Handgun law changes 20 years on

Handgun law changes 20 years on

John Maxwell

During an econometrics lecture at Melbourne’s Monash University on October 21, 2002, Chinese student Huan Yun ‘Allen’ Xiang opened fire, killing two fellow students and wounding another five people including his lecturer. The 36-year-old was armed with six handguns, all loaded and legally acquired. He was charged with two counts of murder and five of attempted murder but was acquitted on grounds of a paranoid delusional disorder and 20 years on remains in secure psychiatric care.

In the week before the shooting, Xiang’s deteriorating mental state had become apparent to one of his lecturers. He’d been issued a Victorian handgun licence in June 2002 then bought a CZ-75 in 9mm, a pair of Smith and Wesson revolvers in .38 Special and .357 Magnum, a Taurus PT-92 in .40 Smith and Wesson, a Beretta 89 in .22 LR and Beretta Tomcat in .32 ACP.

The obvious question was how a foreign student with minimal English, emerging mental health issues and a recent interest in the shooting sports had managed to legally acquire half a dozen handguns in just four months. Thus was launched Australia’s second guns buyback – directed at handguns – along with a national tightening of handgun laws.

Handguns were not touched in the gun law reforms which followed the 1996 Port Arthur tragedy, as at the time it was deemed handgun laws were effective and needed no adjustment. But this time there were calls for a total firearm ban, among them from Tim Costello, then-spokesman with the National Coalition for Gun Control.

The Victorian Government proposed tougher penalties for misuse of handguns but said it was not inclined to push for a total ban. Any such ban would of course have required a buyback at unknown but substantial cost. “There are obviously changes that can be made at both state and federal levels, further changes,” said Prime Minister John Howard. And there it was. Those changes were unveiled at a meeting of the Council of Australian Government (COAG) on December 6, 2002 and were to be in place 20 years ago this month (June 30, 2003), implemented by all states and territories as with the National Firearms Agreement (NFA) of 1996.

Yet this guns buyback, unlike ’96, doesn’t seem to have been discussed at Federal Cabinet level as this writer could find no reference to the matter in lists of Cabinet documents released at the end of each year under the 20-year rule. The new plan had been (mostly) developed by the Australasian Police Ministers Council (APMC) which came up with 28 resolutions. Importantly, these resolutions didn’t propose any calibre and barrel length restrictions, those being down to COAG, that is state premiers and the Prime Minister.

Unlike 1996 the Commonwealth wasn’t footing the entire bill. It stumped up $15 million left over from the ’96 buyback then picked up two-thirds of the total with the states and territories absorbing the other third. It was estimated this would snare 65,000 guns at a total cost of $118 million and that was pretty close with 68,727 guns surrendered and $96.6 million paid in compensation along with $70 million in administration costs.

Law-abiding shooters and dealers were compensated for 278,00 assorted parts and accessories and of course many went straight out and bought new (legal) firearms, as witnessed in Victoria where shooters surrendered 18,814 guns and replaced them with 15,184 new pistols (presumably that pattern was mirrored across Australia). Consequently, the national inventory didn’t greatly diminish and has since far exceeded previous levels.

Shooters didn’t like this buyback and neither did the ‘antis’ who sought a total ban and saw this as an opening for gun owners to update their equipment at taxpayers’ expense. Yet for shooters the changes were still far-reaching. Banned were handguns greater than .38 (9mm), other than for a couple of disciplines (Metallic Silhouette and Single Action) where shooters and their organisations successfully made the case for use of larger calibres. But for everyone else that meant no more 1911s or .44 Magnums. So why these restrictions? This writer could find no published explanation by any of the main players including John Howard and his then-Justice Minister Chris Ellison. It could only have been that larger calibres were perceived as more lethal.

There were new minimum barrel length requirements: 120mm for self-loaders and 100mm for revolvers which meant no more small handguns which were seen as too easily concealed. There were new magazine restrictions with a 10-round maximum capacity, so no more 17-round Glock mags. The changes also contained an option for licensed shooters to relinquish all handguns (including those not newly prohibited) and be fully compensated but in return they had to surrender their handgun licence and undertake not to seek another one for five years.

