Research archive

The Great Australian Gun “Buyback”

by SSAA Research Team
Australian Shooters Journal
December 1997

The "buyback" is over, but just how successful was it? How many now-illegal firearms were taken out of the community and how many guns are there in Australia now?

After considerable research by the SSAA, one thing is certain: the official figure declared by the Attorney-General's Department of 2.5 million firearms is woefully inadequate.

An Attorney-General's Department fax to State and Territory Buyback Coordinators notes "fairly sensational news re the success of the buyback nationally" and adds: "What the research does not do is answer the regional differences in the hand-in figures. It is more a global picture." (1) This is without substance. The news is hardly "sensational" and the "buyback" was no success.

Whilst the Attorney-General's Department crows about the success of the "buyback", others are not so sure. The Northern Territory News reports that "police remain convinced there could be millions of prohibited firearms still on the streets". (2) Even the gun prohibitionists acknowledge that the so-called buyback was a failure. Gun Control Australia's John Crook says, "It may be that we have to start this buy-back again because it is estimated there are still approximately 300,000 prohibited weapons to be brought in". (3)

The figure is perhaps closer to three million. Firearm owners should start preparing for the next round of confiscations, which is likely to focus on handguns.

The hand-in and its impact
Table One shows final unadjusted hand-in figures for each State and Territory. In addition, each jurisdiction's status regarding firearm registration is indicated along with the hand-in rate per 100,000 of population and the amount paid.

No conclusive statements can be made about hand-in rates as related to registration as Tasmania, for example, without registration, had a very high hand-in rate whereas Western Australia with registration had a very low hand-in rate. To provide interpretation of the rates, both the total numbers of firearms and firearm owners in each jurisdiction would need to be known, and they never can be.

Furthermore, each jurisdiction's regional, rural and urban differences need to be understood as related to high or low rates of firearm ownership and therefore the level of hand-in which could be expected.

As so much of the necessary data is unavailable, it is impossible to conclude that the "buyback" achieved anything other than the collection of 640,381 firearms at a huge and unwarranted cost.

ABS firearm import statistics for 1996-97 indicate that 125,594 of these firearms have been replaced already.

In the final analysis, the success or otherwise of the confiscations can only be measured by crime reduction.

The assertion that fewer legal firearms will make the community safer with a correspondingly lower crime rate is a nonsense. Overseas experience confirms this. Even though the homicide by firearm rate here has also been steadily falling for sixteen years, homicide by other means, especially knives, continues to rise.

Lower firearm numbers are also not likely to reduce the number of suicides in the community. As shown in the September, 1997 Special Edition of the ASJ, suicide by firearm has been falling for sixteen years yet the overall suicide rate continues to rise, with method substitution increasing.

Imports
Concerning the import of firearms, the only official statistics available from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) are for the period 1934 to 1997. The collection classifications have changed every few decades, making analysis difficult. ABS import records indicate that for the 63-year period from 1934 till June, 1997, a total of approximately 5,005,060 firearms made up of 4,569,664 rifles and shotguns and 435,396 handguns were imported into Australia.

The ABS statistics contain gaps, inconsistencies and likely errors. Also, because of the groupings of classifications that occurred prior to 1958 and during 1985-87, it is not possible to separate the numbers of rifles from shotguns. There are no statistics before 1934, nor are figures concerning Australia's internal production available.

Out of 209 years of European settlement, import statistics are only available for the last 63 years. That leaves 146 years unaccounted for, in the latter part of which semi-automatic and pump action firearms were freely imported. Many of such firearms imported from the late 1880s to 1934 are still serviceable, perhaps adding another two million to the overall tally. There is no way of ever knowing.

What is particularly noticeable in the ABS statistics is the large gaps in the figures.

Interestingly, records concerning the import of shotguns only commenced in 1958. If 863,700 are on import records in that 40-year period till now, then it is fair to estimate that at least a further 500,000 shotguns would have been imported in the more than seventy years between the 1880s and 1957. Shotguns have routinely been owned in numbers by farmers and rural dwellers.

In addition, consideration must be given to unknown numbers of firearms, especially pistols, brought back to Australia by returned servicemen and women from all conflicts in which Australia has participated this century.

Overseas amnesties and surrender patterns show that because guns do not deteriorate quickly and are stored indoors it can be assumed that a large proportion of these older arms still exist in firing condition.

