Tar­get of­fend­ers not gun own­ers

Bill Pater­son ex­plains why the way we make firearms pol­icy is bro­ken.

Field and Game - - Firearms opinion -

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

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