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Gun Control: Searching Down Under for Change to Believe In

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Barack Obama talked on Sunday night about how the children who died in Newtown could have been from Anytown America.

His words hit a resonant chord. Both of the given names of my two kids—Benjamin and Madeleine—were mentioned among the list of the dead children. “Madeleine,” spelled the same way as my daughter’s name, not Madeline or  Madelyn. Sure, Benjamin and Madeleine probably grace the latest iteration of America’s Favorite Names List, but their presence there also evokes a commonality of experience, whether in Newtown or New York. Just what Obama meant.

An address to those gathered in the Sandy Hook Elementary School auditorium might not have been the precise moment to detail the specifics of new policy. But everyone expects more and the administration has started intimating about what is to come.

A lot of the people looking for a way to somehow budge the eternal stalemate over restrictions on gun ownership in the U.S. have cast eyes Down Under. Australia’s state and federal governments agreed to put in place strict gun control laws in 1996, just 12 days after 35 people were shot dead and 18 more were seriously wounded by a gunman in Port Arthur, Tasmania.

The legislation banned semi-automatic and pump-action rifles and shotguns, which were purchased back from civilian owners, removing more than 600,000 guns from Australia’s adult population of 12 million. There were 13 gun massacres (the killing of four or more) in the 18 years before the 1996 National Firearms Agreement and none afterward. The law also reduced substantially homicides and suicides using  firearms.

Just as would have happened in the U.S, gun advocacy groups jumped in to explain why removing guns from the populace doesn’t help diminish crime.  One tactic attempted to lend a scientific veneer to this line of argument.  A study by members of the Australian gun lobby noted that, while firearm-related suicides had dropped from 1979 to 2004, the law largely made no difference for gun deaths and was only part of a declining trend that had begun more than 15 years earlier. David Hemenway, a professor of health policy at Harvard School of Public Health, and author of Private Guns, Public Health, wrote a 2009 article entitled “How to Find Nothing” for the Journal of Public Health Policy that documented why this analysis amounted to just so much statistical legerdemain.

The gun lobby authors in the British Journal of Criminology picked 1979 as the year to begin the time series—gun-related homicide and suicide rates were peaking in the late 1970s. They chose to ignore additional data going back to 1915, which would have shown that the law had achieved its policy goal of achieving a substantive decrease in gun-related deaths.

Hemenway and other critics also focused on another aspect of the analysis. The gun lobby authors compared what happened after the passage of the law with a hypothetical scenario of what would have occurred if the law hadn’t passed—just as compilers of any time series would have done. But they made the faulty assumption that the falling trend line would continue indefinitely from 1979 and would actually turn negative by 2010. This “resurrection problem,” as one critic termed it, would have meant a negative death rate—whimsically,  those killed by gun violence would be coming back from the dead. Fine concept for a new cable series, not so good as social science.

Even if the actual death rate as tracked by the Australian government had dropped to zero following passage of the law, the counterfactual prediction (what would have occurred if the law did not exist) would have been lower, and the law could be deemed ineffective through this kind of specious analysis. Of course, statisticians try to avoid becoming theater of the absurd playwrights.  One technique they use takes the logarithm of the death rate to keep things above the zero line and thereby eliminate any through-the-looking glass prospects. But the gun lobby authors chose not to apply this standard method.  As Hemenway notes, “In statistics, as in life, it is always possible not to find what one is supposedly looking for, or in other words, to find nothing.”

Why is all of this important in the wake of the Newtown shootings? Because the National Rifle Association undoubtedly operates the equivalent of the Sporting Shooters Association of Australia’s National Research and Policy Unit, where one of the authors of the study critiqued by Hemenway was employed.

