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Mike Roelandts of the New South Wales Police in 1997, examining about 4500 weapons that were handing in via the Government buy back program. Source David Grey/Reuters

How effective can a gun amnesty be?

Gun Amnesty in Full Swing — But Why?
On July 1, the government introduced the National Firearms Amnesty — a three-month program that will give Australians the chance to hand in unregistered firearms without consequence or cost.

Australia is a different country now, but it’s important to remember: Over 18 years starting in the late 1970s, there were 13 mass shootings. The deadliest was the Port Arthur massacre in Tasmania, which killed 35 people in 1996. That year, the relatively new prime minister, John Howard, embarked on a remarkable — and successful — 12-day quest to impose gun control regulations. Mr. Howard wore a bulletproof vest when he explained the measures to gun owners in Victoria.

For all the cultural values the United States and Australia share, each instance of mass gun violence in America seems to leave Australians scratching their heads and gently pointing their friends to the results of their tougher policies.

The data is overwhelming. The current rate of homicides involving guns in the United States is 23 times higher than it is in Australia, according to researchers. Australia has not had a mass shooting since Port Arthur.

“I wouldn’t presume to lecture Americans on the subject. I can, however, describe what I, as prime minister of Australia, did to curb gun violence,” Mr. Howard wrote in The New York Times in 2013.

So, why impose an amnesty now?

The government conservatively estimates that there are 260,000 firearms in Australia’s illicit market — perhaps reason enough for the amnesty.

“We’ve got a deteriorating national security environment, we’ve got an environment where there has been five terrorist attacks on our soil, and sadly, in the vast majority of those cases, it has been an illegal firearm that’s been used,” the justice minister, Michael Keenan, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation last month.

But one expert was more than a little skeptical of the consequences.

“If there is one public health intervention to curb gun injury that has been debunked by academics worldwide consistently, it’s small-scale gun amnesties of exactly this type,” said Philip Alpers, an adjunct associate professor at Sydney University who has reported on the wide gap between American and Australian gun homicide rates. “There is no evidence that they reduce gun violence.”

Mr. Alpers pointed out that this amnesty did not include a buyback system, unlike the amnesty put into place after the Port Arthur massacre.

“It was a massive national effort that led to more than a million guns being destroyed,” he said.

But the government is invested in the campaign, promoting it with print advertisements and through social media.

“They’re trying to look as though they’re doing something,” Mr. Alpers said. “Although a lot of Australians feel that the post-Port Arthur gun laws solved the problem, when they see new shootings, the public tends to get pretty upset. And certainly the media make a meal out of every shooting.”

But won’t the prospect of removing those quarter-million-plus illicit firearms make the country measurably safer? Mr. Alpers said the government would not be getting hold of the guns it wanted to be turned in during the amnesty.

“The guns that are collected in amnesties like this are the rubbish guns. They’re the guns that nobody minds giving up,” Mr. Alpers said. “Semiautomatics — the guns used by criminals to commit crimes — can cost several thousand, sometimes 10 thousand dollars, because they’re so rare here. Those are the guns that nobody expects to get from this buyback, and yet those are the guns of greatest public concern.”

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