Deterring and preventing death: Examining the cause, regulation and intent

Three fatal ‘vehicle-based attacks’ in Melbourne’s CBD in six years have prompted more than $52 million of security upgrades, though it has been admitted there are limits to what else can be done on the ground to prevent this kind of behaviour. This comment came former Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews following an incident on Bourke Street, where three pedestrians were stuck by a vehicle driven by someone who allegedly sped up in order to hit two cars.

Their actions resulted in the death of another driver and injuries to two others while in a separate incident, this time in 2017, a driver killed six people after deliberately slamming into pedestrians on Swanston and Bourke Streets. At no point has tightening controls on vehicle licensing eligibility been discussed.

Meanwhile if a death occurs involving a (usually illegal) firearm, the first measure called for as the antidote is to increase regulations, a measure which ultimately affects only licensed law-abiding firearm owners. Yes these are two very different situations, yet when we’re trying to pinpoint ways to improve public safety, it could be argued we need to remove the emotion and look to deterrence. A death involving a firearm or a vehicle in the hands of someone intent on causing harm is not something we should accept.

So let’s look at some numbers. Of roughly 25.69 million people in this country, around 19.4 million or 75 per cent of Australians have vehicle licenses. In 2022, the total number of registered vehicles in Australia was more than 20 million and there were 1194 road crash deaths in that 12-month period. Around 900,000 Australians hold a firearms licence (3.5 per cent of our total population), those 900,000 own about four million firearms and in 2019 there were 229 firearms-related deaths.

Now we know, thanks to Australian Institute of Criminology research, that in a majority of cases firearm homicides involve an illegal gun in the hands of a criminal. But we also have to unfortunately recognise that suicides involving firearms, both illegal and legal, remains a problem in our society, particularly in older males in regional areas.

An investigation into the issue by The Guardian in 2022 revealed firearms, poison and farm equipment contribute significantly to suicides in rural areas, yet these items are integral to the communities who use them as tools of trade. The data shows men in regional areas are at least 50 per cent more likely to commit suicide, however mental health issues are no more prevalent in these areas than in cities, it’s the lack of intervention and services which let the side down.

Numbers of firearms or vehicle-related deaths aside, the issue we have here is vehicles are a widely accepted part of how society operates while firearms are not. The fact that firearms used in a sport enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of people on a daily basis is not factored into the equation, this despite our constant efforts to highlight the cultural, social and economic benefits of our sport to the country. The fact that firearms are used in essential pest control activities around the country is also being conveniently ignored. And there’s blatant disregard for the role hunters play in reducing the $25 billion impact on our economy, when the environment and industries reliant on the land are virtually under siege from expanding populations of deer, wild dogs, cats, rabbits, foxes and more.

Much of the commentary around legal firearm ownership by anti-gun groups relies on the premise that removal of civilian ownership privilege would immediately stop any new illegal firearms entering circulation, therefore significantly reduce crime and, by default, largely stamp out firearms-related deaths.

Yet we need only look to a recent study by Deakin University to refute this argument. Their research indicates illegal gun trade is closed to the general population without connections and even under conditions of significant regulation, access to illegal firearms can occur “relatively cheaply, easily and quickly” via a handful of individuals providing guns for criminal use.

“The extensive regulation of Australian firearms . . . means the world of gun buying and selling has been pushed further underground and is governed, more than ever, by the criminal code”, the study says. These researchers conclude that tough restrictions on firearm access increases the strength of these criminal networks and attention needs to be directed to “addressing the drivers or motivations for entry into gun-related crime, rather than more or better regulation of the firearm market”.  They highlight policy issues of key importance being deterrence, deterrability and prevention.

The Sporting Shooters’ Association of Australia accepts there should be sensible regulation of civilian firearm ownership guided by evidence-based research, but stresses the urge to legislate and penalise the law-abiding will have little effect on firearm crime and ultimately firearm death. Our organisation and others in our community work extensively to ensure firearm owners understand their responsibilities around storage and use. Our elected representatives and authorities need to do their part to deter and disassemble the criminal networks in this country, who are propping up the illegal gun market and targeting law-abiding firearm owners as a potential supply option.

In similar vein regulation of vehicles, licensing, training and deterrents such as fines exist and have been progressively tightening during the past few decades and more. In a perfect world there would be a corresponding reduction in road toll, road rage, drink and drug-driving and so on, but not dissimilar to firearms regulation as, beyond a certain point, regulation doesn’t always achieve the desired outcome.

This isn’t to say regulations shouldn’t exist, quite the reverse. Our elected leaders and regulators may have to look beyond punishment but then what are their options? Daniel Andrews has acknowledged this very problem, the conundrum that protecting public safety isn’t an easy fix and regulations only affect those willing to follow the letter of the law.

All News