Myths, propaganda and statistics: why Dr Samara McPhedran can’t be believed

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Dr Samara McPhedran was recently interviewed by Ryan Bridge on Magic Radio. Ryan didn’t reveal any of her background as a member of the Australian gun lobby. She is the former chair of the International Coalition for Women in Shooting and Hunting (WiSH) and a strong opponent of the gun laws in Australia. She was simply presented as a neutral academic talking about the evidence on gun buy-backs.

Samara’s own research on the effects of gun laws in Australia has been thoroughly debunked by Dr Simon Chapman, AO, Emeritus Professor of Public Health at the University of Sydney, Dr David Hemenway, Professor of Health Policy, and Director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center at Harvard University and others. In a press release in 2006, Simon Chapman described one of Dr McPhedran’s papers as bordering on academic dishonesty. Inviting Dr McPhedran to talk about gun control is like asking a scientist who doesn’t believe in human-induced climate change to talk to the public about global warming.

Samara perpetuated three big gun lobby myths on the show:

  1. There is no evidence that the gun buyback had any effect on the incidence of mass shootings in Australia.

  2. More guns lead to less crime.

  3. Those who commit violent crimes with guns tend to be involved in other criminal activity such as drug dealing.

Debunking the myth that gun buybacks have no effect on mass shootings

In 2016, Simon Chapman and two others, published a report in the Journal of the American Medical Association where they noted that 20 years on from their gun law reforms, Australia had not had a single mass shooting. In the 18 years up to and including the Port Arthur massacre, there’d been 13 shootings where five or more (not including the perpetrator) were killed. The New Yorker named that paper as one of five most notable medical research reports of 2016.

In response to that paper (and repeated again on Magic Radio), Samara McPhedran said: “It is possible that the concentration of incidents in one decade was a statistical anomaly. Mass shootings are rare events, and the long gap between incidents post-1996 may simply reflect a return to a more 'normal' state of affairs, similar to the years before 1987.”

So Simon Chapman and colleagues published another paper in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine, where they tested this “rare events are still rare” criticism. 

They concluded that the probability of a 22-year absence of mass shootings following the pattern of 13 mass shootings in the previous 18 years was about 1 in 200,000. Those odds are exceptionally rare (though about twice as good as winning first division Lotto off a $7 ticket, which is 1 in 383,000).

They estimated that 16 mass shootings were prevented by the changes in gun laws in Australia. That’s at least 80 lives saved from mass shootings alone, never mind the reductions in gun-related homicides, suicides and injuries. McPhedran simply chose not to mention the studies that have disproved her positions.

The only charitable spin that can be put on Samara’s radio appearance is that she was talking about American buybacks instead of Australian buybacks. Gun buybacks seem to have been ineffective in the United States for a few reasons. The American buy-backs are relatively small in scale (usually done within a city), guns are surrendered voluntarily, and replacement guns are easy to obtain. These factors do not apply to the Australian or New Zealand buybacks, which are large, compulsory, and the guns cannot easily be replaced. 

Busting the myth that more guns leads to less crime

Samara was asked about the Minister of Police’s proposition that the fewer guns there are in circulation, the safer people will be. Reducing the number of guns held by responsible gun owners reduces the number of guns available to criminals. She responded by saying that this isn’t what has been seen in Australia. She pointed out that less than 1 in 10 guns recovered in crime is sourced from theft. She also said that the rate of legal gun ownership in Australia is going up but homicides and suicides have remained low. She also said that in Australia more guns have equalled less crime.

Dr McPhedran is correct in saying that less than 10% of guns recovered from crime scenes are sourced through theft. She disingenuously leaves out the fact that 44% of guns recovered at crime scenes come from the grey market. The grey market in Australia consists of weapons that were (illegally) retained during the 1996 buyback. These grey market weapons have then either been used by their owners to commit other crimes or sold on to other criminals. Only 1% of the weapons recovered at crime scenes were smuggled into Australia. The rest of the weapons are from other domestic sources.

New Zealand Customs also estimate that it is likely that only 1% of illegal weapons in New Zealand were smuggled into the country. All the other illegal guns in New Zealand were once previously legal weapons. Regardless of whether illicit guns are being sourced through grey market sales or theft, the number of illegal guns is directly related to the number of legal guns. Reduce the number of legal guns and there will be fewer guns available to criminals. It’s an advantage of being an island nation with strong border controls.

Despite what Dr McPhedran says, there are also very strong correlations between more guns and more homicides and suicides. To provide an Australian perspective, in the state of Victoria, firearms offences in 2018 remain at over 2,000 incidents for the third year running, more than double the number in 2010 (957). Over a similar period, the number of registered firearms numbers in Victoria increased by 30% from 642,176 in 2011 to 832,154 in 2018.

Exposing the myth that gun violence is mostly committed by criminal gangs

Dr McPhedran also repeated one of the standard gun lobby lines that gun violence is almost always carried out by criminals involved in other activities such as the illegal drug trade. We only found studies on homicide and its association with other forms of criminal offending.

The best (and possibly only) New Zealand data on this question comes from Stuff's Homicide Report. The Report covers all homicides from January 2004 until March 2019. "About 30 per cent of gun homicide incidents had some kind of connection to gangs or the criminal underworld. There appears to have been an upswing in these cases, with a spike of seven shootings with criminal or gang connections in 2018." So less than a third of homicide incidents are associated with criminal gangs.

"In about 12 per cent of cases we were able to establish the killer was a licensed gun owner, in 70 per cent we determined they were not." In the remaining 18 per cent of cases, Stuff were not able to determine if the killer had a licence or not. There are many examples where the perpetrator didn't hold a firearms license but had access to guns through a family member or friend. For example, Quinn Paterson murdered two strangers in Northland. Despite being rejected for a firearms license, a friend with a license had lent him a number of weapons.

Leigh Wallace was murdered by her abusive ex-partner. Police had cancelled his license and confiscated the firearms that they could find. Unfortunately, he still managed to get hold of a gun (possibly one that Police didn't know about) and kill Leigh.

The term "case" or "incident" refers to a single event. There may have been multiple victims in any one case or incident. For example, the Christchurch massacre is counted as a single incident.

An older Australian study on this topic (pre-dating the changes in Australian gun laws), shows that for all homicides in New South Wales over a 14 year period, only 16.6% of the perpetrators had any other convictions for violent offending. Even if all convictions are counted (including things such as gambling, traffic, drunkenness and property crimes), only 55% have previous convictions. 

The Australian study concludes by suggesting a strong link between gun ownership and homicide, particularly in relation to killings within the family, and murder-suicide. Hardly the stuff of drug-dealing criminals.  

Philippa Yasbek