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The Big Melt: How One Democracy Changed After Scrapping a Third of its Firearms


Been a few places; Done a few things
Community Director
In recent years, several democracies have dramatically reduced the availability of firearms to private individuals. I emphasize the word democracies because, contrary to Internet chatter, the countries in which voters have supported gun amnesties and buybacks are not dictatorships. They include the United Kingdom, Brazil, Argentina, and Australia, which in recent years destroyed a third of its privately owned guns.

Many observers continue to cite the official tally of guns destroyed by smelting in the Australian National Firearms Buyback as 659,940 newly prohibited weapons (Australia, 2002). Yet the actual number of private weapons destroyed is now estimated at well over one million. As outlined in the essay by Rebecca Peters (in this volume), in the late 1990s all Australian states and territories agreed to new uniform legislation, the primary declared purpose of which was to reduce the risk of mass shootings. Owner licensing was tightened to require proof of "genuine reason" to possess a gun; the sale and transfer of firearms was limited to licensed dealers; rapid-fire rifles and shotguns were banned, bought back, and destroyed; and remaining firearms were registered to uniform national standards (Australia, 1996). Two nationwide, federally funded gun buybacks made the headlines, but until now the number of additional, voluntary, and unrecompensed surrenders for destruction remained unquantified.

In the seven years up to January 1988 and before the Port Arthur shootings in 1996, six gun massacres (five or more victims shot dead) had already claimed the lives of 40 Australians (Chapman, Alpers et al 2006). According to articles in the print media published during the twenty-four years that followed, we know that 38 state, territory, and federal firearm amnesties ran for a minimum combined total of 3,062 weeks. From the reports in which numbers were published, a total of 948,388 firearms were surrendered to police for destruction. Of these, 67,488 (7.1%) were collected before the federal long-gun buyback which followed the 1996 Port Arthur tragedy. In the 1996-97 National Firearms Buyback of rapid-fire long guns (mainly semi-automatic rifles but also self-loading and pump-action shotguns) and in the 2003 National Handgun Buyback which followed, Australians gave up for destruction 728,667 newly prohibited firearms in return for market-value compensation.

Having measured the scale of the Australian experiment with more accuracy, I have found that at least 219,721 additional firearms were surrendered for destruction – a number which until now has been untallied and largely unrecognized. Although the Australian initiative was most often described as a "buyback" in which gun owners received cash compensation, of all the weapons handed in for destruction since 1988, nearly one in four yielded no financial return to its owner (Alpers and Wilson, 2013). Such was the swing in public opinion that large numbers of gun owners sent lawfully held firearms to the smelter, even when there was no obligation to do so.

This tally of just under a million weapons destroyed is conservative. In published reports of 20 gun amnesties we found no count of firearms collected and so were unable to include the numbers handed in for destruction (Alpers and Wilson, 2013). In addition, many firearms seized by police and destroyed, for example by court order, are not included in amnesty totals. Two small "weapon" amnesties included non-firearms in their published totals without separation. Taking into account these uncertainties, it seems likely that Australia collected and destroyed well over a million firearms – that is, between five and six firearms per 100 people. A commonly accepted estimate of the number of firearms in Australia at the time of the Port Arthur shootings is 3.2 million (Reuter and Mouzos 2002, 130). This suggests that post-massacre destruction efforts reduced the national stock of firearms by one-third. If we accept a frequently cited estimate of 270 million privately owned guns in the United States (Karp 2007, 47), a similar effort in that country would require the destruction of 90 million firearms.

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