Target offenders not gun owners
Bill Paterson explains why the way we make firearms policy is broken.
When it comes to debates as important and emotive as with on gun-related crimes, nothing is more important than ensuring the basis for our policy settings are facts and data.
Gun-related crime is nothing new to Victoria. Until a couple of years ago the City Hatters under Flinders Street Station had a bullet hole in the top of its window from a gangster shoot-out in the early 1930s. It has been around since white settlement and, as one gun control advocate told another newspaper in 1997 “no country has zero gun deaths, probably not even Vatican City.” However, that does not mean we should simply accept it: to the contrary, Victoria's shooting organisations will do all they can to support the Victoria Police in ensuring the laws achieve what they are designed to do.
Shooting groups meet with the Victoria Police and government regularly to make sure any problems that arise are dealt with quickly and efficiently.
However, that is where the goodwill seems to stop. When it comes to bigger ticket policy items dealing with gun related crimes, the Victoria Police have had a tendency to take their proposals for change to the government directly, excluding appropriate consultation process. While gun-related crime is a serious issue, it would appear that the push for every tougher laws is simply that the police have had trouble securing convictions using the existing laws, and this is not the fault of the laws.
Recently, the newspaper reported on calls the police are making for ‘tougher gun laws', and it now seems the government will consider police recommendations to ‘improve our gun laws'. Our gun laws are already among the toughest in the world, with very heavy penalties (including four years jail for a criminal in possession of a handgun). However, the maximum penalty is very rarely imposed by Victorian courts, often because the police case has not been strong enough, or the accused has not been charged correctly. Simply making the penalties tougher will not solve this problem.
The police have previously complained about private firearm storage — but the facts are the rate of firearm theft from licensed firearm owners is less than one twentieth of one percent. There have been statements made by some police that criminals are targeting legal firearms owners and stealing guns. It was even stated that members of pistol clubs were targeted. When we have requested the data for gun thefts in Victoria from the police in charge of these figures, we find no such evidence. The rate of thefts is very small and most guns stolen are .22 rifles and shotguns, not the powerful handguns wanted by criminals to protect their drugs and cash.
The correct statistics for firearm theft in Victoria demonstrate that our >>
>> laws regarding firearm storage are very effective. Of much greater concern is the ease with which criminals are able to obtain illegal handguns and military guns. It is clear that criminals smuggle drugs past our borders and have little difficulty smuggling guns through our ports and by mail.
The average citizen might view ever increasing tightening of our gun laws as nothing to be concerned about; it is hitting criminals. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Effective application of our existing gun laws would see many criminals behind bars for a very long time. If maximum penalties are not being applied now, what is the point of increasing them? If police have difficulty making charges stick now, will bringing into law very specific crimes, such as drive-by-shooting make it any more likely to obtain a conviction? Shooting out of a car in a public place with an illegal gun is already a crime with years of jail time.
There is also the issue of storage. The unintended consequence of enacting ever tighter gun laws to address this issue is that it also inevitably makes the life of the law abiding gun owner more complex Increasing storage requirements, to fix a problem of thefts which does not exist, is a waste of money and effort. This approach was used up until the early 2000s when the government had been dealing directly with the Victoria Police. The result was that the policy processes driving our gun laws were an expensive mess and caused enormous angst among the 200 000 Victorians, including doctors, lawyers, tradies and ordinary mums and dads, who happen to be licensed shooters.
The solution, which we pushed for, was the creation of the Victorian Firearms Consultative Committee (VFCC) which allowed the Department of Justice and Regulation to test regulatory proposals with key stakeholders before they went to Cabinet. This worked remarkably well and helped the government avoid unintended consequences that come with bad policy processes, and improved the workability of our gun laws.
The committee does not just include shooting groups. It includes representation from the Victorian Farmers Federation, Melbourne University, Police Association, the Law Institute of Victoria, and occasional observers from the police minister's office. It has become an effective sounding board for legislative proposals that often helped produce quality legislative proposals which have accommodated a wide range of legitimate firearm users.
In recent months we have heard complaint after complaint by Victoria Police over the adequacy of our current gun laws. While I appreciate they are at the coal-face of gun crime, my challenge to them is to stop being vague and table their proposals to the VFCC before it goes to the police minister. What are they proposing? Where are the facts? Where is the data?
The last thing Victoria can afford to do is to go back to the PRE-VFCC days where transparency in policy development was absent, and the making of bad laws prevailed. The government has the ultimate authority to implement whatever laws it believes are appropriate, but it should not avoid transparency and compliance with a proper policy process. There is arguably a case for enshrining the VFCC'S role in law, to ensure that it cannot be bypassed and that legislative changes are based on sound data.
Bill Paterson is the Chairman of Field & Game Australia and President of the Combined Firearms Council of Victoria