The U.S. faces more imposing obstacles in coming to grips with its gun problem and so the statistical twisting and turning here is liable to become even more acute than it was in Australia. A 2011 letter published in the British Medical Journal by Simon Chapman, a professor of public health from the University of Sydney, observed that the U.S. had 14.4 times the population of Australia but 141 times as as many deaths from firearms in 2008 as Australia and 238 times the rate of firearms-related homicide. Buybacks have actually been tried in the U.S., Hemenway acknowledges, but have always been too small to make much difference. Moreover, guns were only surrendered voluntarily and replacement weapons were easily found.

An article in Slate on the Australian experience featured this disturbing quotation from an op-ed piece by former prime minister John Howard, the political conservative who was in office when the National Firearms Agreement was enacted. After the Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting earlier this year, Howard wrote:

So deeply embedded is the gun culture of the U.S. that millions of law-abiding Americans truly believe that it is safer to own a gun, based on the chilling logic that because there are so many guns in circulation, one’s own weapon is needed for self-protection. To put it another way, the situation is so far gone there can be no turning back.

A few rays of hope may be peeking through this “from-my-cold-dead-hands” intransigence. There were  18 “guns on campus” bills introduced in state legislatures in 2011, laws that, at worst, would allow a Glock tucked into a book bag alongside a Macbook Air and Introduction to Economics. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence has emphasized that permissiveness for guns in academia would foster violence and put a damper on academic freedom (debate about climate change or intelligent design becomes difficult when a fellow student’s packing). Campus guns could also undermine academic standards (“Sure, I’ll up your grade if you’ll just put that thing away.”). The upside of all this relates to the decision of 16 of those states, including, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas, not to pass guns-on-campus measures that went before state legislatures in 2011. (Five states—Utah, Mississippi, Wisconsin, Oregon and Colorado—now explicitly allow guns. In 23 other states, the decision to permit guns among the ivy is made by each academic institution. Other states have banned concealed weapons on campus.)

As the Obama administration and Congress forward legislative proposals in coming weeks, negotiations over what should and shouldn’t be allowed for gun owners will be hard and long, and inevitably entangled with recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings broadening gun-owner rights.

In the wake of Newtown, Blacksburg and an extended list of other scenes of mass tragedy, anything that Obama and Congress can do to keep guns away from campuses and schoolyards would be a welcome addition to the essential requirement in any reform package to ban assault weapons, expand background checks and the like. All of this is a tall order because of this country’s still-prevailing militia-head mentality. Whether  John Howard can be proven wrong about the U.S.’s inability to end its love affair with a warm gun still remains a deep uncertainty.

Source: Mikael Ejdemyr





Gary Stix About the Author: Gary Stix, a senior editor, commissions, writes, and edits features, news articles and Web blogs for SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. His area of coverage is neuroscience. He also has frequently been the issue or section editor for special issues or reports on topics ranging from nanotechnology to obesity. He has worked for more than 20 years at SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, following three years as a science journalist at IEEE Spectrum, the flagship publication for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. He has an undergraduate degree in journalism from New York University. With his wife, Miriam Lacob, he wrote a general primer on technology called Who Gives a Gigabyte? Follow on Twitter @@gstix1.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Traveler 007 1:35 pm 12/20/2012

    After Australian lawmakers passed widespread gun bans, owners were forced to surrender about 650,000 weapons, which were later slated for destruction, according to statistics from the Australian Sporting Shooters Association.

    The bans were not limited to so-called assault weapons or military-type firearms, but also 22-caliber rifles and shotguns. The effort cost the Australian government about $500 million, according to an association representative.

    Though lawmakers responsible for passing the ban promised a safer country, the nation’s crime statistics tell a different story:

    * Countrywide, homicides are up 3.2 percent.

    * Assaults are up 8.6 percent.

    * Amazingly, armed robberies have climbed nearly 45 percent.

    * In the Australian state of Victoria, gun homicides have climbed 300 percent.

    * In the 25 years before the gun ban, crime in Australia had been dropping steadily.

    * There has been a reported dramatic increase in home burglaries and assaults on the elderly.