Also to be considered is the smuggling of illegal firearms into Australia. Obviously numbers can never be known, but a single shipping container could contain thousands of firearms and it has even recently been alleged that our own Navy has been involved in gun-running. (4) Roughly a million containers come into Australia on 10,000 vessels annually and according to a news report in 1996, under 3,000 of them, less than one third of one per cent, "are even looked at". (5)

Exports
Some would suggest that our exports have reduced the overall firearm numbers.

Prior to 1966, no export records of firearms were kept. For the 31-year period from 1966 when record keeping commenced, to June, 1997, Australia recorded 536,288 firearms exports. Again, classifications are non-specific and details few.

It is recorded, however, that for the 15-year period 1970-85 a total of 186,959 firearms were exported, 42,054 being from internal production, 66,802 being re-exports and 78,103 being unknown military. While a significant number of Australian-manufactured firearms were being exported overseas (an example is Sportco rifles to Great Britain), re-exports of imported firearms do not appear to have had a major impact upon the lowering of overall firearm numbers in Australia.

Jursidiction Registration? # Handed in Population* Rate per 100,000 Amount paid $
Victoria Registration 207,220 4,595,700 4,508.99 $101,324,241
New South Wales No Registration 154,262 6,260,900 2,463.89 $70,500,000
ACT Registration 5,380 310,100 1,734.92 $2,803,918
Tasmania No Registration 32,132 473,800 6,781.76 $14,277,331
Northern Territory Registration 9,456 185,700 5,092.08 $5,017,735
Western Australia Registration 50,804 1,791,200 2,836.31 $18,135,426
South Australia Registration 52,344 1,478,700 3,539.86 $26,079,152
Queensland No Registration 128,783 3,392,900 3,795.66 $66,230,973
TOTALS   640,381 18,489,000   $304,368,776

Table 1. Australian Government Buyback Statistics - 15/10/97
Weighted Average Hand-In Per State/Territory for Australia: 3,466.01

*Population figure is the ABS Estimated residential Population for 1996.
Source: Attorney-General's Department, Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Internal production
Many firearms have been manufactured here. Apart from the military .303 there are also the well known Lithgow .22 bolt-actions.

Some statistics concerning internal production are available. Lithgow's .303 production from 1912-1956 was 640,000. While Many .303s were lost in war service, British and allied forces also replaced many rifles which eventually returned to Australia.

280,000 L1A1 SLRs were manufactured by Lithgow; many were sold overseas, some were sold to the public, and many others were either destroyed or placed in storage. 76,000 of the new Austeyr rifles were produced.

Australian-made .22 rifles comprise Slazenger (Lithgow), with 120,000 bolt action single shot rifles and 84,918 bolt action repeating rifles. The production figures for Sportco and Fieldman are unknown.

Centrefire rifles included Lithgow's .303s and SLRs enumerated above, but Slazenger .22 Hornets and Sportco Model 33 .222s and .303 conversions were also produced in unknown numbers; Australian Automatic Arms (AAA) Tasmania, Omark and Small Arms Factory (SAF) had unknown production figures.

All shotguns from Sportco (exported in numbers to Britain and sold by Parker Hale) and Lithgow, this latter being a .410 shotgun on the SMLE action, had unknown totals.

ABS Statistics regarding internal firearm production by private companies are classified as 'Commercial-in-Confidence' and are not available for publication as they may identify the manufacturer. They are unable to be released to anybody, even the government, so accurate figures are impossible to collect.

Some amazing arithmetic is thus required for the Attorney-General's Department's Newspoll figure of only 2.5 million firearms in the country to be correct.

According to the Government's own ABS import statistics, more than five million firearms have been imported from 1934-97. For the Attorney-General's figures to be correct, at least half of these must have gone missing because re-export figures do not account for them. Then there must have been no such thing as any internal production in Australia, no wartime souvenirs by returning soldiers and, of course, no illegal imports.

The Department of Attorney-General Daryl Williams expects us to believe this, even though the entire concept is patently absurd and at odds with the facts.

Guesstimates by those who should know
Firearm dealers are understandably reluctant to disclose the actual figures of their own imports. Many figures circulating publicly may not be entirely accurate.

In addition, the collection of customs statistics as forwarded to the ABS may not be accurate. For example, irregularities may occur in the completion of the "Nature 10" Customs Form, used to record gun imports. An incoming case of firearms may be recorded as a unit, rather than as the actual number of individual firearms in that case. The number of firearms recorded as imported may read, for example, as six cases, when in fact each case may contain ten firearms. Thus official statistics regarding the actual numbers of firearms imported into Australia might have been under-reported.