Considering the apparent ease with which Xiang obtained his licence and that array of handguns, a raft of changes made it substantially more difficult and time-consuming to earn an H-licence (the current national H-licensing regime fundamentally dates from this period). Resolutions from the APMC envisaged a system of graduated access to handguns based on training, experience and participation.

As an initial step, a prospective pistol shooter had to undergo a police record check then present it to his or her club with prospective new members also having to provide character references. H-licence aspirants had to undergo training and couldn’t secure a handgun for six months then, in the following six months, could acquire one .22 pistol and one .177 air pistol or a centrefire pistol and an air pistol.

Alas, the John Edwards case in 2018 showed the system wasn’t foolproof (at least in New South Wales). Despite a recorded history of domestic abuse, Edwards managed to acquire an H-licence and a pair of handguns which he used to kill his children then himself, the case highlighting the responsibilities imposed on pistol clubs to vet new members. Any shooting club is fully entitled to accept or reject new members and, unimpressed by Edwards’ aggressive manner, two clubs in Sydney rejected him. Yet there was no obligation on them to inform NSW authorities, though there would’ve been had they perceived him as posing a risk to the community or himself. Unaware of his history, a third club accepted his membership.

The new handgun regime imposed mandatory attendance requirements on members, meaning participation in a minimum six formal club competitions a year along with a further four for each additional type of handgun. In practical terms that meant, for example, a minimum of six centrefire and four rimfire shoots per member each year which placed an obligation on clubs to record attendance and, depending on jurisdictional requirements, report that to licensing authorities annually.

So 20 years on has it made Australia safer? Without doubt it’s far more time-consuming and arduous to obtain an H-licence. No newcomer to pistol shooting can go straight out and buy a handgun, let alone half dozen as Xiang did. Yet any immediate decline in the number of H-licences and handguns has since been well and truly overtaken.

The ’96 NFA and its consequences have been endlessly dissected by researchers in Australia and overseas (this writer counted at least a dozen assorted papers), yet the 2003 handgun buyback and licensing reforms have attracted nowhere near that same level of attention. One study of both buybacks by academics Wang-Sheng Lee and Sandy Suardi concluded they had not resulted in any real reduction in firearm deaths.

So why that lack of attention? It’s unclear but here are a couple of thoughts. The 2003 buyback wasn’t total and contrary to the desires of anti-gun groups, handguns remain legal though tightly regulated. Handgun crime by licensed shooters using legally-owned guns is rare, though sadly not non-existent. The Australian Institute of Criminology’s (AIC) Homicide in Australia research series found 17 per cent of homicide incidents (34) in 2019-20 involved firearms, about the same as the previous year, though there’s no further breakdown to indicate how many involved handguns.

Another 2008 AIC study on criminal use of handguns found a rising proportion of firearm murders involved handguns (more than 50 per cent some years). Over the same period firearm use in homicide was declining, a trend which preceded the ’96 NFA. Another AIC study in 2000 found the vast majority of people committing murder with guns (more than 90 per cent) were unlicensed and the firearms they used were unregistered. In that study period a quarter of murder weapons were handguns.

It’s unclear if that situation has changed as there’s no recent research on use of handguns in crime or on licensing and registration status of firearms used in homicide, though it’s fair to say villains like handguns for all the obvious reasons – they’re concealable, intimidating and deliver status in the criminal culture. Many lawbreakers are willing to go to considerable lengths to acquire handguns and cough up serious money.

National and state police have taskforces to target gun crime, underworld suppliers and associated criminal groups, especially drug dealers and outlaw motorcycle gangs. Every state and territory can impose serious penalties, yet crooks still manage to acquire handguns. And as this correspondent has noted previously a significant chunk of Australian gun crime, particularly handgun crime, occurs around Sydney’s western suburbs and appears to be down to a seemingly endless turf war between a pair of rival ‘families’.

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