Public health group’s bizarre claims for fall in gun deaths

The Public Health Association of Australia (PHAA) says its campaigning is responsible for the reduction in gun deaths in Australia and, even more outlandishly, for preventing no less than 16 firearms massacres in the years since John Howard’s law changes in 1996.

In a major report released at the end of November, PHAA cited 10 “major public health success stories” which saved 500,000 lives. “Gun control - we reduced gun deaths in Australia,” it says, citing the response to the 1996 Port Arthur massacre and the National Firearms Agreement limiting access to semi-automatic firearms, imposing uniform national licensing requirements and buying back around 650,000 privately-owned firearms.

The flaw in the argument is the national firearms death rate was in decline well before 1996. Even the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ graph on the degree of firearms suicides included in the PHAA report shows a noticeable drop from a peak in 1991.

There appear to be a number of reasons for this which predate the National Firearms Agreement, including more rigorous state laws and the fall-off in Australia’s rural population.

The News Ltd account of the PHAA report says it has been estimated gun control prevented 16 gun massacres, with no explanation as to how it reached  this curious figure.

Presumably it was assumed that because there had been a number of gun outrages pre-1996, there would be a proportionately similar number in the years after, were it not for the NFA. That ignores the fact there have been massacres in Australia since 1996, the three worst claiming a total of 36 lives and all were arson attacks.

Despite its headline claim of reducing gun deaths in Australia, the PHAA report does hedge somewhat. “Studies note that a causal relationship between the NFA and changes in rates of injury and death cannot be verified because of the complex issues dealt with in the Agreement and other changing societal factors,” it says.

The PHAA is on stronger ground in some of its other claims for success in national health campaigns. Limiting smoking has saved the most lives, perhaps half a million, with the national smoking rate falling significantly in the past 20 years.

Daily smoking rates, around 20 per cent of adults in 2001, are now less than 13 per cent.

Widespread vaccination has slashed death and hospitalisation quotients with some once prevalent diseases all but gone. Skin cancer death rates have fallen significantly, a tribute to sunscreen campaigns which started in the 1970s.

That’s the sort of widespread problem which can respond well to a crusade to improve health outcomes by changing individual behaviour - most everyone is aware of the need to Slip! Slop! Slap! before heading outdoors.

Anti-gun groups have long sought to treat firearms as a public health issue, with very limited success. Considering most gun crime is committed by criminals with unregistered guns, citing Australia’s million-plus licensed and law-abiding gun owners as the problem isn’t going to work.

Even the PHAA doesn’t seem to regard guns as a major public health issue – its website lists 17 special interest groups discussing and developing policy on areas such as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health and alcohol, tobacco and other drugs and child health. None of the 17 specifically deal with guns.

The special interest group dealing with injury does include a firearms injury policy statement which sits below its falls injury in older people policy and its smoke alarms in residential housing policy.

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