While firearm homicides declined for decades in New Zealand, Australia, and Canada, New Zealand saw greater declines than the other two countries. These differences don’t seem to come from differences in gun control policies, according to research published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence in 2011.
A 2009 report from the Australian Institute of Criminology at least partially inspired the research. The report proposed that Australia firearm homicide declines were the fastest in the Western world. Samara McPhedran, Jeanine Baker, and Pooja Singh—all members of the International Coalition for Women in Shooting and Hunting, which is based in Australia—set out to test this claim.
Most research into firearm homicide looks at a single place before and after changes to laws. McPhedran and her colleagues write that these “results and conclusions vary considerably.” While valuable in evaluating the effects of legislation, the researchers argue such “research does not generally provide long-term comparisons of firearm violence between countries” that could tell us whether trends seen at the country, state, or province level are reflected internationally. International comparisons could help us see how other factors, such as policing practices and socioeconomic variables, could influence firearm deaths.
McPhedran et al. acknowledge that work has been done to look at local Australian trends, but argue the following point:
Australian research does not currently offer information about whether the long-term, ongoing, downwards trend in Australian firearm homicide is unique compared to other countries.
They compared Australia to Canada and New Zealand because all three countries share similar histories and had collected relevant information for the last few decades, only really differing on legislative restrictions. For example, Canada and New Zealand let citizens own and use firearms that Australia has banned. Another example: Canada and Australia required citizens to register their firearms for some of the years covered in the data, but New Zealand didn’t.
The researchers looked at data for the years 1979 to 2007 in Australia and Canada and at New Zealand data for 1986 to 2007, which were the only years available.
The long-term trends in Australian and Canadian firearm homicide did not differ significantly. However, firearm homicide in New Zealand declined more markedly between 1986 and 2007 (around 8% per year, on average) than firearm homicides in either Australia or Canada over the same period.
They argue that their findings do not seem to reflect the differences in legislative restrictions surrounding firearm ownership in the three countries and that suggests that explanations might need to come from elsewhere.
Such an explanation might lie in socioeconomic factors on which New Zealand differs from Canada and Australia. For example, the researchers note that after the economic downturn of the 1990s each country had unemployment rates around 10 per cent before declining.
“However,” they continue, “unemployment rates in New Zealand have consistently been lower than Australian unemployment rates, which have in turn been lower than Canadian unemployment rates.”
The researchers write that future work will look closer at possible relationships between unemployment and firearm homicide rates.
Other economic factors might also play a role. While each of the three countries saw similar economic growth overall, McPhedran et al. note that little is known about how the countries compare on socioeconomic disadvantage within each country.
Finally, McPhedran et al. argue that it’s possible that “broader changes in social policy and crime prevention policies may explain the declines in firearm homicide.”
This explanation depends on reports from the Australian Institute of Criminology and Statistics Canada that suggest that the majority of firearms used in homicides in those two countries were owned illegally. McPhedran et al. suggest this might mean that the regulation of firearms ownership in Australia and Canada might not influence the people who use firearms violently, while social and crime prevention policies might.
The researchers cite Australian and Canadian research that links the illicit drug trade to firearm homicide and also cite a Royal Canadian Mounted Police report that links “recent spikes in the rate of Canadian firearm homicide” to “gang- and drug-related activity involving young men from socially disadvantaged backgrounds.” Moreover, they refer to work from these countries that shows “that firearm homicides, though rare, occur disproportionately in urban crime ‘hotspots.'”
While the researchers looked for comparable information about both the licensing status of offenders and of the link between social disadvantage or the illicit drug trade and firearm homicide for New Zealand, there was little to be found, beyond broad links between social disadvantage, illicit drug trade and violence in general. This makes questions such as whether the same factors were at work on firearm homicide in New Zealand or whether the same factors accounted for the faster declines in New Zealand firearm homicides speculative and thus excellent ones, in my opinion, for future research.
Similarly, McPhedran et al. argue the following:
Long-term monitoring of violence in areas of urban disadvantage may elucidate whether community-oriented partnerships and prevention efforts have an influence on firearm (and, indeed, nonfirearm) homicide rates, above and beyond the influence of broader social and economic factors. This is a direction for future study.
Samara McPhedran, Jeanine Baker, & Pooja Singh (2011). Firearm Homicide in Australia, Canada, and New Zealand: What Can We Learn From Long-Term International Comparisons? Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 26 (2) DOI: 10.1177/0886260510362893