In the renewed debate over gun control sparked by the mass shooting in Newtown, CT, one of the most widely discussed data points has been the case study in Australia — where, following the worst mass shooting in the nation’s history, gun control policy may have effectively suppressed gun-related suicides.
On April 28, 1996, a gunman shot and killed 35 people in Port Arthur, Tasmania. In response, Australian Prime Minister John Howard — a close alley of President George W. Bush — oversaw the passage of sweeping new gun control legislation. Semiautomatic and automatic rifles and shotguns were banned, and a mandatory government buyback program was enacted to collect those weapons. The results, rounded up by the Washington Post’s Dylan Matthews and Slate’s Will Oremus, were striking:
[H]omicides by firearm plunged 59 percent between 1995 and 2006, with no corresponding increase in non-firearm-related homicides. The drop in suicides by gun was even steeper: 65 percent. Studies found a close correlation between the sharp declines and the gun buybacks. Robberies involving a firearm also dropped significantly. Meanwhile, home invasions did not increase, contrary to fears that firearm ownership is needed to deter such crimes. But here’s the most stunning statistic. In the decade before the Port Arthur massacre, there had been 11 mass shootings in the country. There hasn’t been a single one in Australia since.
Since there was no corresponding rise in homicides or suicides not involving firearms, individuals weren’t simply shifting to other methods to harm themselves or others. They were actually deciding against committing acts of violence in the absence of easy access to guns. Researchers found that a buyback of 3,500 guns per 100,000 people reduced the firearm suicide rate by as much as 74 percent:
This isn’t the first time that public health researchers have pointed out the relationship between gun possession and suicide. For instance, when Israel stopped allowing its soldiers to take their guns home and had them leave them on base, suicides on weekends dropped 60 percent among the country’s soldiers. The impulse to commit suicide is temporary — so if the density of guns within a population goes down, then so does the chance that any person’s momentary desire to take their own life will intersect with access to a firearm.
Here in the United States, however, the suicide rate and the instances of gun-inflicted wounds have both been on the rise. Some reports suggest the Great Recession increased the U.S. suicide rate fourfold, since economic downturns put an outsized strain on mental health — but that time period also coincided with widespread cuts to mental health services across state budgets.