Fuller Firearms in Sydney estimate that 150,000 SKS self-loading centre-fire rifles were imported in the late 1980s, along with up to 500,000 ex-US military M1 Carbines and up to a million semi-automatic and pump-action shotguns. (6)

Other reliable sources within the firearms importation industry indicate that at least 350,000 SKS and SKK rifles were imported into Australia up until the early 1990s.

In addition, the sources estimate that during the 1960s and '70s at least 10,000 Stirling and Squibman .22 rifles were imported into Australia annually with a total of at least 300,000 for these two brands of .22 alone. ABS statistics suggest that this view is correct.

Bob Green, President of SSAA Queensland, noted: "There's 400,000 of one model of firearm, a semi-automatic, that have been brought into this State over the past 25 years". (7)

Other authorities estimate the number of Ruger 10/22 self-loading .22 rifles imported into Australia since the late 1960s as being in excess of 55,000.

The Coalition for Gun Control's Rebecca Peters also disagrees with the Attorney-General's Department as she believes that there are four million guns in Australia. (8) She also is incorrect.

The Police Ministers were told at the May 10th, 1996 meeting that "No reliable figures of total numbers of firearms in Australia are available. Estimates for all firearms vary from 3.5 million... to over 10 million. Best estimates of the numbers of military-style semi-automatics suggest around 350,000 throughout Australia. Best estimates for other semi-automatic, self-loading (sic) or pump action longarms suggest around 3,000,000." (9)

Even the Attorney-General's Department itself estimated that 3.35 million firearms would become prohibited.

Some of the above estimates may appear high and others low, yet they total in excess of 1.2 million self-loading rifles alone, without even mention of self-loading and pump-action shotguns which greatly outnumber centrefire rifles. NSW Shooters' Party MLC John Tingle estimates the number of banned firearms in Australia at between two and five million. (10)

The Attorney-General's Department listed 334 models of firearms as now prohibited and to be "bought back" by the Government. (11) Some of the listed models were imported in very small numbers, perhaps only hundreds or a few thousand. Others were imported in the tens or even hundreds of thousands. Even if there were only, for example, 10,000 of each model in the country, that alone adds up to 3.34 million now-illegal firearms, which is very close to the Attorney-General's Department's original estimate of 3.35 million.

Clearly many people involved in the firearms industry, and some of them for generations, are fully aware that the Attorney-General's Department's figure of 2.5 million firearms is ridiculous, and we can only wonder what the motivation is for such an under-estimation.

Considerations
Credit
Debit
Balance
Opening balance of recorded imports 1934-97     5,005,060
Gaps in recorded import statistics 1934-97 750,000   5,755,060
Other imports prior to 1934 and back to 1895 2,000,000   7,755,060
.303 production balanced against loss & replacement 640,000   8,395,060
Internal production, non-military types only 450,000   8,845,060
Illegal, covert and undeclared imports 200,000   9,045,060
Less total recorded exports 1996-1997   536,288 8,508,772
Less natural attrition by age or loss   1,500,00 7,008,772
Less "Buyback" total   640,381 6,368,391

Table 2. Estimated Actual Number of Firearms in Australia - 1997
The estimated number of pre-"buyback" firearms in Australia is approximately 7 million.
The estimated number of post-"buyback" firearms in Australia is approximately 6.4 million
Note 1: Figures indicate a best estimate. The actual figure is likely to be higher.
Note 2: Figures do not include 76,000 F88 Austeyr rifles in the Australian Defence Forces
Note 3: Figures include 125,594 firearms imported into Australia during the buyback.
Sources: ABS, Firearms Industry, Independent Researchers, Museums & Manufacturers.

Summary
Table Two suggests that, pre-"buyback", it can be estimated that there were about seven million firearms in Australia. It can also be estimated that probably about 40% were prohibited under the Howard-Beazley bi-partisan confiscation. Using the estimated pre-"buyback" figure of seven million firearms, 40% equates to about 2.8 million prohibited firearms of which the "buyback" collected 640,000, or about 23%. That is hardly a success.

