Austrian firearms: data require cautious approach
S. McPhedran, S. McPhedran, J. Baker

We note with interest Kapusta et al's (2007) report on firearm suicide and homicide following legislative reform in Austria. However, a note of caution must be applied to statements concerning apparent consistency between Austrian and Australian experiences with firearm legislation.

Recent work demonstrates that Australia's 1996 gun laws had no significant impact on firearm homicide but that the pre-existing decline in firearm suicide accelerated post-reforms (Chapman et al, 2006; Baker & McPhedran, 2007). There has been an accompanying decline in non-firearm suicides beginning in the late 1990s.

Unfortunately, these findings may require re-evaluation owing to issues of data quality. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), a primary data source for researchers in the field, appear to be `over-counting' unintentional deaths and `under-counting' suicides. De Leo (2007) showed that ABS data `under-counted' the total number of suicides (all methods) in one Australian State (Queensland) by 127 cases in 2004 alone. Re-analysis of the updated data reduced the apparent downward trend in suicides that had emerged from previous analyses. This finding has significant implications for assessment of suicide prevention initiatives in Australia, given that most assessments are based on ABS data.

Consequently, it has been suggested that the incidence of firearm suicide in Australia may be higher than thought, and, if so, then studies using ABS suicide figures merit re-evaluation (McPhedran & Baker, 2007). In addition, the National Injury Surveillance Unit has questioned the accuracy of homicide data, which suggests that firearm homicides may also be higher than ABS data show. There are growing calls for ABS data to be cross-checked against coronial records and for ABS records to be updated where discrepancies are found.

Although this situation does not bear directly upon the findings of the Austrian study, other than reinforcing the importance of quality control, it demonstrates that drawing conclusions about the impact or otherwise of restrictive firearm legislation in Australia may be premature.

Effective public health initiatives need to be built on accurate information. We therefore caution researchers against citing Australian figures during wider discussions of the possible role of firearm legislation in public health strategies, until and unless full data accuracy can be guaranteed.