In 1996, reacting to the a mass-shooting in Port Arthur, Tasmania, in which a gunman killed 35 people and wounded an additional 18, the Australian government passed the National Firearms Agreement (NFA). Among other things (including tightening licensing requirements), the law banned semi-automatic rifles and pump-action shotguns and required that prospective gun owners demonstrate a 'genuine reason' why they needed the weapon, with 'personal protection' no longer a valid cause. While much work has been done on the public safety effects of the NFA (researchers have estimated that the law reduced the number of firearm-induced homicides by about 35%, and firearm-induced suicides by about 75%), the psychological effects of the law have been less-well understood. Through experiments with a broad spectrum of Australians, especially including those of age both before and after the NFA was passed, this project will investigate how the law affected attitudes towards firearms and changed the symbolic character of guns and gun ownership, with an eye towards understanding how the widespread presence or absence of weapons alters their cultural meaning. This research will be conducted in collaboration with Dr. Takeshi Hamamura, a professor at Curtin University in Perth, Australia, whose expertise in cultural change has been invaluable in shaping this project.
To investigate the effects of this change, this work will be carried out initially through the targeted recruitment of two nationally-representative cohorts of Australians, one at least 18 years old at the time of the National Firearms Agreement (born 1978 or earlier), and one born after the NFA was implemented (born 1996 or later). By looking at those who came of age under one regime of gun-prevalence and culture with one that came of age in a different regime, and taking advantage of the natural variation in rates of household firearms-ownership within Australia, the project hopes to discern the ways in which culture shapes individual attitudes, and the ways those attitudes are reflected in concrete behavior. Attitudes towards firearms will be assessed both in their explicit (i.e., conscious, controllable, and intended) form, using a well-validated survey, and in their implicit (i.e., unconscious, uncontrollable, and unintended) form, using an Implicit Attitude Test (IAT). Behavioral effects of firearms will be assessed using the S-PEGG behavioral index. Scores on the S-PEGG will be related to both the explicit and implicit attitude scores of the participants, with special focus on differences in implicit-behavior relations between the age cohorts, and between participants from areas of Australia with higher or lower rates of firearm ownership.
This award under the East Asia and Pacific Summer Institutes program supports summer research by a U.S. graduate student and is jointly funded by NSF and the Australian Academy of Science.