Gun numbers in New South Wales have risen to around one million while rates of injury and death caused by firearms have declined, according to a group of anti-gun academics in a new study of gun violence in Australia. Yes, that’s really a group of public health specialists – among them Philip Alpers who runs the global website gunpolicy.org out of Sydney University – acknowledging gun crime is actually falling even with more guns in the community.
Their report, published by the Medical Journal of Australia, says the overall firearm injury rate in NSW declined from 3.4 instances per 100,000 population in 2002 to 1.8 per 100,000 in 2016, with the greatest falls for injuries caused by firearm assaults and accidents. The rate of intentional self-harm by gun (suicide) remained steady at around 0.8 per 100,000 across the study period and for those not statistically inclined, referring to instances of something per 100,000 population (it could be cancer, car accidents or employment in the IT sector) is a convention which allows better comparisons between different states and nations.
If anything the study puts paid to scaremongering by Gun Control Australia which, in its widely publicised 2019 Report Card on NSW, breathlessly reported an “alarming proliferation” of guns, with registered firearms totalling 1,007,786 – an increase of almost 90,000 in little more than two years. GCA president Sam Lee said at the time that was a direct result of politicians doing the bidding of the gun lobby which had made it all too easy to acquire a gun in NSW. “As gun numbers increase, community safety is being compromised,” Ms Lee said.
Alas, the numbers disclosed in this latest study indicate otherwise. If it had been different the five study authors from the Sydney University School of Public Health and the Menzies Centre for Health Policy would surely have proclaimed so vociferously. Here’s what they said: “Rates of injury and death caused by assaults with firearms declined during 2002-2016. Despite reports the number of guns in NSW had risen to almost one million by early 2019, the gun homicide rate in Australia is low (0.15 per 100,000 population in 2019) compared with that of the United States (4.4 per 100,000 in 2018).”
Although the US record of gun violence is bad and also well-publicised, it’s not the worst in the world by a sizeable margin. Central and South American nations have gun violence rates many times that of the US, for example Brazil with 22.91 gun deaths per 100,000 population in 2017 (gunpolicy.org).
The Sydney University study is titled Gun Violence in Australia 2002-2016: A Cohort Study, though it only covers NSW, Australia’s most populous state. This was still a quite useful exercise in collating detailed data on firearm-related deaths and injuries from a variety of sources including hospital admissions and the register of births deaths and marriages.
The NSW Police Firearms Registry provided certain anonymous data including numbers of firearms licence holders by postcode. Overall 2390 people experienced firearms-related injuries in the study period: 849 (36 per cent) by assault, 797 (33 per cent) by intentional self-harm, 506 (21 per cent) by accident and 238 (10 per cent) undetermined. Less than half (44.8 per cent) of all firearms related injuries proved fatal.
Of the 849 injured in assaults, a quarter (211) died; of the 506 injured accidentally, 79 (33 per cent) died. Most significantly this was fatal for 705 (88.5 per cent) of the 797 injured through deliberate self-harm. Including victims of accidents (74) and where the intent isn’t known (79) that makes a total of 1071 firearm-related deaths over the survey period.
The study authors make an effort to assess firearm types used in different kinds of incident. For deliberate assault, 211 (24.9 per cent) were injured by longarms (rifles and shotguns) and 222 (26.1 per cent) by handguns but for almost half such cases the type of firearm was unspecified though authorities have a better idea of firearms used in suicide incidents – longarms 68 per cent, handguns 12 per cent and unspecified 20 per cent.
Firearms injury is overwhelmingly an issue for males, who comprised 92.2 per cent of victims and this is even more notable in incidents of self-harm, with males accounting for 95.2 per cent. Young people aged 19-29 (again mostly male) account for the largest group (358 or 42.2 per cent) injured in firearms assault and that overwhelmingly occurs in major cities (87 per cent) meaning in simple terms gun crime is a Sydney problem. Older people, again mostly males over 60, account for the highest proportion of suicides involving firearms at 331 or 41.5 per cent though that’s more evenly spread over cites, inner regional and rural areas.
The study goes into some detail on the gunshot injuries for which victims were admitted to hospital (some of course never made it and went straight to the mortuary). Of the 683 assault victims admitted to hospital, the vast majority (93.6 per cent) were discharged alive with injury sites being head and neck, trunks and limbs. Only 160 victims of intentional self-harm made it to hospital with 42 per cent subsequently dying while undergoing treatment. In suicide attempts, 70.6 per cent arrived with gunshot wounds to the head and neck.
The study concludes the overall firearm-related injury rate declined from 3.4 per 100,000 population in 2002 to 1.8 per 100,000 in 2016. The decline was greatest in injuries from assaults – from 1.5 to 0.6 per 100,000 – in other words firearm-related assaults better than halved over the survey period while the rate of firearm-related self-harm remained steady.
The authors noted a connection between self-harm and previous hospital admissions (49.4 per cent) including for mental health issues (11.9 per cent), saying there’s a “strong” correlation between intentional self-harm by firearm and licensed gun ownership. That appears to be based on overseas experience and an earlier Queensland study which found the rate of firearm suicide was 11 times higher for those with current firearms licences than for those who had never held a licence.
So what’s to be done? The study makes no recommendation other than suggesting more research would be useful, for example to identify suicide risk factors to guide intervention. That’s a worthy aspiration as any measure to reduce suicide is desirable. Furthermore, firearms were once the most common means of suicide but that began to change in the late 1980s and guns now account for just a small proportion of those who take their own lives. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare statistics for 2019 show 180 firearms suicides and 1964 by hanging which is now the most common means for both men and women to end their own lives.