While anti-gun politicians like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama tout Australia’s gun control laws as a model for the United States, recent reporting on crime in Melbourne from newspaper The Age revealed the limitations of Australia’s stringent laws. According to the paper, “Despite Australia’s strict gun control regime, criminals are now better armed than at any time since then-Prime Minister John Howard introduced a nationwide firearm buyback scheme in response to the 1996 Port Arthur massacre.” The paper’s reporting illustrates what gun rights advocates have long contended; that gun controls merely disarm the law-abiding and are ineffective in confronting criminal conduct.
To fully understand The Age’s report, some context is necessary. Following a high-profile shooting in Port Arthur, Tasmania in 1996, Australia’s state and territorial governments agreed to enact severe gun controls. The centerpiece of the agreement was a ban on the importation, ownership, sale, transfer, possession, manufacture and use of semi-automatic rifles and semi-automatic and pump-action shotguns. The agreement also called for an integrated nationwide firearms registry and imposed severe gun owner licensing requirements. Further, the agreement made clear that an individual must have a “genuine reason” for owning a firearm, and determined that “personal protection not be regarded as a genuine reason for owning possessing or using a firearm.”
Australia’s gun ban did not grandfather firearms owned prior to enactment of the new laws. To carry out the prohibition on the mere possession of the banned firearms, the government embarked on a “buyback” program, where gun owners were required to turn in their prohibited firearms for predetermined compensation. Taken together, the ban on possession and “buyback” program amounted to firearm confiscation.
Despite the confiscation of roughly 700,000 firearms and the severe licensing and registration requirements imposed on law-abiding Australians, criminals have little trouble securing weaponry. The report noted that in Melbourne, “firearms offences have doubled in the past five years,” and that incidents where a prohibited person has been found with a gun increased five-fold from 2011 to 2015. Moreover, Victoria Police Assistant Police Commissioner Stephen Fontana conveyed to The Age that police are seeing “military-grade weapons” “more often than ever before.”
Those intent on breaking the law procure firearms in a handful of ways. The report cited a “senior law enforcement source” who made clear that criminals often acquire weapons “through theft or illegal sale.” The piece went on to note that “Despite Australia’s strict border controls, the smuggling of high-powered military-style firearms is also a growing problem.” Describing the extent of the issue, the authors explained, “Criminal networks also create caches of illegal weapons, including machine guns and pistols with silencers, that are bought, sold and traded among the underworld in ways that are difficult for police to track.”
The ineffectiveness of Australia’s severe gun controls will come as no surprise to many gun rights supporters. A 2013 DOJ National Institute of Justice memo on the efficacy of various gun control measures concluded that the Australian confiscation program, “appears to have had no effect on gun homicide…” Moreover, surveys of state prison inmates here in the U.S. conducted by the Department of Justice have shown that criminals often procure firearms in a manner unlikely to be effected by stiffer gun controls. In the 2004 version of the survey, 40 percent of the inmates surveyed answered that they obtained a firearm through a “street/illegal source,” with another 37.4 percent citing “family or friend” as their source.
Perhaps understanding the futility of ever-increasing restrictions on law-abiding gun owners, when it comes to confronting the criminal misuse of guns some Victoria officials appear prepared to place the emphasis where it belongs, on the criminal.
The reporting cites the story of one young man who was twice found to have illegally possessed a firearm and drugs. Only five months after serving a nine month stint in jail, the convict was arrested again after allegedly pointing a stolen 9mm handgun at a police officer. Despite his prior convictions and the severity of his alleged actions, the young man got bail. Victoria Police Association Secretary Ron Iddles is quoted as stating that the incident “serves as a glaring example and a cautionary tale of why the courts can’t afford to get it wrong.” Iddles went on to ask, “How can someone with a long list of prior convictions for violence, drugs and firearms offences be granted bail after pulling a gun on an officer?”
The report also quotes Victoria Victims of Crime Commissioner Greg Davies, who told the paper, “It has become abundantly clear that Victorians will continue to become victims of violent crime if criminals are not given custodial sentences that take them out of circulation, protect the community and act as a real deterrent… If they can be rehabilitated, well and good, but we have to accept there are some people out there who are seriously bad and need to be dealt with.”
Unfortunately, there are some who have sought to address Melbourne’s issues by further burdening law-abiding gun owners. According to the report, Victorian Police Minister Lisa Neville has suggested the government may impose further storage requirements on gun owners and limit the number of firearms an individual may keep on certain types of property. Victoria’s gun owners are already subject to stringent storage requirements. Similar proposals that would burden gun owners with additional storage requirements and restrictions have been offered in New South Wales.
For its part, the Australian national government is pursuing legislation that would increase the maximum prison sentence for gun smuggling from 10 to 20 years, and set a mandatory minimum sentence of five years. The Commonwealth is also planning another gun “buyback” of prohibited firearms.
The new “buyback” has been met with justifiable skepticism by some, with Victoria Shadow Minister for Police telling The Age, that the government should target criminals, explaining, “Any response from Victoria Police and (state) government should be focused on this cohort, not lawful guns owners.” Similarly, Robert Borsak of Australia’s Shooters Fishers and Farmers Party, noted in a press release, “Has the Government considered how many criminals would actually participate in such a program?” adding, “The focus of any change to firearms laws needs to be entirely on targeting criminals and the illegal firearms market.”
Melbourne’s recent experience should serve as yet another example of the futility of gun control measures that burden the rights of the law-abiding. Given the ease with which Melbourne’s criminals arm themselves despite the severity of their country’s gun control regime, Clinton and Obama would be wise to look past Australia when putting together their next gun control speech.