January 14, 2013 | Graham

Gun buyback falls victim to the Cobra effect

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.


Posted by Graham at 11:10 am | Comments (6) |
Filed under: Uncategorized


  1. The cobra affect can be said about India. They have been aborting and killing female babies for many years. Now the demography has changed in India and there is a sexual crisis hence the increase in rapes. This is a very serious situation for a country to be in. It will not be solved overnight. The power of men over the remaining women in India needs to be addressed and women must have a voice especially since the killing of female children is still taking place. This must be outlawed immediately.

    Comment by Mary J — January 14, 2013 @ 12:38 pm

  2. You would the law of supply/demand should mean that issue gives the women of India more power.

    Either way, any kind of fertility handicap in India is very, very good. They have passed 1 billion people, they continue to overpopulate like crazy, and the vast majority of them live in squalid poverty.

    Comment by Craig Thomas — January 14, 2013 @ 3:24 pm

  3. Graham,

    Forget NEWS Ltd, here’s an article in a real newspaper written by someone who knows what he’s talking about and also claims that the benefits have been quantified.

    There hasn’t been a proportional increase in gun ownership, the supposed “cobra effect” is based on a false premise.


    I’m a former gun owner BTW, firearms were “tools of the trade” on the farm, I don’t have a strong pro or anti ideological bias

    Comment by RussellW — January 15, 2013 @ 6:55 am

  4. Hi Russell,

    An interesting analysis from Andrew Leigh, which certainly means that the way the matter was reported by News (and the ABC from where I initially picked the story up) overstates the case.

    However, reading Andrew’s article the Cobra effect was still present. The guns that were surrendered were ones that weren’t being used anyway, and weren’t suitable for mass murder anyway.

    And while guns may have grown at a similar rate to the population as a whole we don’t know who is buying the guns. It seems unlikely that Asian immigrants are as big consumers of weapons as rural dwelling Australians. So there is still likely to be a gap between what can be explained by population growth, and what can be explained by restocking – the point of my post.

    Comment by Graham — January 17, 2013 @ 9:08 am

  5. Graham,

    I can’t see any references in the article that support the “cobra effect”, in my experience, many of the guns that were surrendered were indeed suitable for mass murder( semi-autos) as those were the ones specifically targeted by the scheme, the surrender of other less lethal types of firearms, was a bonus. So, whether or not there was a “cobra effect” is really immaterial.

    The were many ignorant opinions expressed at the time by journalists who obviously couldn’t distinguish a pump action from a semi automatic, an automatic or a bolt action firearm.

    Comment by RussellW — January 17, 2013 @ 10:10 am

  6. The Govt achieved its aim of getting rid of semi-automatic weapons.

    In the USA every time there is a Sandy Hook type event,gun sales reach new highs.The US citizens have good reason to be suspicious of their Govt.George Bush brought The Patriot Act which negated habeas corpus was the first nail in the US Constitution.

    Obama brought in Preventative Dentention so even those suspected of terrorism can be jailed indefinitely without trial.Obama also legalised the assassination of suspected terrorists.Obama’s worst is the National Defence Authorisation Act which gives the US Military power to arrest/detain anyone in the West with no trial or legal representation.

    The USA has 800 empty FEMA Camps supposedly for illegal immigrants.There are 15 million illegal immigrants in the USA but not one of them is held in these FEMA Camps.

    Hitler ,Starlin and Mao disarmed their populations and murdered millions.Never say never especially in a world that is perceived to be too populated.

    Comment by Ross — January 17, 2013 @ 7:07 pm

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