Dr Samara McPhedran: “Research has proven that current firearm legislation does not contribute to gun violence or crime.”
Dr Samara McPhedran is a researcher and lecturer at Griffith University, where she researches Causes of Violence.
Dr McPhedran is also the chair of Women in Shooting and Hunting (WiSH). Dr McPhedran has some incredible insights into how some of this legislation stuff happens, and how we can maybe stop some of it before it even gets to the stage of politicians voting on it. It is much easier to stop things in advance, than it is to try to fix them afterwards.
Over to Samara…
“Well, distinguished guests, ladies and gentleman. I’m delighted to be here this evening, and I thank Shooters Union Queensland for inviting me to speak, but I have to confess that I thought to myself, “What can I possibly say at an event like this that isn’t just preaching to the converted?”
We know about the events that have led us here. We know about the difficulty of having rational and informed debate about firearms in Australia.
We know about the challenges ahead of us, as we see signs of more gun bans, more restrictions, and more red tape, all of which go completely against recommendations from the recent Senate inquiry into gun violence in Australia.
My next thought was to talk about how research fits into this picture. There have been many studies into the impacts of our gun laws. Even though these studies come from different groups, who use different types of statistics and look at many different time periods, the results are very consistent when it comes to firearms and murder. Not a single study has found that the legislative changes affected the pre-existing downward trend in firearm homicide.
Firearm homicides were falling well before the laws were implemented. After the laws changed, this decline simply continued on at the same steady rate. It can get a bit confusing, because some of the studies completely ignore their own results and conclude that our laws have been a stunning success, but the statistics say otherwise.
There’s nothing unusual about these falling rates. Many Western nations, including the US, have experienced declines in firearm homicide over time. It’s reasonable to think that something other than legislation is responsible for these similar trends across different countries.
Most gun-related deaths in Australia are suicides. Just like firearm homicides, firearm suicides were falling many years before the gun laws were implemented.
After almost two decades of those laws being in place, nobody is really sure what impact they’ve had on suicides. There’s no agreement between scientific studies. Some find that firearm related suicides fell more quickly after ’96 than before. Others show that the laws may only have affected certain age groups. Some research finds hardly any changes at all, while other work shows displacement from firearms to other methods such as hanging.
In fact, it’s been concluded that Australia’s gun laws are not a cost effective way to prevent suicides. That is based on a fairly low estimate of what our laws cost to administer. That estimate puts the cost at about 75,000 dollars per day. To put that in context, that’s more than the average Australian earns in a year. Incidentally, other estimates put the cost at about 100 million dollars per year. That’s over a quarter of a million dollars every day. You can pay off a mortgage with what it costs to administer our gun laws for just one day.
If we talk about mass shootings, New Zealand has gone for about 18 years without a mass shooting, just like we did up until late last year. That’s happened, even though New Zealander’s still use self loading rifles and shotguns for target shooting and hunting. This is not just about different population sizes. When our two countries’ different populations are taken into account, New Zealand actually had a slightly higher rate of mass shootings per head of population than we did in the late 80’s to mid 90’s. I could talk about these points at length, but would going over the fine details here tonight give you value for money? Probably not. Instead of saying much more about research studies, I’m going to outline some of the reasons why, despite this evidence, bad decisions keep getting made about firearms.
We often blame politicians for this, but the truth is a little more complex. On the whole, most politicians don’t have any views one way or another, although they’ll go along with whatever their party tells them to go along with. Or, they’re admitting, generally in private, but not always, that their predecessors got many things wrong back in ’96, and have often gone about gun laws the wrong way since then. I’m talking about some very senior people here, up to and including ministers. You might be asking, “Why don’t those politicians change things?” A large part of this is because ministers are heavily dependent on their bureaucrats for advice, recommendations, and guidance. It’s within the bureaucracy that many of the real problems lie, regarding guns. During my somewhat blood and tear soaked years as a public servant in Canberra, I learned first hand that many times, what the public service wants, the public service gets.
