Reducing Firearms Deaths

I spoke in parliament today about a bill to crack down on the illegal firearms market, and discussed the Australian experience with gun control.
Crimes Legislation Amendment (Organised Crime and Other Measures) Bill, 5 February 2013

Last year the Australian Crime Commission did a national intelligence audit of the illegal firearms market in Australia. That audit estimated that, while there were more than 2¾ million registered firearms in Australia, the illicit firearms market consisted of around a quarter of a million weapons—around 250,000 long arms and, perhaps more concerning, about 10,000 handguns. Illegal firearms sourced through theft from licensed owners and firearms dealers consist in part of weapons that were made illegal in the 1997 gun laws, about which I will say more later, and deactivated firearms that have been reactivated.

This bill is a response by the Australian government to these concerning findings. It deals with the spread of illegal firearms by introducing new offences for aggravated firearms trafficking. It extends existing cross-border offences and introduces new basic offences for trafficking firearms across borders. Our aim is to hold traffickers responsible for the consequences of providing firearms to the black market. They are aiming to tackle the illegal firearms market from different angles—to seize the firearms, to break the code of silence and to improve our ability to trace firearms—and they complement other reforms the government is putting in place. These reforms include the rollout of the Australian Ballistics Identification Network, a national database which will allow police in states and territories to link up their information on weapons recovered from crime; better training, from the United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which will happen in February this year; and an in-principle agreement with police ministers for a national firearms register. This national firearms register really is an important development, and I would urge those police ministers who are currently considering it to act immediately. I think it is vital that state and territory firearms registers are joined up. Australians move states or territories frequently and the information about those weapons should follow them.

These laws are also part of a package of reforms dealing with unexplained wealth. As the Minister for Justice explained:

‘These laws will help us to catch criminals. Just like with Al Capone - you can catch criminals by following the money.’

And through this broad suite of reforms we are cracking down on the illegal firearms market. In so doing we are supporting law-abiding recreational shooters. Law-abiding recreational shooters have the most to lose from an illicit firearms market in Australia because it is law-abiding firearms owners who are tarnished when these drive-by shootings occur, when crimes are committed with illegal weapons.

I am fortunate to have within my own electorate the firing range used by the Canberra Rifle Club. The Canberra Rifle Club is, I am told, the city's oldest surviving sporting body. It traces its conception back to a report in the Queanbeyan Age newspaper on 6 May 1913, nearly a century ago:

‘There was a representative gathering of riflemen at the residence of Mr. Hector McIntosh, Canberra, on Saturday last, to discuss the proposal of forming a rifle club at that place.’

And there had previously been rifle ranges at the Black Mountain Peninsula picnic grounds and the Mount Ainslie summit road, but the club's present facilities are at a better location in the Majura Valley. They opened in September 1969 and, in passing, I note the at they are just off Majura Road, near the Majura Parkway. The club's facilities will not be adversely affected by the construction of the Majura Parkway, the ACT's biggest road-building project, 50-50 funded by the federal and ACT governments and which it was my pleasure to attend the sod turning of this morning.

The range is named the McIntosh Rifle Range after Hector McIntosh, and since 1972 it has been the venue for the National Queen's Prize shoot. In 2004 the Canberra Rifle Club and Bungendore Rifle Club ran the inaugural Canberra Queen's Prize meeting, and they are a premier state and national rifle competition. The member for Griffith attended the presentation ceremony for the Queensland Queen's Prize in 2012.

The Canberra Rifle Club, importantly, has strict requirements for its members regarding firearms licences. Its rules say:

‘All members and users of the range may be required at any time to satisfy the Club that they hold a valid Firearms Licence as issued by the State or Territory in which they reside.

‘This is especially the case when purchasing ammunition or ammunition components from the Club. Consequently, you should carry your current Firearms Licence and your current NRAA Membership Card at all times.’

This is an example of a well-managed and regulated facility for sport shooters.

That state ands in stark contrast to the behaviour of some of the sport shooting associations in the United States. Following the Connecticut school shooting we have seen again on display the awful intransigence of the US National Rifle Association, a body which took a moderate stance in the 1930s when it supported federal gun control; which in the 1960s supported a ban on ‘Saturday night specials’ because, as they said at the time, they had ‘no sporting purpose’; but which was taken over in 1977 by people like Harlan Carter, Wayne LaPierre and the like and found itself in the 1980s opposing bans on armour-piercing bullets, which were being used to kill police on US streets.

The debate on gun control in the United States is so different from the debate in Australia. In part that is because of the initiative that was taken in 1997 by then Prime Minister John Howard and Tim Fischer, Leader of the National Party, who were willing to take on the extremists in their own party to see a gun buyback passed. I think sometimes in this place we pay too little tribute to the other side of politics. I was in here about an hour ago speaking about the fiscal profligacy of the Howard government, but let me in a different spirit recognise the forward-thinking actions of the Howard government and Tim Fischer in the Australian gun buyback.

By tightening firearms legislation, by buying back around two-thirds of a million weapons, Australia achieved a substantial fall in the firearms death rate. Firearms homicide and suicide rates fell by about half and have stayed down. These are figures that are sometimes contradicted by shills speaking for the National Rifle Association or other bodies in the United States but the facts do not lie: fewer Australians die as a result of firearms homicide and suicide thanks to the actions of the Howard government in 1997.

But we have to remain vigilant. We have to continue updating the laws to fit the times. This bill cracks down on the illegal firearms market. It is important that we keep the challenge in perspective. Australia's firearms death rate is low by international standards. Christine Neill of Wilfred Laurier University and I carried out two studies looking the Australian firearms buyback. We found when we looked at the time trends and when we looked across states it was very clear that the firearms buyback had saved lives.

Prior to the Port Arthur massacre Australia had experienced a mass shooting—that is, a shooting with five or more victims—on average every year for the previous decade. Since then we have not had a mass shooting in Australia. That could be coincidence, but the odds of that are less than one in 100.

Importantly, we have brought down firearms suicide, because that is the most common form of gun deaths, and we have brought down firearm homicide. The United States, though, still experiences over 80 gun deaths every single day—a horrendous death rate. One of the things that we in Australia can do is to present to United States legislators who are dealing with this very complicated issue—President Obama and Vice President Biden are now considering a package of gun law reforms—a bipartisan model of dealing with gun deaths. This is a bipartisan model that does not undercut the role of sporting shooters but recognises, as I have in my own electorate, groups of sporting shooters who are committed to enjoying their sport with shooting licences and with gun registration. They recognise that good laws are essential if people are to enjoy sport shooting in a safe environment. They recognise that the scourge of gun death in Australia has, in the past, been too high and that it needs to come down.

So I would urge those opposite to try and refrain from some of the partisan politicking in this debate. One of the things that has traditionally characterised the firearms legislation debates has been their bipartisan nature. Then opposition leader Kim Beazley did not hesitate before supporting John Howard in the package of laws that were put in place after the Port Arthur massacre. I urge those opposite to be wary of point-scoring and to recognise the value that we can bring to this place from sober, sensitive, reflective debate over reducing gun deaths.

We will probably never reduce the number of deaths to zero but we ought to do all in our power to bring it down. And we ought to do all we can to tell the world the story of Australia's firearms regulation. It is a good story. It is a story of conservatives who were willing to stand up to extremists in their ranks, of bipartisan law reform, and of ongoing law reform recognising that, as criminals advance in their methods of evading detection, Australian laws have to move to keep pace.

I commend the bill to the House and I commend the work of the minister, who is here in the chamber, on this bill.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.