Handgun regulation an enduringly tangled web

John Maxwell

Two decades ago the Coalition Federal Government’s plans to control handgun imports ran into a major problem as, before they’d even been in place for a year, they risked driving small firearms dealers out of business. And with a federal election looming and polls consistently indicating the Coalition was facing defeat, the last thing the government needed was more enemies.

Cabinet documents from 2001 – released in January by the National Archives of Australia under the 20-year rule – show in considerable detail that the problem came about because the government had taken action without consulting those directly impacted. The Coalition Government under John Howard had no great record of listening to the gun community, as demonstrated when it implemented the National Firearms Agreement following the 1996 Port Arthur tragedy.

Five years on, shooter dissatisfaction remained and had manifested in support for minor parties, especially One Nation, with the prospect that more votes going their way in states such as Queensland could see the Coalition replaced by Labor. And that wasn’t all. Polls showed the Coalition consistently trailing Labor into the election year, mostly because of unhappiness with GST which had come into effect on July 1, 2000.

Most unhappy were small business owners due to the complexities of the GST reporting system. Soaring fuel costs, a flow-on from rising global oil prices, hurt just about everyone and many blamed the Coalition, so why make more enemies of small firearms dealers by forcing them out of business?

In August 2000 the government had responded to a rising diversion of handguns to the criminal fraternity – and an increase in handgun crime – by banning dealers from retaining any newly imported handguns as stock for sale. Dealers were allowed to hold up to 10 handguns for demonstration purposes but they couldn’t be sold and handguns were stored by Customs until released to a genuine end user.

“This has led to a distortion of the industry and significant hardship for many law-abiding smaller and medium-sized dealers as the opportunities for prospective purchasers to handle and examine the items is in the premises of the major importers,” said Justice Minister Chris Ellison in his submission to Cabinet in March 2001.

The consequence was declining sales. Imports of non-official handguns (for civilian sale rather than police or military use) totalled 8000 in the period January 1 to July 21, 2000 and for the period August 18, 2000 (when the new restrictions started) to January 15, 2001 imports totalled just 1897. “There’s considerable dissatisfaction among both firearms dealers and the shooting community,” the minister said. “Industry has indicated that unless changes are introduced quickly, a significant proportion of firearms dealers will go out of business.”

After consulting with representatives of the firearms industry and the SSAA,  the government agreed to fix this problem by creating a ‘certified stock limit’ for dealers as determined by the Australian Customs Service. That was typically up to 10 newly imported handguns which could be sold, regarded as providing for the legitimate needs of dealers while eliminating unwarranted stockpiling. This was actually a straightforward change – a simple amendment of Customs regulations – with minimal cost.

And there were a few other changes. Handgun frames and receivers were now to be treated the same as complete handguns and the requirement for pre-1900 antique handguns to be stored with Customs rather than go straight to dealers was removed. Ellison’s submission said there was general satisfaction with the agreed approach among some key elements of the firearms industry, although some would prefer a return to the earlier regime which was clearly not an option.

However, the minister said the anti-gun lobby was likely to argue the proposed changes amounted to a watering down of the previous position “and is unlikely to be sympathetic to the legitimate concerns of firearms dealers”. Although a blunt instrument, the tougher restrictions on handgun imports were imposed in response to a genuine problem, namely rising handgun crime coupled with a few dealers importing large numbers of low quality (Chinese) handguns which were deactivated and sold.

That particularly related to Queensland which didn’t require registration of deactivated handguns. Further, those deactivated guns could be sold to anyone with no licence required. And if that wasn’t enough, the required standard of deactivation was lax and such guns could be readily restored to full function. Many were as the 2016 Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission report on Illicit Firearms in Australia noted as many as 5000 handguns entered the illicit market in this way and, two decades on, they apparently continue to turn up in criminal hands.

Two Queensland dealers did face court and in 2003 both were acquitted, the court accepting their standard of deactivation actually exceeded what the law required. That has now changed with all jurisdictions adopting rigorous requirements for deactivation, making re-activation nigh on impossible. For example, here are just some of the South Australian police requirements for deactivating a pistol. The barrel must be blocked with a close-fitting rod welded at breech and muzzle, the slide must be welded to the frame on both sides for at least hand length and the top of the magazine well must be filled with weld. The trigger must be welded and a hole drilled into the chamber.

Back in 2001, criminal acquisition of reactivated handguns wasn’t the only concern as many dealers held large stocks of handguns which made them inviting targets, thieves managing to steal more than 300 handguns and parts from one South Australian rural dealer.

Ellison’s submission is accompanied by a report from the Australasian Police Ministers’ Council (APMC) of its meeting in December 2000 at which the issue was discussed. That followed a number of meetings of the APMC working group on handgun crime. So how much crime? In 1999, handguns were involved in 42 per cent of all firearm homicides with most perpetrators not holding a firearms licence.

Self-obviously, the APMC working group said illicit firearms trafficking was directed at putting guns in the hands of criminals to engage in violence in the community. Both the minister and APMC noted the National Firearms Agreement didn’t touch on regulation of handguns, Ellison saying at that time it was believed Australian controls on handguns were sufficiently stringent. “The working group considered that any attempt to further regulate individual handgun acquisition based on the type of handgun would be extremely difficult and fraught with a high risk of community backlash,” the APMC said.

But not for long. On October 21, 2002 international commerce student Huan Yun ‘Allen’ Xiang stood up in a lecture at Melbourne’s Monash University, shot dead two fellow students and wounded five others. The 36-year-old was armed with six legally owned handguns, all of them loaded. He subsequently pleaded not guilty on grounds of mental impairment and was diagnosed with a paranoid delusional disorder and ordered to spend a minimum of 25 years in a psychiatric hospital.

The case raised the obvious question of how Xiang, a foreigner with profound mental health issues, was able to acquire a handgun licence and six handguns. Prime Minister John Howard ordered a review of handgun laws from which emerged the 2002 National Handgun Control Agreement. Technically that was part two of the NFA which continues to regulate firearms ownership.

From the National Handgun Control Agreement came more rigorous licensing requirements and restrictions on calibre, barrel length and magazine capacity. In 2003 there was another buyback for those in possession of now banned guns which cost more than $100 million, the abiding image of this being John Howard, his face set in obvious distaste, tentatively holding a surrendered pistol.

From all of this it’s now undoubtedly more difficult to acquire an H-class licence, with more hoops to jump through than before and gone are 1911 pattern handguns and others in .45 calibre. Has this made Australia safer? That’s not at all clear though it’s certainly harder and more time consuming to obtain an H-class licence, although shortcomings in the NSW system allowed a man with a history of domestic abuse to acquire a licence and the handguns he used to murder his two children then shoot himself.

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