An Online Journal of Political Commentary & Analysis

Dr. Almon Leroy Way, Jr., Editor


October 2, 2002

CLAIM:   Stastics demonstrate that crime rates in Australia have increased substan- tially since the government there instituted a gun buy-back program in 1997.


EXAMPLE OF CLAIM:   [Collected on the Internet, 2001]

From: Ed Chenel, a Police Officer in Australia.

Hi Yanks,

I thought you all would like to see the real figures from Down Under.

It has now been 12 months since gun owners in Australia were forced by a new law to surrender 640,381 personal firearms to be destroyed by our own government, a program costing Australia taxpayers more than $500 million dollars.

The first year results are now in: Australia-wide, homicides are up 3.2 percent; Australia-wide, assaults are up 8.6 percent; Australia-wide, armed robberies are up 44 percent (yes, 44 percent!). In the state of Victoria alone, homicides with firearms are now up 300 percent. (Note that while the law-abiding citizens turned them in, the criminals did not and criminals still possess their guns!)

While figures over the previous 25 years showed a steady decrease in armed robbery with firearms, this has changed drastically upward in the past 12 months, since the criminals now are guaranteed that their prey is unarmed.

There has also been a dramatic increase in break-ins and assaults of the elderly. Australian politicians are at a loss to explain how public safety has decreased, after such monumental effort and expense was expended in "successfully ridding Australian society of guns."

You won't see this data on the American evening news or hear your governor or members of the state Assembly disseminating this information.

The Australian experience proves it. Guns in the hands of honest citizens save lives and property and, yes, gun-control laws affect only the law-abiding citizens.

Take note Americans, before it's too late!

ORIGINS OF CLAIM:    Although the old adage says that "Figures don't lie, but liars figure," those who seek to influence public opinion often employ a variety of means to slant statistical figures into seemingly supporting their point of view:

  • Percentages by themselves often tell far from a complete story, particularly when they involve small sample sizes which do not adequately mask normal fluctuations or the potential influence of a number of extraneous factors affecting the phenom- enon under study. A statement such as "The number of deaths attributable to cancer increased by 2% between 1973 and 1983" is probably much more significant if the number of cancer deaths increased by twenty thousand among a population of one million than if they increased by two among a population of one hundred. (In the latter case, for example, two people who already had cancer could have moved into an otherwise cancer-free small town, but it's far less likely that immigration would completely account for an increase of twenty thousand cancer cases amidst a city of one million.)

  • Context is especially important, and percentages alone don't provide context. A statement such as "The home run total in the American League jumped by an astounding 50% between 1960 and 1961" sounds misleadingly impressive if you don't know that after 1960, the American League expanded by two teams and increased the length of the schedule, thereby adding two hundred more games to the season.

  • Most importantly, percentages don't establish cause-and-effect relationships -- at best they highlight correlations which may be due to any number of factors. If (to continue our previous example), the total number of home runs hit by all teams increased by 30% from one year to the next while the number of games remained the same, a great many people might claim that the baseballs used in the latter year had obviously been "juiced" (i.e., manufactured in such a way as to cause them to travel farther when hit). But a number of other unconsidered factors (individually or collectively) might be responsible for the increase, such as an abundance of warm weather, or an expansion in the number of teams which brought more inexperienced and ineffective pitchers into the league.

In the specific case offered here, context is the most important factor. The piece quoted above leads the reader to believe that much of the Australian citizenry owned handguns until their ownership was made illegal and all firearms owned by "law-abiding citizens" were collected by the government through a buy-back program in 1997. This is not so. Australian citizens do not (and never did) have a constitutional right to own firearms -- even before the 1997 buyback program, handgun ownership in Australia was restricted to certain groups, such as those needing weapons for occupational reasons, members of approved sporting clubs, hunters, and collectors. Moreover, the 1997 buyback program did not take away all the guns owned by these groups; only some types of firearms (primarily semi-automatic and pump-action weapons) were banned. And even with the ban in effect, those who can demonstrate a legitimate need to possess prohibited categories of firearms can petition for exemptions from the law.

Given this context, any claims based on statistics (even accurate ones) which posit a cause-and-effect relationship between the gun buyback program and increased crime rates because "criminals now are guaranteed that their prey is unarmed" are automatically suspect, since the average Australian citizen didn't own firearms even before the buyback. But beyond that, most of the statistics offered here are misleading and present only "first year results" where long-term trends need to be considered in order to draw valid cause-and-effect conclusions.

For example, the first entry states that "Homicides are up 3.2%." This statistic is misleading because it reflects only the absolute number of homicides rather than the homicide rate. (A country with a rapidly-growing population, for example, might experience a higher number of crimes even while its overall crime rate decreased.) An examination of statistics from the Australian Institute of Criminology) reveals that the overall homicide rate in Australia has changed little over the past decade and actually dipped slightly after the 1997 gun buy-back program. (The chart found at this link also demonstrates how easily statistics based on small sample sizes can mislead, as when the homicide rate in Tasmania increased nearly eight-fold in one year based on a single incident in which 35 people were killed.)

Then we have the claim that "In the state of Victoria alone, homicides with firearms are now up 300 percent." This is another example of how misleading statistics can be when the underlying numbers are not provided: Victoria, a state with a population of over four-and-a-half million people in 1997, experienced 7 firearm-related homicides in 1996 and 19 firearm-related homicides in 1997 (an increase of 171%, not 300%). An additional twelve homicides amongst a population of 4.5 million is not statistically significant, nor does this single-year statistic adequately reflect long-term trends. Moreover, the opening paragraph mixes two very different types of statistics -- number of homicides vs. percentage of homicides committed with firearms. In the latter case, it should be noted that the Australia-wide percentage of homicides committed with firearms is now lower than it was before the gun buy-back program, and lower than it has been at any point during the past ten years. (In the former case, the absolute number of firearm homicides in Australia in 1998-99 was the lowest in the past ten years.)

Other claims offered here, such as the statement that "While figures over the previous 25 years showed a steady decrease in armed robbery with firearms, this has changed drastically upward in the past 12 months" and "There has also been a dramatic increase in break-ins and assaults of the elderly" are even more difficult to evaluate, because they don't offer any figures or standards of measurement at all. Do they deal with absolute numbers, or percentages? Do they reflect all incidents of crime, or only those committed with firearms? How much of an increase constitutes a "dramatic" increase? According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the proportion of firearms used to commit armed robbery has actually declined over the last several years:

1995 - 27.8%
1996 - 25.3%
1997 - 24.1%
1998 - 17.6%
1999 - 15.2%
2000 - 14.0%

The ABS does report that the number of assaults on victims aged 65 and over has increased over the last few years, but hardly in a proportion one would describe as "dramatic":

Number of victims of assault aged 65 and over:

1996 - 1474
1997 - 1662   (12.8% increase from previous year)
1998 - 1663   (0.06% increase from previous year)
1999 - 1793   (7.8% increase from previous year)

The main point to be learned here is that determining the effect of changes in Australia's gun ownership laws and the government's firearm buy-back program on crime rates requires a complex long-term analysis and can't be discerned from the small, mixed grab bag of short-term statistics offered here. And no matter what the outcome of that analysis, the results aren't necessarily applicable to the U.S.A., where laws regarding gun ownership are (and always have been) much different than those in Australia.

Nelson Warner

PS:   The URL for the source of the information presented above is:

Return to Top of Page

Return to Beginning of