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Lessons in Gun Control From Australia and Brazil

A recent book outlines other countries’ approaches to gun control that have significantly reduced violence. Should states look to these places as a model for gun laws?

A gun show in Houston. (Photo: Flickr CC/M Glasgow)
This story is part of Governing's annual International issue.

In the year and a half since 20 children were killed by a gunman at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., a handful of states have passed laws requiring universal background checks, bans on semi-automatic weapons and limits on high-capacity magazines. But the U.S. remains a patchwork of uneven regulations on firearms, ammunition and gun owners. Meanwhile, at least 44 school shootings have occurred since the Newtown tragedy.

If state leaders want to curb firearm violence through regulation, perhaps they could learn from countries that have tightened gun restrictions in recent years. That’s the idea behind Reducing Gun Violence in America, a compendium of social science research on guns, with chapters on the experiences of Australia, Brazil and the United Kingdom.

“Because no two jurisdictions share the same problems or legislative or social settings -- let alone attitudes -- none can claim to have discovered the magic bullet,” writes Philip Alpers, a public health researcher and one of the book’s authors. Still, it’s clear the book is intended to outline foreign approaches that could be implemented in the U.S. Originally published last year, the book has already been re-released with an update.

It’s worth noting that the book’s foreword was written by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a prominent voice in national efforts to restrict access to illegal guns. The book’s editors, Daniel Webster and Jon Vernick, are researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Though their work is independent from the former mayor’s advocacy agenda, the book’s original kick-off event last year did have political overtones: In addition to a speech by Bloomberg himself, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley used the occasion to preview his gun control proposals for the state legislature, which led to bans on both high-capacity magazines and assault-style long guns.

Just as the Newtown shooting triggered new gun laws in the United States, the 1996 mass shooting of 35 people at the Port Arthur historic site in Tasmania precipitated a national response in Australia. Within 12 days, the country had passed a ban on automatic and semi-automatic long guns. The government also bought, collected and destroyed more than 1 million firearms, eliminating about one-third of the nation’s overall firearm stock. Since then, Australia has not had another mass shooting. Meanwhile, its firearms mortality rate is half of what it was in 1996 and about one-tenth of the current rate in the United States.

In a separate chapter, Rebecca Peters, the former chair of Australia’s National Coalition for Gun Control, argues that Australian gun control advocates swayed public opinion by demonstrating that a reactive regulatory framework was insufficient. Research at the time showed that family homicides were usually preceded by a pattern of domestic violence, most of which wasn’t reported to police. Also, most homicide offenders did not have a prior record of criminal violence, nor had they been determined as mentally ill by a judge. “A system that waits until violence is officially recorded,” Peters writes in the book, “will fail to assist most victims.”

No single tragedy prompted new regulations in Brazil. But in 2003 the country’s high rate of gun violence -- it had 2.8 percent of the world’s population but 13 percent of firearm homicides -- spurred legislative changes. A new law banned guns above a .38 caliber, raised the minimum purchasing age from 18 to 25, and added qualifications for buying a gun, including evidence of psychological stability and knowledge of gun safety. The country saw a 13 percent reduction in gun deaths between 2003 and 2010.

Brazil’s reforms only came after progressives in the federal government first tried to reduce violence by focusing on other potential explanations, including unemployment, social inequality and illiteracy. Eventually they turned back to the idea that the problem was the guns themselves. “The proliferation of weapons,” writes Brazilian political scientist Antonio Bandeira, “explained why personal conflicts that did not result in fatalities in other countries so often proved deadly in Rio de Janeiro.”

J.B. Wogan is a Governing staff writer.
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