If Daryl Williams's advice given to the Police Ministers on May 10th of 3.35 million prohibited firearms is correct, how then can his office claim an 80% compliance rate when, by its original figures, the compliance rate is only 19%? (12)

Again, using the seven-million figure and incorporating the number of new firearms already imported to replace those handed in, post-confiscation there are now probably about 6.4 million firearms of all sorts on this continent, well over twice the figure quoted by the Attorney-General's Department. It is likely that there are still two million now-prohibited firearms in Australia, and this says nothing of those which will doubtless continue to be imported by criminals for their illegal purposes.

The Attorney-General's Department has criticised both pro- and anti-firearm groups for inflating the figures, yet Williams's office is clearly on the weaker ground, having based the new figures on self-reported telephone polls. (13)

The "buyback" has failed utterly in the stated aim of removing all the now-prohibited firearms from the community. It has been rejected by many firearm owners of Australia as unjust and not to be taken seriously. It is bad law, contributing to the undermining of people's already eroded confidence in their elected representatives.

Effects of the buyback on crime
Gun prohibitionists and some academics still try to convince the public that crime levels relate to the number of legally owned guns in the community, and reducing such numbers will bring a corresponding drop in crime.

This theory is demonstrated worldwide to be false.

Bond University "criminologist" Professor Paul Wilson is a case in point when claiming after the "buyback" it is "probable that the crime rate would drop by up to 20%". (14) Such an assertion is baseless fantasy. Will he resign when his prediction fails to materialise?

Professor Wilson's comment appears to imply that many firearm owners who surrendered firearms were going to use them to commit a crime. Is it true that people who were honest enough to surrender firearms were somehow going to be responsible for 20% of Australia's crime rate?

Is there any evidence that a real criminal who has an illegal firearm for criminal purposes actually surrendered the firearm during the "buyback"? The thought is naive and preposterous.

The confiscation of sporting and recreational firearms from law-abiding citizens can never lower rising rates of crime, violence, homicide or suicide. It has been demonstrated worldwide that the number of firearms in a country, whether registered or not, has no bearing upon the crime and murder rates of that country. Poverty, unemployment, illicit drug activity, racial and political tensions, corruption and media influences, amongst other things, are far more important factors than how many legal guns are in the community.

Once again this view is borne out by recent news: "Robbery with a firearm increased more than 13 per cent in NSW during the gun buyback" (15), and again, "The number of Victorians murdered with firearms has almost trebled since the introduction of tighter gun laws." (16)

The government's policies are not working.

The real costs
What has the real financial cost of the "buyback" been? What about the countless hours of police time, the bureaucrats' time, the individual firearm owners who have to take time off work to hand in guns, the countless meetings of both professionals and volunteers, the "education" campaigns, the court cases...?

In the final analysis, it will have been for nothing. A growing body of evidence suggests that this government's approach to firearms policy will be counter-productive to saving lives.

It terms of cost and benefit, has the expenditure allocated to this stage of the government's firearm eradication program been worth it or could it have been better spent in saving lives in other areas?

Table Three shows that in 1995 a total of 7,464 Australians died from "external causes". Accidental falls claimed 995; drowning took 259 and 2,029 died in motor vehicle accidents.

Of the total 7,464: firearm homicides accounted for 67, firearm suicides 388, and accidental deaths, 15. (17) In other words, firearm deaths including suicides and accidents accounted for 6.3% of all external causes of Australian deaths in 1995, but homicides by firearm accounted for only 0.9%.

Cause Number of Persons
Suicide 2,367
Motor Vehcile Traffic Accidents 2,029
Accidental falls 995
Homicide 333
Drowning and submersion 259
Poisoning by drugs/medication 298
Air Transport Accidents 51
Homicide by firearm 67
Other 1,132
Total 7,531

Table 3. External Causes of Death - 1995 Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics

Can the expenditure of over half a billion dollars on the pretext of public health and safety be justified for such a low rate of incidence of firearm-related death? Clearly it cannot.

Perhaps the money would have been better spent on measures to prevent drowning or measures to prevent people from accidentally falling. In addition, the overall funding allocated to the cost of the "buyback" is equivalent to the Commonwealth Government's annual expenditure on Public Order and Safety for each individual year from 1992-1995. (18)

No amount of regulation will ever prevent a person, firearm owner or not, from committing suicide if that is what that person has determined to do. It is entirely inappropriate to aggregate suicide statistics with homicides and it is nothing more than an attempt to create a much worse picture of the perceived "damage" caused by civilian-owned firearms than actually exists. Even the 15 accidents cannot be attributed to malicious causes; they are indeed just accidents which would be better prevented by improved education, not confiscation.

