After the Sydney Siege, would Australia be safer with American-style gun laws? The answer is simple

The idea that access to firearms makes people safer isn't based on any facts at all, although that doesn't seem to matter to gun advocates

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The tragic events that unfolded in Sydney earlier this week have prompted many debates. Many were soul-searching and meaningful, some were confused, and one was downright stupid.

I'm referring, of course, to the very American idea that began seeping into our national debate shortly after the attack: the toxic suggestion that the citizens trapped in the Lindt Cafe would have been safer if Australia hadn't banned the possession of guns almost two decades ago.

With every day seeming to bring new warnings about global terrorism, I can understand why some people feel unsafe. But the siege in Martin Place was not a terrorist act. It was the action of a single disturbed individual with a history of violence talking a last desperate action before an inevitable jail sentence.

The gun control law reforms passed by the Howard government in 1996 after the Port Arthur massacre have had resounding success in limiting the public's access to guns, and limiting the damage inflicted by them. After the reforms came into place, half the annual number of Australians were killed by guns.

So why are so many people suggesting that Australian citizens should be re-arming themselves to avoid becoming victims of gun crimes?


Let’s look at exactly who it is that is calling for these changes. There's the Australian Liberal Democrat senator David Leyonhjelm, and the American Fox News pundit Charles Hurt. These men appear to envisage a well-armed population, able to "protect" itself and its family, as Hunt loudly (and insensitively) proclaimed yesterday.

Leyonhjelm, who left his political party when the gun laws were passed, has declared Australians to be a “nation of victims”, unable to defend themselves. From “the bad guys”, one must presume.

Does this stack up? Well, no. It doesn’t. Not in anything resembling the real world.

The fact is that in Australia you are more than 10 times less likely to die by gunfire than in the US. A gun in a US home is 22 times more likely to kill its owner or her family than anyone else. And more than one in five U.S. teenagers report having witnessed a shooting where the average figure in Australia is almost zero.

Even when they're in the hands of policemen guns aren't safe. Do you remember the incident in New York two years ago, when the NYPD rained a hail of bullets on a man wielding a pistol in the street?

Aside from the man, who was killed, nine innocent bystanders were wounded, and as a result of the officers' gunfire. With this in mind, if everyone in the Lindt Cafe had been armed, would there have been any guarantee of their safety? If highly trained policemen can still hit civilian bystanders, it's frightening to think how many more of the hostages could have been wounded, or even died, had civilians in the café been armed.

So, the truly interesting question is: why would anyone argue otherwise when the facts are so patently not on their side?

Studies show that not all facts are created equal, at least not when our psychology is involved. In an article for The New Yorker called "I Don't Want to Be Right", the political scientist Brendan Nyhan shows how certain facts are almost entirely unable to change our minds if they contradict our understanding of the world.

What's more, when our sense of self is threatened, or that of a group we heavily identify with, we are much more likely to simply reject new information out-of-hand than to allow it to change a false belief.

So for David Leyonhjelm and Charles Hurt, and unfortunately many like them, the facts don't matter. They are the heroes, fending off innumerable bad guys. Theirs is an internal world of adolescent Hollywood fantasy that no inconvenient truths can permeate. If you ever need a stronger argument against making guns accessible to the public, then look no further than the logic of these people.