The misuse of our gun crime stats
February 5th, 2013
09:13 AM ET

The misuse of our gun crime stats

By Michael Brown, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Michael Brown is an Australian astronomer and senior lecturer at Monash University who lived in the U.S. from 2000 until 2006. He regularly writes for The Conversation website, where another version of this article appeared. The views expressed are his own.

I had a stark introduction to gun violence when I moved from Australia to Tucson, Arizona 12 years ago.

As I walked to my hotel room one evening, I passed some young people apparently holding a party in another room. They seemed mostly harmless, and I acknowledged them with a “g’day.” A short time later, I heard a car pull up, followed by the sound of gunfire and screaming. The next morning I saw police tape and markers in the car park. There were bullet holes in a drainpipe and one of the walls. Another guest told me someone had been hurt by a stray bullet, but I couldn’t be sure as there was no sign of the story on the local news.

For me, this said much about gun violence in the United States, and how much of it happens without making headlines. But as America grapples with how to respond to the Sandy Hook massacre, many Americans have been looking overseas to see how other nations – including my home country – have responded to similar events. The problem is, certain interests in the U.S. are not being completely honest about what they are seeing.

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As the debate over gun control takes center stage in America following the killing of 20 young children, it is perhaps not surprising that one place analysts have turned to for ideas is Australia. After all, the two countries have much in common. We are both wealthy, English-speaking democracies. We watch the same films and play the same video games. But when it comes to gun violence, we are two very different nations.

In 1996, 35 people were murdered at Port Arthur, in the Australian state of Tasmania. In response, the conservative government of John Howard (with bipartisan support) introduced a series of comprehensive reforms including tightened licensing and restrictions on the types of weapons that could be owned. Since the laws were introduced, the rate of gun ownership in Australia has dropped from roughly 1 in 15 adults to 1 in 20 adults.

Many factors can influence gun violence, so the impact of the Australian reforms is oft debated. However, one thing is clear – the number of firearm homicides and firearm suicides has dramatically decreased. The Australian homicide rate is only 1.2 per 100,000 people, far lower than the American homicide rate of about 5 per 100,000 people. Firearms are used in less than 15 percent of homicides in Australia, compared with 67 percent of homicides in America.

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Prior to the introduction of the gun laws, 112 people were killed in 11 mass shootings in Australia. Since the implementation of the gun laws, there have been no comparable gun massacres in Australia.

Remarkably, though, some gun advocates in the U.S. argue that Australian gun laws have actually increased crime. It’s a strange claim considering the reality of the statistics. And on closer inspection of the numbers it is clear that gun advocates are engaging in some statistical sleights of hand, including the cherry picking of data.

For example, NRA News reported statistics from the Australian state of New South Wales suggesting that “in the inner west, robberies committed with firearms skyrocketed more than 70 percent over the previous year.” Rather than giving the national trend over many years, NRA News chose one part of one city in one state over just a two year period. In contrast, robberies using firearms across Australia have declined from more than 1,500 cases per year in the 1990s to 1,100 per year.

Another approach is diversion. When the most relevant statistic gives the “wrong” answer, switch to a less relevant statistic that gives the “right” answer. Joyce Lee Malcolm appeared to use this approach in the Wall Street Journal when she wrote recently, “in 2008, the Australian Institute of Criminology reported a decrease of 9 percent in homicides and a one-third decrease in armed robbery since the 1990s, but an increase of over 40 percent in assaults and 20 percent in sexual assaults.”

The implication is clear, but misleading as many factors drive reported crime rates. Crucially, guns are used in less than 1 percent of assaults and sexual assaults in Australia, making firearm use almost irrelevant to these crimes. Was gun ownership a deterrent? This is also difficult to argue, given over 90 percent of Australians didn't own guns before or after the reforms. The aforementioned decline in firearm homicide, firearm suicide and mass shootings are surely more compelling.

Sometimes, advocates simply invent statistics. One infomercial claims, “[Australian] gun murders increased 19 percent.” This is simply wrong – firearms are now used less in robberies, homicides and kidnappings than they were in the 1990s. Yet even after then-Australian Attorney General Daryl Williams complained to the NRA over the infomercial, no action was reportedly taken, and anyone viewing it today is likely to be unaware of this gross factual error.

