The Sunday Mail (Queensland)
NATION STILL HAS THE SAFETY OFF
As the 25th anniversary of the Port Arthur massacre looms, and 25 years after a national firearms register was agreed, Australia’s gun laws are still problematic
AUSTRALIA still does not have a national firearms register, 25 years after the states and territories signed up to it.
As the anniversary of the Port Arthur massacre approaches, a Sunday Mail investigation has revealed the National Firearms Agreement, signed in the days following the massacre, is riddled with loopholes.
A number of changes agreed by the states and territories in response to the 1996 massacre, in which 35 people were killed and 20 injured by a lone gunman at Port Arthur in Tasmania, have never been implemented. And some laws have since been watereddown as the states and territories caved in to demands from pro-gun lobbyists.
One of the most serious problems is that despite agreeing to establish a national firearms registry to track individual guns across Australia, the states and territories have failed to reach agreement on how to do it.
Other flaws in the agreement include: States do not automatically report to each other when a firearm licence holder moves interstate. While the agreement says those seeking a firearm licence must be aged at least 18, all states allow children as young as 12 to get a junior licence or permit, Queensland allows children as young as 11, and WA has no lower age limit. Several jurisdictions (ACT, NSW) have overturned bans on silencers. Several states including Tasmania and Victoria have abolished the 28-day wait after receiving a permit to acquire a second or subsequent firearm. Some states including Victoria now allow people to appeal the automatic suspension of their licence if they face domestic violence orders.
University of Sydney Associate Professor Philip Alpers, founding director of the firearms legislation tracker GunPolicy.org, said no state or territory had ever fully complied with the National Firearms Agreement.
“There is now some data linkage between state and territory registries, but there’s still no true national register of firearms which can be queried by law enforcement from any jurisdiction in real time, as can be done with motor vehicles,’’ he said.
Under the agreement, Australia’s law enforcement jurisdictions agreed to “record sufficient information to be able to uniquely identify each firearm” and “store registrations on a system which is able to share information with the national information-sharing hub”.
However, the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission is not yet able to do this because each jurisdiction records details differently in their firearms registries, and applies the rules differently.
Assistant Minister for Community Safety Jason Wood said he wanted to see a national firearms registry introduced, and that it was “long overdue’’.
He said he had asked the Department of Home Affairs to examine whether the register could sit alongside the Australian Firearms Information Network, which the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission ran and which tracked the movements of some, but not all, firearms.
“It’s well and truly long overdue,’’ he said of the national registry. “It will help law enforcement out, it will help people if they want to take a firearm interstate, to me it’s an absolute no-brainer.’’
Mr Wood said that while firearms licensing and registration was a state responsibility, he was “happy that the federal government leads the charge to ensure we are all on the same page’’.
The architect of the 1996 gun laws, former prime minister John Howard, said he still believed the registry should be established. He said while he was surprised the registry had not been introduced, it should not detract from the achievement of the National Firearms Agreement.
Australian Federal Police Association president Alex Caruana said the ACIC ran several databases tracking firearms known to have been linked to criminal activity, lost or stolen, used in a crime or found at a crime scene, but he said none were what he would deem a national database.
“All of the states’ systems are different and there is no uniform agreement on definitions, required information,
WE ACHIEVED A HISTORIC ... CHANGE AND UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCE SHOULD WE ALLOW IT TO BE FRITTERED AWAY JOHN HOWARD
restrictions et cetera,’’ he said. “They don’t even have the same form to apply for a firearms licence.
“The definition of a dealer in different states and territories is still different, the states can’t agree on basic things like what’s a controlled firearm.”
Mr Caruana said the states should work to homogenise their definitions and align their legislation to build a solid national firearms register.
There are concerns that potentially violent offenders could possess a gun without police knowing about it, simply by moving interstate.
The states and territories did not automatically advise each other when a gun owner crossed state borders, meaning a registered gun could potentially drop off law enforcement’s radar.
“The systems don’t talk to one another, they’re completely different systems,” Mr Caruana said.
He pointed to the Queensland Police weapon licensing division, which states on its website: “Unfortunately, there is no way to ‘transfer’ licences between states. If you are moving to Queensland and have a current interstate licence, you will need to make application for a new licence in Queensland, but may not be required to complete a weapons safety course.’’
Tony Rundle, the premier of Tasmania in 1996, said he was surprised and disappointed to hear the registry was never set up.
“Firearms can cross state borders.
So a national firearms registry would be something that needs further attention,’’ the now-82year-old said.
Roland Browne, a Hobart lawyer who has worked for gun control since the 1980s, said the failure to establish the registry was a “tragedy”.
“We have a national registration system for companies, for businesses ... for migration agents, you name it,” he said.
“But for some reasons our governments have not been able to effect a national registration system for firearms.