I was startled, but not surprised, to hear a news report this morning that Australians now own as many guns as they did before the 1996 gun buyback. Startled, because it has been a well-kept secret, but not surprised, because it is a species of a well-known economic phenomenon called the Cobra effect.
According to News Limited:
Professor Alpers said Port Arthur was one of a series of gun massacres and overall more than a million guns were surrendered.
“What our research found was that a huge number of people gave in their guns for no compensation at all,” he said.
“These hadn’t been added into the discussions. So a million guns were taken out of circulation and put into the smelter.”
Gun imports increased after 1996 as people replaced banned guns, then crashed, Prof Alpers said.
“Gradually for the past 10 years, they have been creeping up again.
But they are not the semi-automatics specifically banned after Port Arthur.
The Cobra effect describes an attempt by the British to eradicate poisonous snakes around Delhi by paying a bounty for them. What this led to was a vigorous industry in the production of even more snakes for sale to the British, not a decline in overall snake numbers.
In the case of the gun buyback it would appear that something similar has happened. People still want to own guns, so many have surrendered guns they didn’t want or need, and then invested, over time, in guns they did.
Unlike the Cobra effect there have been some benefits to the government in that the composition of the total arsenal has changed, and there has been a 50% decrease in the numbers of gun deaths.
However, there also appear to have been substitution effects with people now being relatively more likely to be knifed:
The Australian Institute of Criminology homicide study shows gun murders have steadily declined from the late 1980s and now are far outnumbered by murders with knives.
News doesn’t provide the actual figures for knifings, so it is possible they have stayed static at the same time that gun homicides have declined.
We don’t have any reliable figures on mass murders as to whether they have declined or not. They are relatively rare as Wikipedia shows and so data is at best lumpy.
There are lessons here, including in the difficulty of changing citizen behaviour by government coercion.
I was a supporter of the Howard gun buyback, and remain so, but I was always conscious that it is not a simple issue. It was a “better safe than sorry” move but as time goes on, its benefits are not as easy to quantify as common-sense would suggest.