    Link to this
  2. 2. sonoran 2:29 pm 12/20/2012

    Here are the statistics from the Australian Institute of Criminology on homicide and percentage of gun homicide rates:

    It looks to me like it’s problematic to attribute a causal relationship to the drop in homicides and the 1996 gun law. For one thing this drop didn’t occur until seven years after the law was put in place. The drop also occurred at a time when other countries, such as the US, who’d implemented no restrictive gun laws, were also experiencing declines.

    The question is are the effects of gun laws so weak as to easily be overcome by social/behavioral factors, leading to coincidental associations of laws and effects that create only the appearance of effectiveness?

    Also, given the emphasis on teasing out “gun-related” homicides as a separate statistic, is the purpose of these gun laws to simply ensure that people don’t get killed with guns? Even though just as many people are being killed, the law is a success as long as killers use other means? Is the purpose of these gun laws to make sure lots of people don’t get killed in one place at one time? The law is a success as long as the same number of people are killed a few at at time?

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  3. 3. VelocitySquared 3:30 pm 12/20/2012

    An excellent topic for a non-science publication. However, since you are trolling, I will bite: How many mass killings (including non-firearms) before and after the law. Did that cause a significant difference over an equal amount of time and is that statistically viable? So, for example (making up random numbers) 20 years before Law X is invoked we have 10 mass killings and after Law X we have 8 mass killings (not much of a difference) or looking 30 years out we have 15 mass killings and 9 after (showing a possible decline?). Also, we’d need to look at other factors for decline to see if Law X (weapon control) was not a significant factor. What else had taken place? Better health care? Better economy? Changes in locations of the mass murders?

    Serious stuff that needs to be considered. As humans we tend to react instead of being proactive and sometimes we react too quickly when we are afraid. I’d rather make the right decisions instead of making a hasty bad one that people say “See, you took away X and look we still have mass killings!”

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  4. 4. outsidethebox 5:12 pm 12/20/2012

    There are in the range of 270-300 million firearms in private hands in this country – so around 400 times as many as Australia apparently had. You wonder why people who write political as opposed to scientific articles for SA never do the faintest amount of research. What % of the American public do think owns one or more they don’t want the government messing with? To a first approximation – a bunch.

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  5. 5. Avatar2000 6:27 pm 12/20/2012

    There’s a few factual errors in this article. Pump action rifles were not banned or restricted more heavily than any other. In fact Semi-autos were not banned either. Just heavily restricted and not permitted for sporting use. Farmers and certain other occupational users, could still obtain semi-autos rifles. Semi auto handguns were available for sporting use. The laws werent enacted in 12 days. The two largest (by population) states practically capitulated all their lawmaking ability on guns to the federal government, in 12 days, only to have Howard (rightfully) reject this as unconstitutional. Two other states – including Tasmania where the incident happened – held out until Howard threatened them with witholding Federal tax money for health care, until they did so. They were basically blackmailed. The conservative state governments were decimated at their next election by an electorate that felt their representatives bowed to the vocal minority’s public opinion, fuelled by sensationalist media, rather than facts and evidence. The (otherwise) conservative Federal government enjoyed the luxury of a long period before an election, as it had just come to power before the massacre, and had a long time to “spin” their way.

    In 2002, a mentally ill man shot 7 people, two of them fatally, in a University in Victoria (Monash). He heard ‘voices’ telling him to do it. So to all of you who say there has never been a mass killing in Australia since 1996, thats partly right and partly wrong. Look up the Snowtown murders. Look up Monash University shootings.

    I dont think even the shooting fraternity pretends that this nonsense mentioned above about the firearms homicide rate going negative is reality. I am sure they all accept that there will always be deaths by firearms homicide. The promise made to Australians by Howard was that these changes would reduce gun related crime – it did not, and if anything its increasing – and it would prevent a mass shooting. It also failed.

