A father teaching his daughter how to shoot a rifle.
A father teaching his daughter how to shoot a rifle.

Big myth about Australia’s gun laws

Secret videos have emerged this week that highlight just how much gun enthusiasts hate Australia's strict laws, and it seems the gun lobby's influence has watered down these laws over the past two decades.

That influence is under scrutiny this week after an undercover investigation revealed One Nation was in talks to potentially weaken firearm laws introduced in the aftermath of the Port Arthur massacre in 1996.

While the explosive revelations deal mostly with One Nation's meetings with the gun lobby in the United States, it has highlighted how much gun enthusiasts hate Australia's laws.

A police officer with some of the guns surrendered in 1997 as part of the buyback scheme.
A police officer with some of the guns surrendered in 1997 as part of the buyback scheme.

One meeting filmed for the covert Al Jazeera investigation and aired on ABC showed senior National Rifle Association (NRA) lobbyist Brandi Graham suggesting it would help the NRA in the US if Australia's laws on gun control were softened.

"That helps us because the biggest argument we always get from folks is, 'Well, look at Australia'," Ms Graham said. "They are continually attacking us, it's never-ending."

Australia has some of the strictest laws in the world when it comes to guns, but they have been whittled down over the years.

The Al Jazeera investigation has now highlighted the gun lobby's increasing influence in Australia and concerning statistics about the growing number of firearms.

For years experts have warned about the increasing number of guns in Australia, and there are now more firearms in the country than before the Port Arthur massacre.

Some of guns surrendered in Sydney as result of buyback scheme.
Some of guns surrendered in Sydney as result of buyback scheme.

According to The Australia Institute report, commissioned by Gun Control Australia (GCA), the number of firearms in the country has increased to about 3.6 million in 2017.

The number of guns now exceeds the 3.2 million firearms in Australia before the introduction of the 1996 National Firearms Agreement that included the buyback and destruction of about 1.1 million weapons.

Interestingly, while the number of guns has increased in the past 20 years, the number of firearm owners has reportedly fallen. Licence holders now own about 3.9 guns each compared with 2.1 guns in 1997.

Some might be surprised to know there are now 100 people in NSW who own arsenals of more than 70 firearms, a Gun Control Australia report card on the state found. One person in Sydney's southeast, who is not a collector or gun dealer, has a private cache of 305 guns. Another Mosman resident owns 285 guns.

GCA points to NSW as being the worst offender when it comes to complying with the firearms agreement because the state allows the use of silencers, has removed the need for owners to provide a reason for keeping extra firearms and has not placed a limit on ammunition purchases.

Victoria has also been criticised for removing the 28-day waiting period for second or subsequent firearms, allowing people to shoot unlicensed at gun clubs and widening the criteria for gaining access to high-powered firearms.

Sydney University Adjunct Associate Professor Philip Alpers, director of gunpolicy.org - the world's largest knowledge base on armed violence - did a study last year that found "right from the start" not a single state or territory in Australia complied with the National Firearms Agreement.

Since then the laws have been further softened.

"Every jurisdiction has weakened their gun laws. None of them have strengthened them except for the penalties, there are ever-increasing penalties," he told news.com.au.

Prof Alpers said the measures that had been whittled down were often seen as inconvenient, including the 28-day cooling-off period, which means a person can't gain possession of a gun straightaway. Many states have wound back this measure, which is aimed at deterring those with mental health issues from acting rashly and shootings related to domestic violence.

The NFA also requires that all applicants for a firearm must be at least 18 years of age, but every state and territory allows minors to possess and use firearms. In Western Australia it is legal for a child of any age to shoot a gun at a club. Other states allow minors as young as nine or 10 years old to have a licence to own and use a firearm under the direct supervision of a fully licensed adult.

"Shooters feel threatened that their numbers are dropping, and they are keen for their children to rescue the sport," Prof Alpers said.

"They believe that you can teach a child to be safe and they won't hurt anyone, but the scientific literature has shown that to be a myth."

Prof Alpers said this whittling down of laws had been done at the request of special interest groups. "They are the only people agitating for the laws to be relaxed in this country," he said.

THE THREE THINGS AMERICA WON'T DO

Fortunately, despite the changes, Prof Alpers said the three main standards - what he calls the "three pillars" of gun control - remain.

"These are the three things that the US decided not to do," Prof Alpers said.

The first was the introduction of licences for gun owners so people had to get a licence to own a firearm, much like a driver's licence gives someone the right to drive a car.