Any minister who thinks they’re in control of their department is living under a polite delusion. Sometimes, leaks from within the public service can bring down ministers, or even Prime Ministers. Keeping your department onside can make the difference between staying in your job, and ending your career. For those of you who’ve seen the series “Yes Minister”, it really is a documentary, and many ambitious bureaucrats fancy themselves as the next Sir Humphrey Appleby, because what Sir Humphrey excelled at was manipulating his minister in doing exactly what Sir Humphrey wanted. This often left the minister slightly confused about how he’d ended up making a series of decisions that he’d never intended to make, and that he didn’t really understand. Sometimes, Sir Humphrey would cleverly manipulate the minister into situations where he experienced embarrassing public or political fallout.
Then, Sir Humphrey would step in to rescue him by calmly offering up the solution, whatever it was that Sir Humphrey had wanted all along, and had needed only to create a problem, in order to have the minister accept that. When a couple of middle managers in the public service decide they want more gun laws, often for no other reasons than they just personally don’t like guns, or because they want to be seen to be doing something, or because implementing something will lead to their next promotion, we often end up with more gun laws. Even if ministers know that this is going on, they still find it hard to not follow departmental advice. If a minister does exercise independent judgement and countermand their department, this often gets mysteriously exposed in the media and, typically, it’s reframed as something very sinister. Usually, it’s presented as the minister giving in to some powerful, well funded lobby group or another.
Bad decisions also happen, because of the way in which advice is given to ministers by their departments. Information is very carefully constructed, and the flow of information is tightly controlled. One of, if not the most terrifying moments for public servants is when they find out that somebody external to the department has spoken with their minister without them knowing about it, and that the minister has just been told something that the public service has been trying very hard to keep from them.
A recent example of this would be when the Victorian Minister for Police was eventually told that lever action technology is about 130 years old minister, not newly invented within the last couple of years.
This is also one of the reasons why bureaucrats really don’t like ministerial advisory groups. If they are so unfortunate as to have to put up with such a group, despite advising their minister to get rid of it, they will go to remarkable lengths to make sure the minister never attends meetings of that group, or talks independently to its members without the public service in the room.
After a minister receives independent advice that conflicts with bureaucratic advice, comes a flurry of frantic activity, where a number of public servants are urgently tasked with finding ways to discredit the person who has given advice to the minister, as well as the advice that they’ve given.
The most common tactic is to convince the minister that the person was misinformed, naive, dishonest, or acting only in self interest. In short, if you speak the truth to power, be prepared to have that truth represented by others as a lie.
There’s also a double standard.
Bureaucrats can provide ministerial briefings that contain outright untruths, because and sadly I quote, “They’re too busy to double check it and won’t understand it anyway.”
Such advice does, however, invariably reflect the dominant view in a particular part of the department at a particular time. Now, in fairness to public servants, most of whom genuinely do want to provide good advice, reliance on Google, media reports, and a small handful of often self-proclaimed expert opinions, is sometimes the best material they have to work with under very tight deadlines.
Honest mistakes do happen and, also in fairness to public servants, speaking out against shoddy and dishonest advice can be very career limiting. This doesn’t change the fact that whether through deliberate intent or ignorance, ministers are often given appallingly bad advice.
Unfortunately, it’s absolutely true that most of the time, they and their staff are too busy with the daily demands of their office to stop and double check or think carefully about whether recommendations cooked up by some middle managers somewhere are any good, let alone necessary practical or truthful.
If they do find things amiss, then they run the risks of putting their department offside. In a similar fashion, if ministers want to make changes that are not supported by their department, the bureaucracy has many ways of finding unavoidable delays, insurmountable hurdles, unforeseen problems, and the need to undertake extensive consultations which will uncover even problems with what the minister wants to do. The opposite, of course, is true when departments want to get something done. It’s amazing how quickly things can happen then. Public service continues on, regardless of who the minister of the day might be.
This is why advice rejected by one minister or government is often recycled to be enthusiastically picked up by a subsequent minister of government.Take the idea of a National Firearms Registry. This was rejected in 2007 by no less than the gun hating Howard government, as being expensive, impractical, and unlikely to deliver any real benefits.
Fast forward a few years, and the Gillard government eagerly adopted this idea, which had been passed off by the Attorney General’s department as an entirely new concept, designed specifically for the government of the day. It’s now being rebranded as a National Firearms Interface, which makes all the difference, and the present government has been convinced to fast track it under of the guise of, you guessed it, fighting terrorism.