    Whats not considered is the other social factors present in Australia. We have free health care for all. We have a good mental health system as a part of that. We have unemployment benefits for all. Whats ignored is the more individualistic nature of the US average Joe, whereas Australian culture has been around mateship – mutual support in times of mental or economic crisis – and a doctorine of ‘have a go’ rather than be successful at all costs, or you’re a ‘loser’. Law enforcement capabilities got a big increase…. communications and the response times to crimes got a big improvement too.

    So whilst you might argue with the statistical method used, you also seem relatively reluctant to consider other factors that might drive down the firearms homicide rate, regardless of whether Howard enacted his laws, or not. Conversely, there seems to be little consideration – when comparing Australia to the US – with the social issues of a (more) readily available supply of dangerous narcotics through a land border with Mexico – a major narcotic supplier- and the culture of violence that comes with it, and other border control problems. Australia, being an island, still has narcotics problems, but this natural barrier slows the flow of drugs into the country and in many cases makes it easier to track and intercept.

    You mentioned over half a million firearms were handed in at a cost of 500 million. The end cost of the laws being enacted was about 2 billion, and costs tens of millions today to keep in place. For this investment we have seen one mass shooting, and no substantive decrease in firearms related crimes. Furthermore, import documentation shows that at least (approx)750,000 semi automatic longarms that had been imported, were never handed in.

    When looking at the effectiveness of Australian gun law changes, a better comparison is New Zealand. They are culturally similar to Australia, with many of the same values and background. They had a mass shooting around the same time (1996) and changed their laws somewhat – but not in a way that greatly impacted law abiding shooters. They have not had a mass shooting since.

    Did Australia need to toughen gun laws? Yes. Did they need to go so far? No. The evidence is in New Zealands methods of managing law abiding shooters and their access to firearms, which is -in my opinion – a much better balance.

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  6. 6. Gary Stix 6:55 pm 12/20/2012

    To Avatar 2000: Dunno. Sources used were academic journal articles referenced in the post, not news clippings.

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  7. 7. thalgar17980 10:23 pm 12/20/2012

    Interesting article, however the author failed to mention that after the gun ban in Australia was enacted crimes involving edged weapons increased,d.dmQ

    Also, if you don’t want to trust the NRA statistics on gun crime how about the FBI and ATF

    Note that as the number of NFA guns processed has increased violent crime has decreased, coincidence, possibly, but probably not.
    Since Australia was looked at lets look at another country, England. Guns have been highly restricted in England for a long time, the ‘bobbies’ (essentially your typical beat cop) also did not carry guns. However they started carrying guns in the late 90′s because it was found that criminals could still get guns and the police were powerless against them.
    People have been killing each other thousands of years before guns were even thought of. Take away guns and people will just find another way to kill each other. The most likely weapon to be used instead of guns would be explosives, which are far more deadly. In Iraq and Afghanistan more people have been killed by IED’s than in gun fights. More people are killed in the world by mines than guns.
    Legislation against guns is not the answer, legislation against people is. Now you may say that laws obviously didn’t work at keeping guns out of the hands of Adam Lana, but remember the guns were owned by his mother. So he stole those guns. If a criminal already has a campus disregard for the law what makes you think they will obey a different law restricting firearms? Believing this to be true falls into Albert Einsteins definition of insanity.
    When I hear people say that guns should be regulated more and that guns are evil, there are two quotes that should make them rethink their position, though often they are too short sighted to think it through, and those quotes are “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” and “guns kill people just like pencils misspell words.”

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  8. 8. scottswigart 11:39 pm 12/20/2012

    It’s odd that after decades of arguing we’re no closer to knowing if more guns and more people carrying concealed guns increases or decreases crime. It seems counter-intuitive that more guns would mean less mass shootings or less crime overall, but it would be far from the first time that a counter-intuitive finding was observed.

    It seems time to meticulously collect the data and see where it leads.

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  9. 9. Tim May 11:54 pm 12/20/2012

    Yet another “pure politics” or “sociology” blog posting/article in the once-great “Scientific American.”

    Whatever one thinks of gun control, this political stuff belongs in “Mother Jones” or “Politico” or “Slate,” not in SciAm.

