Countries changed course after gun massacres, and the effect was remarkable

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Around the world, mass killings often provoke a common response: authorities impose new restrictions on firearms possession. Shooting massacres become rarer. Homicides and suicides also tend to decrease.

After a gunman killed 16 people in 1987, the UK banned the sale of semi-automatic weapons. The same ban was applied to most handguns after a school attack in 1996. The country now has one of the lowest firearm death rates in the developed world.

In Australia, a massacre in 1996 gave rise to a mandatory gun buyback policy, thanks to which up to 1 million firearms were destroyed. The frequency of mass shooting incidents has dropped from one every 18 months to, so far, one in the 26 years since the measure was adopted.

Canada also tightened its firearms laws after a 1989 mass shooting. Germany did the same in 2002, New Zealand in 2019 and Norway last year.

Only the United States, where the frequency and severity of shootings is unparalleled except in conflict zones, has consistently refused to respond to these events by adopting more prohibitive laws. While restrictions like these have always sparked some controversy, most of them have received broad support from voters in other countries.

Even in Australia, where conservative politics and rural traditions have always favored gun ownership, most citizens have accepted mandatory repurchase. In a show of support for tougher laws, Australians even handed over weapons they could legally keep.

Each shooting massacre is in a sense a unique event motivated by specific factors such as the shooter’s ideology or personal circumstances. It is impossible to eliminate the risk completely.

But the facts are unequivocal and are confirmed by several studies that have analyzed the effects of public policies such as those adopted by the United Kingdom and Australia: when countries tighten gun control laws, the number of guns in the hands of private citizens declines, and that, in turn, leads to less gun violence — and less shooting.

UK: broad ban

The UK today has one of the most restrictive gun control regimes in the developed world, so much so that even many police officers do not carry guns. But it was not always so. The historical importance of sport hunting in the country has created a long tradition of gun ownership, especially in rural areas.

This began to change in 1987, after the so-called Hungerford massacre, which takes its name from the small English town where it took place. A 27-year-old man used two semi-automatic rifles and a short-barreled weapon, which he legally owned, to kill 16 people. His motive was never discovered.

The British Conservative government promptly banned rifles like the ones the gunman had used and mandated that gun owners would have to register their weapons with the police.

The 1996 shooting in a small Scottish town, where an inhabitant killed 15 students and a teacher, prompted the adoption of more changes. A government inquiry recommended that access to firearms be restricted. The Conservative government went even further, banning all but small-caliber handguns, which a subsequent Labor government banned the following year.

The reforms also require owners of licensed firearms to go through a strict licensing process, which involves interviews and home visits by local police, who can deny approval if they deem the person interested in acquiring a firearm to be a potential security risk. public.

Gun massacres have not completely disappeared in the UK: one gunman killed 12 people in 2010 and another killed five in 2021. But all forms of gun violence have dropped. Today there are around five firearms for every 100 people in the UK (with the exception of Northern Ireland where the number is highest), one of the lowest rates in the developed world. The firearm homicide rate is about 0.7 per million, also one of the lowest.

Australia: National gun buyback programs

American gun control activists often cite Australia’s extensive gun buyback programs. While no other country rivals the United States in terms of the gun-to-people ratio, which in the US is more than double that of second-place Yemen, Australia has had similar cultural and political affinities in the past regarding gun ownership.

Despite this, after a 1996 incident in which a gunman killed 35 people in the city of Port Arthur, authorities successfully imposed broad and successful new restrictions.

The national buyback program ended up taking between one in five and one in three firearms out of private hands. The weapons targeted were mainly semi-automatic rifles and many shotguns that were no longer allowed under the new legislation.

The country has also changed gun ownership, which, by inherent right, as it is in only a handful of countries like the US, has become a privilege that citizens must affirmatively earn.

Today, Australians who want to own a gun must register with a national registry, wait 28 days and go through a licensing process that includes demonstrating a valid reason for owning a gun. Since then, shootings have disappeared in the country. Something that has been repeated almost annually has occurred only once since the renovations, an attack in 2018 that left seven dead.

But the biggest effect may have been on other forms of violence. A 2011 survey of crime and suicide data concluded that the gun control program “appears to have been incredibly successful in terms of lives saved.” The rate of firearm homicides has halved, as has the rate of suicides, the study found. Non-firearm homicides and suicides did not increase. Subsequent research confirmed these conclusions.

Despite this, in recent years the rate of gun ownership in Australia has been rising little by little, as has the rate of homicides committed with guns.

Canada and Norway: gradual changes

Not all reforms have been as dramatic as those in the UK or Australia. Canada tightened restrictions on gun ownership in response to an incident in 1989 in which 14 female college students were killed. Licenses were now required for shotguns and rifles, which had to be registered with the authorities. There were already similar rules regarding handguns.

But the new rules, which created controversy in rural communities, were not enforced until 1995, six years after the massacre, and most of them were abolished in 2012. Canadian firearm laws are still far more restrictive than those in the United States. , but they are more permissive than those in many other countries. Gun ownership, firearm homicide, and firearm mass murder rates in the country follow a similar pattern: they are a fraction of the US rates, but higher than in most other developed countries.

Norway also reacted relatively slowly in the wake of a far-right terrorist attack in 2011 that killed 77 people. Although the country has one of the highest gun ownership rates in Europe, its rates of firearm violence are relatively lower.

Norway has strict rules, including mandatory classes in safe gun use and a cumbersome licensing process. But it took seven years after the 2011 massacre to implement a ban on semi-automatic weapons inspired by the massacre. The measure took effect at the end of last year.

New Zealand, which, like Norway, has traditionally had a high rate of gun ownership but also strict restrictions as well as low rates of gun violence, acted more promptly.

In 2019, when a far-right gunman killed 50 Muslims at two mosques, it took authorities less than a week to announce a ban on military-style semi-automatic rifles and high-capacity ammo clips like the ones the gunman used. But Norway, New Zealand, Canada and Australia are all unusual in one important way: each of these countries started out with high rates of gun ownership, relatively few restrictions, or both.

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