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After gun laws and buyback programs were implemented in Australia in the mid-1990s, the country saw a dramatic drop in the number of mass shootings.

Why it matters:

In the current debate about gun control, policymakers including President Obama have pointed to Australia as a country that has nearly no mass shootings. It has more restrictive gun laws than the United States does, including some policies that have been proposed here, such as mandatory waiting times between purchasing a gun and actually receiving it. Researchers have also been calling for treating gun violence as a public health issue, and a paper, published Wednesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association, is the latest attempt to measure the impact of some of Australia’s gun laws. This is a difficult task, given that laws exist in the context of changing societies.

The nitty gritty:

Following a massacre in April 1996, Australia passed comprehensive gun control legislation, which banned certain types of semi-automatic guns, mandated gun safety courses, and set up a program where the government bought back over 660,000 guns from civilians. The paper shows that the legislation had an effect: While there were 13 fatal mass shootings in Australia from 1979 to 1996 (defined as shootings in which one or two people killed five or more people not including themselves), there have been none after 1996. (The FBI uses a different definition — the minimum number of victims is four, not five).

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“What is most clear from the current study is that Australia’s [laws] coincided with an elimination of mass killings with firearms,” wrote Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, in an accompanying editorial.

But wait:

What’s less clear is how the law impacted gun homicide and suicide deaths that were not mass shootings. Both decreased after 1996 — but they had already been decreasing for years before. And homicide and suicide deaths not involving guns also decreased after 1996.

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“Because of this, it is not possible to determine whether the change in firearm deaths can be attributed to the gun law reforms,” the authors wrote.

They note that medical care has improved over the past few decades, and that fewer people may be dying from guns because they may be getting medical help sooner.

What’s next?

Simon Chapman, professor emeritus at the University of Sydney’s public health school, doesn’t have any plans to do more research. “I retired two years ago, but could not resist doing this paper with the 20th anniversary [of the shooting],” Chapman said.

Chapman has been involved in gun control advocacy in the past — he was a part of the Coalition for Gun Control, which played a role in promoting reforms in the 1990s. Chapman discloses this former affiliation in the paper.

The bottom line:

Fewer people are dying in Australia from guns across all contexts — and researchers are still trying to figure out exactly why.