Nobody has been able to convincingly articulate why this database is really needed, or how a new database that holds the same incorrect data held in other databases is actually going to achieve anything. The important thing is that there’s going to be another tax payer funded database.
Now, a cynic might say that the desire by the bureaucracy to see that project fast tracked came from wanting to avoid having to answer any awkward questions about its usefulness. A cynic might say that a minister was panicked into thinking that he needed to be seen to be doing something, and there’s something.
Thank goodness we’re not cynics.
Another example of this is the departmental discussions in 2005 about further restricting pump action rifles and all lever actions, as well as magazine capacity and firearms that bureaucrats just don’t like the appearance of. Ten years on, that agenda is still playing out.
Then comes the construction and manipulation of third party approval. This is when an individual or a group that has the appearance of legitimacy speaks up in favour of a particular course of action. For example, when the Prime Minister announced an interim ban on import of the Adler shotgun, the first round of media reports included glowing endorsements from the anti gun lobby.
Now, I can’t comment specifically on how that came about, but the important thing is that in many instances, this endorsement doesn’t just happen.
Yes, sometimes the media do their own work to get those types of statements, but often those third parties have been approached in advance, either by a public servant who’s already in contact with them or by a member of the minister’s staff who has had dealings with them.
Details of those approving third parties are then supplied to the media. Very deliberate efforts are made to ensure that journalists go directly to people who have been told about an announcement, and who have agreed to endorse that announcement. On the surface, it looks as if a respectable individual or community group is independently agreeing with an idea the government has had, simply because it’s such a good idea. This is done to make it seem like the minister has a lot of grassroots support.
The public service then includes notes about this media coverage in their briefings to the minister as evidence that there’s strong community support for the policy. The minister will then go out and use this to say that there’s strong support for the policy. This overlaps with the ways in which bad ideas are reframed as wise, and informed.
The firearms debate or lack thereof, has been shaped in this country through the use of policy based evidence. In other words, when a policy has already been decided on, only evidence that supports that policy will be presented.
There are a few different ways this happens. Most obvious one is simply to ignore or discredit anything that casts doubt on a policy, but a more subtle way is by dramatically expanding what we accept as evidence. When we think of evidence, we most likely think of facts and figures, but when it comes to firearms, evidence can be anything that suits a particular argument. Opinions, feelings, and beliefs are all given equal and sometimes superior status to cold hard facts.
We end up with laws based on perception and emotion, rather than laws that are genuinely effective. If cold hard facts are needed, then policy based evidence is developed by steering the facts and figures that get produced.
For example, in the recent Senate inquiry, it came out that the Australian Institute of Criminology, a government research agency, had been funded to do a study comparing mass shootings in Australia and the United States. If this was a serious attempt to understand mass shootings, the study would also be looking at many other countries, but let’s take an educated guess that what any comparison just of Australia and the US will say.
Australia banned semi automatic guns and has few mass shootings. The US has a right to bear arms, and mass shootings happen on a regular basis. This tells us nothing useful about measures that may genuinely contribute to reducing gun violence, but if this paper ever sees the light of day, it will get widespread media coverage, and will be uncritically accepted as evidence that Australia’s gun laws work.
Really it amounts to nothing more than a tax payer funded exercise in manipulating reality. An equally dishonest method is to encourage like-minded academics to publish a couple of research papers that validate a preferred policy agenda. This is sometimes done very blatantly. I’ve been in the room when senior public servants have quite openly said to academics, “It would be really helpful to us if you could write a paper saying such and such.”
To my great disappointment, when it comes to firearms, many academics seem unable or unwilling to live up to the spirit of critical inquiry, and fearless argument that should characterize academia.
That type of researcher often thinks that it’s perfectly acceptable to try and silence dissent. This is the exact opposite of what good academics strive for, but guess which type of academics have consistently been recognized and rewarded when it comes to guns?
Can you imagine the effects that this has on up and coming researchers who may be thinking of publishing work that doesn’t fit with the views of, let’s say, an influential senior colleague, upon whom they are dependent for continued employment or research funding?
Censorship and self censorship are very much alive and well, which is why there are relatively few Australian academics willing to stand up and tell the truth about guns.