Second, each gun had to be registered to a person. This makes each person individually liable and responsible for each firearm in their possession. Prof Alpers said this was probably the most important change, even more significant than the gun buyback scheme.

Finally, it was confirmed that ownership of firearms was a conditional privilege, and if someone did the wrong thing, they could lose their licence, unlike in America where they fiercely protect their "right to bear arms".

Among these three pillars, Prof Alpers said the registration of firearms was the most hotly contested.

"It is loathed by many people because it makes each person individually responsible for every firearm in their possession," he said.

Before the NFA, there used to be about 10,000 gun thefts every year in Australia, and there was no obligation to report these stolen items to the police. These weapons fuelled the criminal market.

Once the new agreement was passed, Prof Alpers said this dropped to about 1500 thefts a year.

"Registration obliged people to report stolen guns to police," he said.

Taskforces have also been set up in states like Victoria and NSW specifically to target gun crime, and these have been extremely effective.

"There's been an attitude change among police because they realise that guns are often pointed at them, especially in domestic violence matters," he said.

"Now when they attend an incident police know how many guns are in the house and can make decisions of whether to arm up. It's also now mandatory to remove firearms from the scene of domestic violence incidents."

THE BEST IN THE WORLD

Prof Alpers believes Australia's laws are the best in the world even though other countries have gone further in some areas. For example, Singapore has the death penalty for those caught with illicit firearms, and the UK has banned pistols and revolvers - something that Australia hasn't done.

"Overall, compared to the 360 jurisdictions that we looked at (for the report), Australia has the most comprehensive, holistic suite of gun laws and therefore the best prospect of curbing gun death or injury of any country in the world," he said.

After the firearms agreement was pushed through in 1996, Prof Alpers said the risk of Australians dying by gunshot fell by more than 50 per cent and stayed at this level for more than 20 years.

Many Australians don't remember the Port Arthur massacre was the last in a string of shootings, including the Strathfield massacre in Sydney that killed eight people in 1991, the Hoddle St massacre in 1987 that killed seven people in Victoria and another shooting later that year in Queen St, Victoria that killed nine people.

The only mass shooting in the 20 years since the agreement was introduced happened last year when a farmer in Osmington, Western Australia shot six members of his own family.

But the influence of the gun lobby is growing in Australia.

Report about the Hoddle St massacre in The Sun newspaper.
Report about the Hoddle St massacre in The Sun newspaper.

The Australia Institute report found interest groups including firearms suppliers and their peak bodies, shooting and hunting clubs and other gun advocates were making significant political donations and running campaigns to influence voters.

For example, the Shooting Industry Foundation of Australia (SIFA), the peak body for Australia's five largest firearms suppliers, spent roughly the same amount of money per person on political campaigning as the NRA in America. SIFA spends an average of $30,120 per million Australians compared with the NRA's $28,106 per million Americans.

Ironically, Prof Alpers found in a separate study John Howard's gun laws had likely created the multimillion-dollar income stream for the gun lobby.

This is because gun owners must now have a "genuine reason" for owning a gun, and if you are not a farmer, most people need to be a member of an approved shooting club to qualify, meaning they have to pay annual fees and go to the club at least a few times a year to maintain their membership.

"It is one of the huge unintended consequences of John Howard's gun laws and has made the gun lobby extremely wealthy," Prof Alpers said.

Gun clubs have also been described as "breeding grounds" for lobby groups to put forward their views.

Prof Alpers said it was not his role to suggest changes to gun laws, but groups like GCA believe political donations from gun dealers, importers and clubs should be banned.

The GCA also wants to limit the number of guns people can own.

"Placing a limit on the number of guns per licence holder will prevent individuals from accumulating large caches of firearms and storing these guns in the home," GCA president Sam Lee said.

"It will also prevent gun manufacturers from utilising legislative loopholes that allows for the sale of more guns."

If Australia had kept the lower ratio of 2.1 guns per owner, there would be 1.45 million fewer guns in the country now.

"Using a rough measure of a gun selling for $1000, the gun lobby has sold an additional $1.45 billion worth of guns because of the cultural change since 1997 of keeping more guns," the Australia Institute report noted.

Prof Alpers said the recent shooting in New Zealand that killed 50 people raised the question of whether the shooter, who was actually an Australian, chose Christchurch because of its gun laws.

"That perpetrator could never have got those firearms in Australia," he said.

Continue the conversation @charischang2 | charis.chang@news.com.au



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