positive upward trend in annual death rates becomes negative shortly after the introduction of gun laws (hence, ratio of trends in Table 3 is <1.0), but the death rate immediately after gun law introduction is higher than immediately before (hence, the ratio of levels is >1.0). The y axis shown in blue indicates the range of deaths of 0 to 2.5 per 100 000 population.

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