    I started reading SciAm in around 1966. And I didn’t read it back then for screeds about gun control, or sympathetic articles about trannies and hookers (the “White Noise” series), or climate change polemics. SciAm, get back to your mission, please! There are plenty of other magazines and sites for pseudoscience, political posturing, and psychobabble.

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  10. 10. bailiff 8:32 am 12/21/2012

    La science? Aucun. Grande blague? Oui.

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  11. 11. sonoran 11:32 am 12/21/2012

    I don’t have any problem with SciAm staff and other bloggers offer their thoughts and opinions about whatever they like. SciAm has an editorial/opinion section, primarily blogs, I’m all for it.

    I want to point out a couple of things about this article. It seems to state that a firearms law was passed and that this law *caused* the reduction of gun violence and a period when no more mass shootings took place. However it offers no objective evidence to support this theory of causality. No study to reference, no statistical analysis, nothing except to excoriate what appears to be a poorly constructed attempt to prove the law was ineffective.

    Does a poor attempt to offer evidence for one theory automatically validate the opposite theory? Where’s the solid evidence to support the causality theory that this article implies? This is especially important because gun control in other countries at other times has such a weak track record of effectiveness.

    The “burden of confidence” is on the gun controller’s here, where’s the evidence?

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  12. 12. sonoran 12:27 pm 12/21/2012

    Here’s another study done by the Melbourne Institute that avoids the pitfalls described by the discredited study cited in this article:

    The authors discuss the conflicting findings of various investigators evaluating firearms homicide and suicide data after the National Firearms Agreement.

    As it turns out several studies have been conducted and there have been studies that were well-designed an peer reviewed that have found no significant effect and some that have found an effect. The poorly designed study described in this article is not representative of the scholarship that has been done to evaluate the effects of this law.

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  13. 13. egk 2:23 pm 12/21/2012

    It’s a shame that Scientific American has turned into “Sometimes Scientific Sometimes Political American”.

    I need not rehash the flaws in your gun control premiss, its been done above. I hope SA stops with these political pieces, I know it has been going on for a while. Lets get it to stop soon. Yeah, I know, “Good luck with that”.

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  14. 14. ssm1959 2:44 pm 12/21/2012

    On the grounds of cultural differences it is very difficult to extrapolate from the Australian experience to what if anything could be done in the US. One would be better served looking north of the border where even the authors of their most recent attempt at banning firearms had to reverse their policy due to its abysmal failure. Howard’s view that people own guns out of fear is partly correct. Most buyers do not consider their neighbors a threat. Rather the daily bathing of the public in the culture of violence presented in our media is the constant disquiet that reinforces irrational fears and leads to people buying firearms so they can feel safe. It is a completely irrational motivation but why would we expect rational behavior from a frightened animal. Like it or not, the american public wants firearms. Until you can substantially deconstruct that want, any legislation is doomed to failure.

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  15. 15. Technopoly 4:43 pm 12/21/2012

    And so the final die has been cast….Scientific American has morphed into Scientific Propaganda. Our beautiful little blue marble, as we know it, really has come to an end.

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  16. 16. CarefulReview 8:43 pm 12/21/2012

    11. sonoran

    “The “burden of confidence” is on the gun controller’s here, where’s the evidence?”

    It can be found in the same place as they keep the science: nowhere.

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  17. 17. brainguy 10:37 am 12/22/2012

    Hey Gary Stix, you should pair up with John Horgan!!!

    We can nickname you guys “Gun” and “Control”. Or maybe “Min” and “Ion”.

    I KNOW FOR A F-A-C-T what gun control will bring! How? I lived in a place where guns are banned to non military personel, and I KNOW FOR A FACT that people that advocate for this agenda are either very stupid and narrowed vison, or biased.

    You don’t strick me as stupid or narrow visioned.

    The truth is: America, totalitarian government is you future if you follow this kind of “news” without REALLY truthfully “digesting” the entire subject.