What is really going in Australia? Homicide and suicide rates generally have declined since the 1990s, but firearm deaths have fallen even more dramatically. And while they were anyway rare events, there hasn’t been a mass shooting in Australia for more than a decade.

Yes, the exact impact of the Australian gun laws is still open for debate. But claims that they may actually have increased crime are pure deception. Gun advocates make these misleading statements knowing they will rarely be called on it by the media. Unfortunately, this says far more about the partisan debate in America than the reality in Australia.

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soundoff (49 Responses)
  1. bocknobby

    In a culture/society that has no respect for honesty, manipulation of statistics by the NRA or others is hardly a surprise or news. Given a deteriorating education system and a political system in chaos on top of news organizations that are, in addition to being overwhelmed by social media, pathetic imitations of news organizations a generation ago, it is really not much of a surprise that the 'gun debate' lacks respect, honor, or discipline. Such is the state of the US.

    February 5, 2013 at 10:09 am | Reply
    • Clarence Abernathy

      That's funny, because Obama, and even many Australians, are claiming that Australian gun control enacted in 1996 ELIMINATED mass shootings. Though in 2002, an insane man acquired 6 handguns and shot 7 people at Monash university, and was only stopped by the victims refusing to be killed. Events like this one are left off the mass murder list because 5 of the victims survived – honest people would acknowledge that this was a mass shooting. If this is the way gun control advocates skirt the truth to push their agenda, what makes you think gun owners are going to cooperate.

      June 21, 2014 at 7:10 pm | Reply
  2. Eugene Levich

    What never gets mentioned is how often firearms prevent serious crimes. Example: My cousin and his wife, both elderly, were just sitting down to dinner when their dogs began barking. Three career criminals (the police later so informed them) broke into their house. My couple ran into a bedroom and locked the door. They had left their cell phones in another room, so they just sat and waited, terrified, for about an hour. Hearing nothing, they opened the bedroom door and saw one of the criminals sitting on a sofa, reading a magazine. That criminal saw my cousin's wife looking out and charged the door. They locked it again, and blocked it, with a dresser. The criminal began kicking in the door. My cousin loaded an old single-shot shotgun and waited, terrified. The door gave, and the criminal barged in. My cousin shot him once in the chest from a range of three yards. He reloaded the shotgun and waited. His wife ran for her cell phone and telephoned the police, who found the body of the one criminal outside the house. The police told my cousin that they were sorry he hadn't shot all three of them. The police advised my cousin to get a pump-action shotgun with a large magazine and to carry it with him in his car if he went out, in case the two other criminals came looking for him. This event happened recently in West Africa, where my cousin, a geologist, has been living six months of the year for about two decades, without the slightest problem. Incidents like this can and do occur anywhere. l know personally of three similar incidents, two in New York City, and one in Upstate New York, where I now live. Mass killings occur only where no one can shoot back!

    February 5, 2013 at 10:21 am | Reply
    • Claire Brown

      Sadly, mass killings do occur when there are people there to shoot back. Neil Gardner, an armed sheriff’s deputy, was on-site at Columbine; this did not prevent 13 people being killed. Adam Lanza's mother was an experienced gun owner; it didn't stop Sandy Hook. There was at least one armed bystander, Joseph Zamudio, nearby when Gabrielle Giffords was shot and six people were killed; however the shooter was overpowered initially by unarmed bystanders before Zamudio could reach the scene.

      So you might be able to find statistics to support the position that having lots of armed people around reduce the duration of mass killings – which would certainly be interesting statistics to see – but it is obvious that they can occur in places where there are people to shoot back and that many people can be killed or permanently injured before a killer with a semi-automatic weapon can be stopped.

      February 5, 2013 at 3:47 pm | Reply
      • JROC

        You just created statistics out of two incidents...two. Go figure.

