by Paul Peake
Australian Shooters Journal
Few aspects of the Commonwealth's anti-gun policies have created as much discontent as the move to outlaw self-defence as a genuine reason to possess a firearm. Even the much vaunted United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims in Article 4: "Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person." (1) Unfortunately, Australian governments seem happy to employ UN treaties when it comes to social re-engineering, but just as eager to disregard them when persecuting shooters. Article 18 of the same proclamation supposedly guarantees: "No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property" (2), but it didn't stop John Howard from imposing his 'buy-back' confiscation program.
According to Harding, as many as one in four firearm owners in some Australian jurisdictions possesses a gun for protection. (3)
Table 1. Source: Harding, R. (1981), Firearms and Violence in Australian Life,
Nedlands: University of Western Australia Press, p73.
Given the figures, it is easy to understand how effectively banning firearms for self-defence by an act of parliament in most Australian states strikes a deep chord with many shooters and a large section of the general public.
But is prohibiting private firearm ownership for self-defence really moving in the right direction when it comes to violent crime? According to the evidence it certainly is not.
The recent Chicago University study entitled Crime, Deterrence, and the Right-To-Carry Concealed Handguns, (4) prepared by professor John Lott with the help of David Mustard, is the most comprehensive analysis so far concerning the effectiveness of firearms for self-defence. Lott and Mustard's data clearly show that private firearms ownership for personal protection can have a very notable impact when it comes to reducing violent crime.
Many American jurisdictions have had strict ordinances in place for a long time concerning the carrying of firearms in public. Beginning in the late 1970s, however, state legislatures came under increasing pressure to allow private citizens to maintain guns for self-defence. To date, 31 states have passed laws permitting people to carry firearms, usually after an extensive background check and a period of appropriate training. Lott and Mustard's study focused on cross-sectional time series data gathered from 3054 US counties between 1977 and 1992. While the methodologies employed were both comprehensive and complex, chiefly the study considered the difference in crime rates between jurisdictions which allowed firearms for self-defence and those which did not.
The study's conclusions are impressive. The findings point to a reduction in serious crime at county level in states where laws allowing private citizens to hold firearms for self-defence have been implemented. Commenting recently on the findings, Lott put forward statistics indicating an average decline of 15% in murder and 9% and 11% respectively for rape and robberies. (5) The report argues that in the last year of the study if similar laws had been implemented in all US states ". . . 1,500 murders would have been avoided . . . rapes would have declined by over 4,000 . . . and aggravated assaults by over 60,000." (6) Applying the same percentages to Australia's 1997 recorded crime figures, there might have been 49 fewer murders, 1,272 fewer sexual assaults and 2,338 fewer robberies. (7)
Table 2 contains figures adapted from the report which clearly show the dramatic effect of self-defence laws on violent crime.
Table 2. Source: Figures adapted from data contained in Lott, J. and Mustard, D. (1997) Crime, Deterrence,
And The Right-To-Carry Concealed Handguns, Journal of Legal Studies, vol. XXVI (January 1997), p35.
Despite the apocalyptic predictions of the anti-gun lobby, the study found no significant increase in accidental shootings or in the criminal misuse of firearms on the part of those issued with permits. The data shows that licensees do not cease to be good citizens because they have access to a firearm for self-defence. They do not contribute to the crime rate by committing offences, nor do they mysteriously lose their self-restraint and become a menace to either the community or themselves. What they in fact do is reduce the incidence of violent crime considerably. As Lott notes:
Our research found no evidence that the increased availability of guns brought any of the states involved an increase in suicides or accidents with guns. Indeed, permit-holders have proven extremely law-abiding . . . . the number of permit-holders who have had their permits revoked for any reason whatsoever is in the hundredths of 1 percent. (8)
One of the most frightening phenomena in Australia today is the incidence of violent home invasion. Table 3 shows that the overall degree of Unlawful Entry With Intent, the type of crime which can lead to violent robberies, has been steadily increasing for some time.
Table 3. Source: Australia Bureau of Statistics data.
The ABS figures reinforce the notion that the police cannot provide protection against violent home invaders. The criminal always has absolute choice over the time and place at which an offence is committed and the authorities do not usually arrive on the scene until well after an assault has taken place and the culprit has got away. However, Lott and Mustard's study highlights some substantial facts with important implications for Australia.