This being so, how can the Government justify spending $500,000,000 of taxpayers' money in an attempt to prevent 67 firearm homicides per year?

The "buyback" expenditure has been an unjustified, colossal waste of public money. One can only assume that there is either another agenda or a lack of competence on the part of those responsible for the decisions.

Mr Daryl Smeaton of the Attorney-General's Department now tells us that the tighter so-called uniform gun laws and regulations with the ensuing confiscations will have no bearing on illegal activity. "This proposal will never prevent criminals from possessing firearms and we never said it would." He adds: "Overall, the reason for the approach was to say firearms possession in this country is a privilege, it is not a right." (19)

Victorian Police Minister Bill McGrath's press secretary Anne Stanford said that "the tighter gun control laws were not framed with the specific expectation that gun related deaths would decline." (20)

If it is true that the new laws are not designed to prevent criminals from having guns or for preventing firearm deaths, what then are they designed to do?

Conclusion
In reality there are likely to be over 6.4 million firearms in Australia today. Our firearm mortality rate at 67 homicides, 15 accidents, and 388 suicides (21) is actually very low. (Japan, with heavy bans on guns, has suicide rates much higher.) The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists admits: "Because of the low base rate of firearm deaths compared with firearm ownership, screening (of all people applying for a firearms licence) would waste resources." (22)

The confiscations have removed 640,000 firearms from the hands of law-abiding citizens yet will fail to reduce crime in Australia. Legislation does not make people behave kindly towards their fellows. Bad laws of any kind will simply be ignored.

Certainly the "buyback" has been an immense failure, not only because it failed to remove the vast majority of now-prohibited firearms from any but the law-abiding, but because it is already demonstrated to have no impact on reducing levels of violence and crime in Australian society. This is entirely consistent with what the firearm-owning fraternity originally said after the May 10th Police Ministers' meeting and it will be continuously demonstrated as time goes by.

So just how many guns are now in this country? The answer is simply that nobody will ever know. It is certain, however, that the Attorney-General's Department's official figure of there being only 2.5 million firearms in Australia is laughable. It is totally unsatisfactory to base official statistics on telephone polls and then to publicise the results in a barrage of self-congratulatory rhetoric.

 

1. Attorney-General's Department, Fax to Coordination Group, 26 August, 1997.
2. Northern Territory News, Editorial, 'Fewer guns on the streets', 6 October, 1997.
3. Brisbane Courier Mail, 'Call to lift secrecy over gun payouts', 9 October, 1997.
4. Brisbane Courier Mail, 'Navy under fire over gun running', 9 October, 1997.
5. Channel Nine, "A Current Affair", 26 August, 1996.
6. Sydney Morning Herald, 'Gun buy-back blasted as costly failure', 22 August, 1997.
7. Brisbane Courier Mail, 'Most illegal guns "not surrendered"', 27 September, 1997, p10.
8. The Canberra Times, 'Setting the safety catch', 26 July, 1997.
9. Daryl Williams, Attorney-General and Minister for Justice, Australasian Police Ministers' Council Special Meeting: 'A Proposal For Effective Nationwide Control Of Firearms', 10 May, 1996.
10. Sydney Radio 2UE, 30 September, 1997.
11. Tasmanian Country, 'What You Will Get For Your Guns', 2 August, 1996.
12. Attorney-General's Department, 'Thanks to Participants in the Firearms Buyback', 26 August, 1997.
13. Australian Shooters Journal ILA Report, 'Too Good to Be True Or Too Absurd to Believe?', November, 1997, p12.
14. The Courier Mail, '130,000 guns handed over in Queensland by deadline', 1 October, 1997.
15. Sydney Sun Herald 'Gun crime up despite buyback', 26 October, 1997.
16. Geelong Advertiser, 'Shooting murders on the rise', 11 September, 1997.
17. ABS Statistics, 1996.
18. ABS Statistics, 19 March, 1997.
19. The Weekend Australian, 'Black market threatens guns buyback', 29 September, 1997.
20. Geelong Advertiser, 'Shooting murders on the rise', 11 September, 1997.
21. ABS Statistics, 1996.
22. The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, Position Statement #25 Firearm Legislation in Australia, October, 1996.

Home > Research archive > 1997 > The Great Australian Gun “Buyback”