    One must think really REALLY CAREFULLY before giving his LAST WAY of defense up.

    The utopian state is NOT here, until then, I strong believe people should fight for their rights to keep their means of protection.

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  18. 18. QRIUS1 10:58 am 12/22/2012

    Contrary to what several commenters have stated here, I believe that it’s about time that scientists, and publications regarding science and technology, take a stand on weapons of mass destruction. “Scientific neutrality,” i.e., drawing a line between what is discovered in the lab or manufactured for the military/industrial complex or environmental polluters and what constitutes social issues, at times makes tragedy a bit too easy to dismiss and forget. “The most open and vigorous debate is often the only protection against the most perilous misuse of technology.” (Carl Sagan in The Demon-Haunted World, p.289.

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  19. 19. tate0774 11:32 am 12/22/2012

    Large countries have large and evidently uncontrollable security problems due to stiff constitutions and unsolved historic/racial discrepancies. In small countries, people have found friendly attitudes by police and other officials to generate a relaxed athmosphere, wherein guns are not a commodity. The capital of Finland, that is, Helsinki, with a population of 600,000 has less than ten small shops trading arms (pistols, rifles, shotguns). It takes about one month to get an arms purchase permit after the police has checked the buyer’s background and verified his/hers mental status.

    Misuse of arms also happens in Nordic countries, but personal safety is generally never compromised. A person carrying a knife on Helsinki railway station will be fined and lose the knife. The police will find a pistol only about once a month.

    In the same fashion, confidence on the objectivity of the police is high in the Nordic countries. If you are stopped for speeding or other reason, the police does not approach with his right hand on his pistol. Very rarely you are asked to step out of the car and all procedures – if necessary – are carried out in very polite way quite often accompanied with slight joking in the local dialect. Obviously, this makes fines feel almost the same as Christmas present.

    One could assume that obediance to laws results in reduction of crimes. Finland has a strange reputation in the Guinness Book of Records, not to mention bog football and taking 20 minutes of 120 oC heat in sauna, by fining a business angel Jussi Salonoja for speeding 80 km/h along a street with 40 km/h speed limit in 2004. Believe it or not, the fine was 170,000 euros (about USD 200,000) as speeding fines in Finland are rated by the annual income. As a Finn, Mr. Salonoja did not appeal.

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  20. 20. scepticalofsciam 1:14 pm 12/22/2012

    Once upon time American journalism, and SciAM in particular, presented both sides of an issue without bias. Sceptical reporters (quaint word nowadays) grilled interviewees mercilessily. Now, many articles clearly show the authors bias. This is known as opinion and as such belongs in the Opinion section. Is the only way to prevent such sloppy journalism to cancel subscriptions and make the reason known? Please interview or report data from both sides of an issue and, amazingly enough, we can form our own opinion.

    Obviously a mad man can kill many people with a fertilizer bomb or automobile. Please present data that a firearms ban will prevent or increase crime. I see more studies that increasing firearms ownership results in a declining crime rate than the opposite, the United States in particular. Since governments in the 20th century liquidated tens of millions of their own citizens and the last genocide was in the 1990s in the Bosnia region, should we give up that ultimate last line of defense? I think not.

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  21. 21. Technopoly 10:55 pm 12/22/2012

    Well expressed, sir or madam.

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  22. 22. Crasher 9:58 pm 12/27/2012

    The laws passed in Australia have made the country a MUCH safer place to live. Police carry guns but they don’t pull them when they talk to people. The sporting clubs, gun shops and hunters do the same as they always have (minus automatic military style weapons). We don’t have metal detectors at our school entrances, or in our shopping centres only at airports. Australians feel safe when they walk down the street. The US will continue to experience these shooting insanities untill they take out the one common factor in all the shooting rampages…the automatic/military weapons. But never mind, you guys keep your guns…just do it in the US, we like our safe country.
    And BTW the gun control debate IS science, have you not heard of Sociology or Psychology, last time I looked they were both legit fields of scientific endeavour.

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