        February 28, 2013 at 12:29 pm |
      • Eric

        He was NOT on site, he'd just left to go to lunch which is why the attack happened when it did. Columbine does not show that armed guards aren't a deterrent, it shows that they ARE a deterrent and you can't let them leave for lunch.

        April 22, 2013 at 5:28 pm |
      • Clarence Abernathy

        At the Colorado church shooting, Jeanie Assange was on site, and shoot the rifle bearing murderer who was trying to gather a Norway style shooting tally.

        June 21, 2014 at 7:13 pm |
    • Concerned

      Really? In West Africa! Now that's a good example...NOT!

      February 6, 2013 at 10:15 am | Reply
    • Matt

      Actually, this gets mentioned all the time by people who think guns make them safer. But it's anecdotal. The fact that one or two or three people did this doesn't mean much without data on how often it actually happens. And there are lots of incidents where people with guns were present at mass shootings. Typically, if they're trained (e.g. law enforcement), they might be able to stop the attack; if they're untrained (your average gun owner), they're unlikely to be prepared to do much about it.

      February 6, 2013 at 11:20 am | Reply
  3. KBATL

    I don't believe that the claim is solely that gun crime has gone up. ...and a rise in the other crimes is relevant to the discussion. One could speculate that assault, robbery, etc. (even when the criminal does not use a gun) are easier to perpetrate when you don't have to worry about your potential victim being armed. i believe that this is the central tenant to the saying: an armed society is a polite society

    February 5, 2013 at 12:59 pm | Reply
    • Koala

      That makes no sense at all.
      Before the changes in gun laws 10% of Australian adults owned guns (but the vast majority of those would not have been carried around). After the changes, that figure dropped to 6%.

      Are you seriously saying that a significant number of unarmed potential criminals would not have committed their assaults/robberies/whatever when there were only a 10% chance of the victim owning a gun (but probably not carrying it) but those same people would judge the risk worthwhile if that figure changed to 6%?

      February 5, 2013 at 8:11 pm | Reply
    • Tim

      Yes so what do robbers do in America? They are more armed than in Australia and they are more trigger happy in case you pull out your own gun/ A lot of robberies don't even include a gun because the criminals can't find guns. Therefore, it just escalates the violence that would exist without the guns. I am Australian, and I keep up with the news, and I cannot remember the last time I heard of someone dying in a robbery in Australia. But guess what, in America it happens ALL THE TIME. Google "expanded-homicide-data-table-11" according to your FBI, over 850 were killed in robberies/burglary/theft in 2011. It is a complicated issue and I am not saying you should follow exactly what works for Australiia or that all guns should be banned for the public, but there should be better control.

      February 8, 2013 at 7:02 am | Reply
    • JROC

      Australia population: 22,000,000 and U.S. Population: 311,000,000 let's make sure we are comparing apples to apples when you compare two countries and crime rate statistics. Of course our crime rate is going to be higher than your home country. We have 289,000,000 more people than Australia. This article is irrelevant.

      February 28, 2013 at 12:08 pm | Reply
      • Terry Ross

        The article gives statistics per 100,000 people. This is a totally valid way of comparing two countries of vastly different populations. It is equivalent to using figures on concentration (grams/liter) This measure could be used to compare a contaminant in a pond with a contaminant in the Atlantic ocean. As that statistic is accepted by scientists worldwide , I find it difficult to believe that you will not accept the statistical basis of the figures given in the article.

        March 17, 2013 at 1:04 pm |
  4. ruchikaa

    We need to stop mass killings. Crime rate being reduced by arm possession can be a minor factor – but we should not need our own firearms in 21st century. We have better alarm systems, better lock systems, and a better funded police now. Arming yourself to combat criminals is what our ancestors used to do – when we didn't have city funded police force or such technically advanced security systems. What we need to fear of law – not law in our own hands. Immediate and harsher punishment and along with recreation and proper guidance for juvenile. Such measures will help our society in longer run – not firearm ownership. Its sad that NRA is only cares about their own money and control. Basic measures like more checks and ban on some semi automatics – will help all gun owners and non gun owners.
    Figures from Australia & UK are testament to that.