Doing so can end their careers. Another way that policy based evidence gets produced is to cherry pick pieces of evidence, and put those together in a way that invites people to draw certain conclusions, even though nothing directly supports those conclusions. You often see this in the media, with stories that contain a few statistics linked together in ways that leave big questions unasked or unanswered.
For example, there have been reports quoting police talking about a certain number of firearms being stolen, followed by statistics about drive-by shootings or other firearm related crimes. Individually, those statements are generally true, but the policy based evidence part comes from how they’ve been put together.
What is missing is any evidence that the stolen guns are the same guns being used in crimes but, because evidence can be anything at all, those quotes are in turn used as evidence that there’s a problem with legally owned guns. The media are very compliant in this, and relationships between media and public servants, and I definitely include police bureaucrats in this, are sometimes uncomfortably close. It is not just politicians who know how to work that system.
All of this sounds very grim, doesn’t it? It’s as if a vast, well resourced machine, with privileged access to politicians, the political process and the media, will just mow down everything in its past, and it’s unstoppable, so you might as well just give up now. That’s exactly what the people who are pushing for more gun bans and more laws restricting legal ownership want you to think, because the reality is that many of the problems facing legal firearms ownership are created by just a small handful of people who rely on secrecy, smear, and deceit.
The worst thing that can happen to this handful of people is for those who are affected by policy and legislative change to push back.
To give you just a handful of ways that this can work, departments have to brief their minister on how many pieces of ministerial correspondence, emails and letters, have come in on a given issue. They can dismiss form letters, but when people use their own words and their own ideas, those letters have to be counted. The department has to write responses for their minister to sign. They have to write responses when letters to the editor get published to go out under the minister’s name.
That means, they have to tell the minister’s office that people are actually writing to newspapers. They have to keep track of talk back radio, and come up with counter arguments to what people who call in to those stations say. They have to process freedom of information requests. They have to brief the minister’s office on those requests and work harder, and harder at trying to keep information away from public scrutiny. They have to write responses for the minister to send to other politicians who have written in on behalf of constituents.
The more this happens, the more the minister’s office is likely to start noticing that somethings going off the rails, and to begin asking questions of their own.
Then, those questions have to be answered, and all of this takes time and resources. It’s much easier to create and enact bad decisions if nobody complains, or if they complain briefly, and then give up, and go away.
In conclusion, I hope that in this short time, I’ve outlined some of the reasons why bad decisions get made, how agendas get driven from within the bureaucracy, regardless of what politicians may think or want, and how poor ideas are reframed to appear evidence based and well supported.
The next step is, of course, how can we change this? For that part, I very much look forward to hearing from Mr. Breitzkreutz. On that note, I’ll leave it. Thank you very much for your attention, and I’m happy to take a couple of questions.”
Question from Audience:
“Hi, my name’s Kim. I went to Griffith. It’s an awesome University. How did you weather the storm? You said that it’s career limiting to support ownership of firearms and Universities and to take a stance, but you seem to have done very well. What’s your secret?”
My secret is that I’m actually very lucky to work at Griffith, where free thought is recognized and rewarded.
My first stint in academia, I was not so lucky. I was at the University of Sydney. There are pockets within academia where critical thought is very highly valued, and where people can respectfully disagree with one another, but still care deeply about what the evidence says, and people who are mature enough in their thinking to accept that the entire reason we do research is to try and get to the truth.
I would like to see more of those people in academia, but as I say, I’m pretty fortunate to work at Griffith with a group of people who are very independent thinkers themselves. I’m not saying that they all agree with me. I do have one colleague from the States who is an open advocate for both concealed and open carry, and I also have colleagues who are very, very anti gun.
I think the real spirit of academia is we argue about these things, and we value having that argument. We don’t try to suppress it. Whereas, I think at some of the, particularly the older and more traditional Universities, you’ve got some very, very, very senior academics there. They’ve been rusted on in their chairs for years, and they are extremely anti gun, and they just don’t want there to be any debate. That’s probably a very long winded way of saying…I got lucky.”
About Shooters Union Australia
We are actively involved in the political scene, lobbying against the unfair, unreasonable and unconstitutional vilification of firearms owners at every level of government.
Our aim is to work towards a co-operative system of effective gun control, and together we are affecting positive change on firearm legislation in Australia.
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