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Education And Debate

Letter from Washington DC: Guns don't die. People do

BMJ 1996; 313 doi: (Published 21 September 1996) Cite this as: BMJ 1996;313:739
  1. Simon Chapman, associate professora
  1. a Department of Public Health and Community Medicine, University of Sydney, Westmead Hospital, Westmead, NSW 2145, Australia
  • Accepted 5 September 1996

“We must stop walking down the American path of gun culture.” That one statement distils the essence of the collective will to reform Australia's gun laws that developed after the massacre of 35 people at Tasmania's Port Arthur. Australia's prime minister, John Howard, gave it early prominence—“The governments of Australia decided that this country was not to go down the American path,” and nearly every editorial writer, columnist, and radio host in the country repeated it endlessly. It became the argument that short circuited the need for any other explanation.

I have just spent five weeks in the United States working on a book analysing the passage of Australia's new gun laws inspired by the Port Arthur massacre. The American path motif was hard to ignore. Gun deaths here are an obvious place to start. Apart from Colombia—where soccer players can get killed for an own goal—and (interestingly) Russia, no other country outside a war zone comes near to the USA when it comes to gun deaths.

Figures speak for themselves

  • From 1968 to 1991 deaths caused by motor vehicle declined by 21% (from 54 420 to 43 536) while in the same period deaths caused by guns increased by 60% (from 23 875 to 38 317).1 In eight states gun deaths exceed road deaths—in Washington DC by fivefold.2

  • In 1991 guns were used in 60.1% of all suicides and 67.8% of all homicides in the USA. Deaths from …

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