    February 5, 2013 at 1:47 pm | Reply
  5. joe

    eerily similar piece: http://theconversation.edu.au/faking-waves-how-the-nra-and-pro-gun-americans-abuse-australian-crime-stats-11678

    February 5, 2013 at 4:50 pm | Reply
    • Michael Brown

      This was noted at the top of the article: "He regularly writes for The Conversation website, where another version of this article appeared."

      February 5, 2013 at 5:18 pm | Reply
  6. Jim Mac

    Chicago has some of the strictest gun laws in the country. Come to think of it, so does New York City, Los Angeles, Washington DC, Detroit...I must be missing something here...

    February 5, 2013 at 7:22 pm | Reply
    • Koala

      You're missing at least two things:
      No searches at state borders.
      Strictest in the country is not very strict (by world standards)

      February 5, 2013 at 8:14 pm | Reply
    • hapalion

      Though you are right about DC, the next two states in terms of homicide rates are Louisiana (9.9/100,000), and Maryland (9.9/100,000). Take a good look at their gun laws. Also, gun deaths are lowest in Hawaii, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York, all of which have fairly stringent firearm laws.

      February 6, 2013 at 7:33 am | Reply
      • Ok

        People are not committing gun crimes because of the laws. No one is saying oh using this is illegal so I think I will do it any way. You should look up straw sales in places like Chicago and DC and then you might start to see the bigger picture of how easy it is to get a gun outside of those cities and bring them in.

        February 6, 2013 at 8:10 am |
  7. rightospeak

    Again my comments were removed because they do not fit with the official propaganda. DC is the murder capital and has strict gun laws. The rush to disarm people is ALARMING. No wonder people rush to buy more guns.

    February 5, 2013 at 8:21 pm | Reply
    • hapalion

      Note also that the DC area is very poor, much like the number two spot, Luoisiana. Poverty has more to do with the rate, and then the rates make sense, since gun ownership is correlated with poverty.

      February 6, 2013 at 7:38 am | Reply
    • Matt

      Has it ever occurred to you that cities might have stricter gun laws because of high crime rates, not the other way around? Without a control to compare it to (an exact replica DC with less stringent gun laws), it's difficult to know what effect the laws are having. DC might well have much higher crime than it does if it were more lax on guns.

      February 6, 2013 at 11:24 am | Reply
  8. rightospeak

    Just as the rush to take guns away from the American people , the censorship of comments by the media to mold the public opinion is not only un American, but downright scary.

    February 5, 2013 at 8:24 pm | Reply
    • Concerned

      And who, where, when or how did anyone mention taking away any guns?! And if taking away one person gun(s) makes it safer for all the others then its a damn good & democratic idea! Don't forget it is "We the People", not "I the Individual".

      February 6, 2013 at 10:22 am | Reply
      • JROC

        You are ignorant...

        February 28, 2013 at 12:13 pm |
  9. j. von hettlingen

    It's amazing how fanatics in the US defend their gun culture! Isn't it an irony? The law should protect human lives, yet it looks as if the right to carrying guns is above the law.

    February 6, 2013 at 5:36 am | Reply
    • JROC

      Show me statistics on law-abiding citizens with guns and law-breaking citizens using guns illegally. There are about 300,000,000 guns in this country and many, many registered gun owners. Are the bad guys registered? I think not...

      February 28, 2013 at 12:18 pm | Reply
    • Clarence Abernathy

      It is a right to life they are protecting, gun ownership to enforce the defense of themselves and their families... Vs the right of government, or citizens to disarm/steal property from law abiding citizens using the excuse of public safety.

      June 21, 2014 at 7:02 pm | Reply
  10. SHUTUP

    rightospeak – SHUT UP! IM so sick of reading your whiny comments. If your comment was deleted then you obviously know too much. Go bug some bloggers somewhere else with your increadible insight.

    February 6, 2013 at 6:03 am | Reply
    • JROC

      Incredible...

      February 28, 2013 at 12:14 pm | Reply
  11. Knotageek

    It's already against the law to kill someone. There are multiple laws on the books about who can and cannot have weapons. Yet somehow all of these existing laws do not prevent people from breaking the law. Is the problem that all of these existing laws are somehow lacking and now additional legislation must be passed? Will one more law prevent the death of one more person? NO.

