Despite reports of a government compromise last year, Australia is once again embroiled in a heated political battle over the fate of a popular lever-action shotgun. In August 2015, it was reported that New South Wales Liberal Democratic Senator David Leyonhjelm had secured a deal with Australia’s Liberal Party-led government of Prime Minister Tony Abbot for the removal of a temporary ban on the importation of a seven-round version of the Adler Arms A-110 shotgun, in exchange for his support on unrelated legislation. In September 2015, Malcolm Turnbull defeated Abbott for the leadership of the Liberal Party, becoming the 29th prime minister of Australia. Last week, Leyonhjelm accused the current Liberal leadership of reneging on the deal by keeping the import ban in place.
In 1996, in the wake of a high-profile shooting in Port Arthur, Tasmania, Australia’s states and territories agreed to an almost total ban on the civilian ownership of semi-automatic rifles and semi-automatic and pump-action shotguns. Owners of the newly-restricted guns were forced to turn their firearms over to the government.
Those able to obtain a Category C license are still permitted to possess semi-automatic rimfire rifles and semi-automatic and pump-action shotguns. However, to obtain a Category C license, an individual must show that they require such firearms for an occupational purpose. Since the Adler A-110 is not a semi-automatic or pump-action shotgun, individuals may acquire the A-110 as long as they possess the less-restricted Category A license.
Notably, a five-round capacity version of the A-110 is already permitted for importation, and as of April, Australians had purchased approximately 7,500 of the firearms. Moreover, A-110 owners are permitted to expand the capacity of their shotguns using an aftermarket magazine extension.
According to reports, Leyonhjelm initially confronted the government in August after it failed to allow the import ban to expire. Frustrated, Leyonhjelm made his displeasure public in October. In response, Abbott claimed ignorance of the agreement, stating, “No deals from me. No deals from my office. No deal.” However, to back up his contention that a deal had been struck, Leyonhjelm released an email from the office of Minister of Justice Michael Keenan showing the arrangement. The email explicitly shows that in exchange for Leyonhjelm’s vote on a piece of legislation, the government would arrange for the A-110 import ban to expire.
Turnbull has cast further doubts on Abbott’s denial. According to the Australian Associated Press (AAP), following consultation with his government ministers, Turnbull told parliament, “As a result of those inquiries I'm satisfied that the minister for justice acted in the full knowledge of the prime minister's office at that time.”
Despite the change in Liberal Party leadership, Leyonhjelm contends that his deal should be honored. Leyonhjelm has said of the Turnbull government, “They did a deal with me and then they welshed on it.” Leyonhjelm has also made clear that the government’s failure to honor the agreement to lift the A-110 import ban could affect the government’s legislative agenda, stating, “Until this is solved my relationship with the government is going to be difficult.” Michael Keenan, with whose office Leyonhjelm struck the accord in 2015, continues to hold the position of Minister of Justice in the Turnbull government.
Sensing a chance to score political points against an infighting Liberal government, while simultaneously advancing their gun control agenda, the opposition Labor Party has also entered the fray. Invoking the anti-gun legacy of former Liberal Prime Minister John Howard, who pursued the 1996 gun ban and confiscation, Labor leader Bill Shorten said of the Liberals, “This is not the party of John Howard anymore. They claim the mantle, they're not fit to clean his shoes on this issue.”
Unfortunately, Turnbull has seemingly caved to anti-gun pressure, assuring that that the import ban has been renewed “indefinitely,” and that it is “set in stone.” Turnbull also said of his government, “The fact is we stand by the national firearms agreement. We want it stronger.”
As an alternative to lifting the import ban outright, some officials are pursuing a plan that would reclassify the A-110 as a Category B firearm then permit its importation. Obtaining a Category B license is somewhat more difficult than obtaining a Category A license. For instance, New South Wales requires those seeking a Category B license to demonstrate a “special need.” According to the New South Wales Police Force, this burden “is established by the applicant providing evidence that a special need exists and giving reasons why the special need cannot be met by a smaller category of firearm or by any other means.”
Political intrigues aside, amid the controversy, Australia’s Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party has astutely addressed the folly of the import ban, and further efforts to restrict the A-110. In an October 20, 2016 press release addressing the matter, Shooters Party New South Wales Member of Legislative Council Robert Borsak pointed to documents obtained using Australia’s Freedom of Information laws, and noted, “Advice given to the Federal Attorney-General shows that the Adler A110 lever action shotgun is of no public safety concern whatsoever, especially considering that similar firearms have been on the market for decades without incident.”
Further undermining the import ban and other gun control efforts, Borsak made clear that there is no record of a lever-action shotgun having been used in a crime in Australia’s most populous state from 2010-2015. In September 2015, the NSW Minister for Justice and Police told the NSW Parliament, “A manual examination of event narratives of all offences between 1 July 2010 and 30 June 2015 where a shotgun was recorded as the weapon used did not reveal any events where the weapon was recorded as a lever action shotgun. “
Similar to their American counterparts, Australia’s anti-gun advocates push for ever-stricter gun controls absent any evidence to support their proposals. Here, Australians have been subjected to a government that has engaged in open internecine conflict, recriminations, and betrayals, all over an ineffectual ban on a model of shotgun that can’t be linked to a single crime in Australia’s most populous state. Let this episode serves as further evidence of the universal nature of anti-gun absurdity.