Comparing the United States to other developed countries with very restrictive self-defence laws, the report found that almost half the burglaries in places like Canada and Britain are committed while the occupier is home, while in the US the ratio is barely 13%. (9) Moreover, the analysis also found that the introduction of laws supporting firearms for self-defence had a further impact on 'hot burglary' rates: "We also find criminals substituting into property crimes involving stealth, where the probability of contact between the criminal and the victim is minimal." (10) In other words, firearms kept for self-defence, especially in the home, have a strong deterrent value when it comes to burglary, and can substantially reduce the rate of home invasion.
A policy re-think
Rather than outlawing private ownership for self-defence, the sensible alternative might be to initiate a licensing system in Australia which allows fit and proper people to keep firearms for protection in their own home. One option could be to issue a firearms licence for the purpose of self-defence once a person has undergone appropriate training and demonstrated no relevant criminal history or important mental illness. The concept could be accommodated within the majority of existing state acts via a simple amendment to the genuine-reason criteria. The approach is already in place in most Australian states with regard to licensed security guards. It is ridiculous that responsible adults cannot hold a firearm for protection in their own homes when if they are prepared to join a security company and undergo exactly the same sort of training regime they can carry a firearm for self-defence in public.
The problem is that private firearms ownership in Australia has fallen victim to a narrow, authoritarian mentality which substitutes the lowest common denominator, irrational fear, for sensible debate. The fundamental freedom to protect one's life and property has been replaced by a policy which ignores the fact that no matter how well resourced a police service may be it cannot prevent violent home invasions. Ultimately, individuals must be given the opportunity to take responsibility for their own safety.
Faced with the empirical evidence, the question for those devising legislation is a simple one: why should fit and proper, suitably qualified adults not be allowed to possess firearms for self-defence in their own homes? As early as 1990, the government's oracle on firearms regulation, the National Committee on Violence, reached the same conclusion as Lott and Mustard: "That a majority of Australian shooters are responsible persons is beyond dispute." (11) So why are the same 'responsible persons' denied the right to defend themselves?
The incidence of opportunistic, violent robbery is a problem in Australia and by and large, the police are unlikely to be at hand should a person be confronted. Drawing on the US experience, we know that firearms in the home have an important deterrent effect and we know that properly trained, responsible owners holding firearms for self-defence pose no threat other than to the criminal element. There is no evidence to suggest that if implemented in conjunction with appropriate instruction and a sensible approach to the question of firearms abuse, private firearm ownership for self-defence in the home would have any material effect on the criminal misuse of guns. Conversely, with Lott and Mustard's analysis as a guide there is considerable data to suggest that it could have a marked impact on reducing the incidence of violent home burglary.
The recent New South Wales Home Invasion (Occupants' Protection) Bill provides a measure of legal protection for householders forced to defend themselves and represents a good start. Nevertheless, law makers still lack a real willingness to truly support an individual's right to security of person. In the meantime, Australians continue to be robbed, assaulted and killed in their own homes.
1. (1968), Treaties and Alliances of the World: A Survey of International Treaties
in Force and Communities of States, Bristol: Keesing's Publications Ltd, p12.
3. Harding, R, (1981), Firearms and Violence in Australian Life, Nedlands: University of Western Australia Press, p73.
4. Lott, J and Mustard, D, (1997) Crime, Deterrence, And The Right-To-Carry Concealed Handguns, Journal of Legal Studies, vol. XXVI (January 1997).
5. Lott, J (1998), How to Stop Mass Shootings, The American Enterprise, (July/August 1998).
6. Lott, J and Mustard, D, (1997) Crime, Deterrence, And The Right-To-Carry Concealed Handguns, Journal of Legal Studies, vol. XXVI (January 1997), p1.
7. (1998), 1997 Recorded Crime: Australia. Canberra: Australian Bureau of Statistics.
8. Lott, J (1998), How to Stop Mass Shootings, The American Enterprise, (July/August 1998).
9. Lott, J, and Mustard, D, (1997) Crime, Deterrence, And The Right-To-Carry Concealed Handguns, Journal of Legal Studies, vol. XXVI (January 1997), p3.
10. Ibid, p. 1.
11. Violence: Directions for Australia (1990), Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology, p173.