    February 6, 2013 at 11:08 am | Reply
    • Matt

      This is a dumb argument. The fact that people break the law doesn't mean the law isn't working. The important number is how many people would do those things if they were legal, but don't do them because they're illegal. You think laws against murder don't work? Try getting rid of them, and see what happens to the murder rate.

      February 6, 2013 at 1:13 pm | Reply
      • Tom

        And I think THIS is a dumb argument. if murder was legal we'd all be murderers? Are you serious? And if drugs were legalized we'd all run out to get some heroin and cocaine? Have a little more faith in your fellow citizens.

        February 7, 2013 at 11:11 pm |
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    February 6, 2013 at 9:07 pm | Reply
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    February 7, 2013 at 10:17 pm | Reply
  14. Tom

    Australia has a Bill of Rights? What does their second amendment say? Are you guaranteed to live a life, free from accidents or evil by other citizens? OK... Well, when the American economy collapses, who is gonna keep you safe? What agency is going to go after the criminals when the money runs out? The same government who cannot help (or keep safe) its own citizens after a natural disaster with advanced warning? No thanks, I'll handle that job myself. There aren't enough cops to keep you safe if the economy collapses. What in the hell makes you think I'm gonna trust the government to protect me, when they cannot even balance a budget?

    February 7, 2013 at 10:51 pm | Reply
  15. all for it

    if we are going to use the analogy of having the police to keep us safe thereby not needing guns then maybe we should outlaw fire extinguishers also...after all we do have firefighters and some knuckleduster might just use that big red bottle hanging on the wall to bash in a store clerks head when they are not looking!!

    February 12, 2013 at 3:38 pm | Reply
  16. Mitchell Gossage

    Criminals don't buy their guns legally. Therefore, stopping us( law abiding citizens) from getting guns truly will only make the streets even more dangerous than they already are. The reality of the situation is that criminals are going to get guns, regardless, and they most certainly don't legally purchase them. Stopping us from purchasing guns will do nothing to decrease crime!!! NOTHING(if not make the situation worst!) PS. .more American citizens are armed today 03/03/13 than EVER before in history. You can't even find .22 ammunition anymore(the most plentiful ammo) because everything is sold out.

    March 3, 2013 at 9:16 pm | Reply
    • Michael Brown

      As noted in my article, the stats from Australia show no evidence of a surge in crime resulting from changes in Australian gun laws. If access to guns lowers crime, why does the United States have a far higher homicide rate than other developed democracies?

      March 3, 2013 at 10:40 pm | Reply
      • Man4mopar

        I didn't see in your article a link/chart or other of statistic of crime going up or down from some date prior to 1996 to present. You mentioned in the article gun crimes decreased, well ok what about all crime not including guns? If crime as a whole has increased/decreased per 100k after 1996 then that semi says something. Of course other factors can be there too. Statistics don't show everything Chicago has very strict gun laws high homicide rate, Houston TX far laxer gun laws and CCW with low homicide rate. But maybe Houston upholds laws more strict then Chicago? Or something else perhaps?

        April 30, 2013 at 2:16 am |
  17. gaye45

    It is not guns that are the problem it is criminals being able to get off on a technicality, and or reduced sentences.
    Convict a crim, give him a good sentence, and if he mis behaves then his sentence is lengthened, if he behaves himself then he is out on time.. of course this will also have problems, some will want to grease the hands of their guards, but that is simple, if this is found out to be done, then the guard will also have to serve the same time.
    We cannot keep letting crims out with small sentences to do it again.. Surely the people deserve to be protected, not the crim.. he/she has lost his/her rights when they set about to destroy others.. but now days it would appear that the criminal has all the rights and the victim has non..

    April 25, 2013 at 3:46 am | Reply
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  20. eric russell

    here is a question, since everyone likes quoting statistics, there have been according to the FBI, about 35,700 shooting deaths in the US last year, with a population of 300 million plus, what percentage of the population is this?

    October 23, 2013 at 2:59 pm | Reply

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