How Howard’s handgun law changes backfired

John Maxwell

The former John Howard Government made three moves to toughen gun laws, of which two should be familiar to most firearms owners – national reforms targeting longarms following the 1996 Port Arthur Massacre and handgun law changes following the 2002 Monash University murders. In between, in 2000, the government moved to tighten import controls to reduce what was seen as a growing risk of handguns being diverted to the black market.

What was proposed was for retail gun dealers to be allowed to hold only limited numbers of new handguns for the purposes of testing and demonstration to intending buyers. More would be held in a secure store by Customs and only released to the dealer once a legitimate end user (suitably licensed shooter) had been established. A similar regime already applied to Category C longarms (pump-action or self-loading shotguns and rimfire rifles).

According to Howard Government cabinet documents for 2000, released by the National Archives of Australia under the 20-year rule, the government agreed to a proposal from Justice and Customs Minister Amanda Vanstone to amend Customs (Prohibited Imports) Regulations which would allow Customs to retain and store handguns until their sale to an end user authorised by a state or territory.

The changes would allow only 10 handguns and five Category C longarms to be released to a dealer, with no more than one of any particular model. Yet the government was cautious to ensure these changes didn’t impact certain shooters, namely those arriving in Australia to compete in the Sydney Olympics from September 15 to October 1, 2000. They were granted an explicit exemption.

The justification for this change was a worrying rise in criminal use of handguns. “Handgun crime and supply of handguns to the black market are emerging problems affecting community safety,” Vanstone said in her submission to cabinet in August 2000. “Current import arrangements permit stockpiling of handguns by dealers, increasing risks of diversion to the black market.”

Vanstone said firearm control measures were always controversial but this didn’t affect current firearms ownership – anyone now entitled to hold a licence and own a handgun could still do so. Neither would it affect existing dealer stocks of second-hand handguns.

The minister did consider whether either the Australian Federal Police or Australian Defence Force could provide storage for imported handguns at appropriate locations but practical difficulties made that unsuitable, so that was down to Customs at an estimated cost of $2 million a year. “The gun lobby consistently points to the need for government to focus on measures directed at criminal activity involving firearms – the proposed regime does that,” she said.

Vanstone said the Commonwealth action on handgun imports was expected to have an immediate impact on the problem – so just what was the problem? From the Minister’s submission there appear to be a number of issues but fundamentally, handgun crime was on the rise. A report from the Australasian Police Ministers’ Council (APMC) Senior Officers Working Group on handgun use in crime, dated July 2000 and included with the Minister’s submission, says when the APMC settled the National Firearms Agreement in May 1996, handgun possession and use was considered sufficiently well regulated.

“A potential cause is the introduction of stricter criteria in respect of granting firearms licences, driving ineligible individuals likely to engage in firearms-related crime to the illicit firearms market where handguns appear now to be a major commodity item,” APMC said.

Research by the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) and overseas, coupled with experiences of Australian police forces, highlighted crime involving handguns and the supply of handguns to the black market. In 1999, handguns were involved in 42 per cent of all firearm homicides and information from some Australian police forces suggested handguns were used more often in other crimes such as robbery and assault.

AIC research found that between July 1997 and June 1999 only nine per cent of homicide offenders held firearms licences with no handgun used in homicide in that period recorded. That was a significant study, establishing emphatically that the vast majority of firearms crime was committed by those not holding firearms licences and who used unregistered guns – not by licensed shooters.

“The finding points to the argument that further measures to regulate legitimate handgun ownership are unlikely to have a meaningful effect on serious handgun crime,” APMC said. It said recent firearms trafficking or organised crime investigations revealed a substantial trade in illicit handguns, estimated to be more than 1000 a year and largely arising from division to the black market of legitimately imported handguns. Those guns were starting to emerge in commission of serious crime and there appear to be a number of mechanisms by which legitimately imported guns potentially reached the black market – dealer fraud, deactivation and then reactivation of functioning handguns and theft from dealers.

Where the Commonwealth could make an immediate impact was at the border with APMC saying there was at present no regulatory impediment to a dealer importing large quantities of handguns. One dealer appeared to have done just that by importing more than 1000 cheap Chinese handguns by way of at least three different jurisdictions. APMC said these guns were not of high quality and had limited application for sporting use, security industry or collectors.

Big dealer stockpiles also presented considerable risk of theft, diversion to the illicit market or dismantling or alteration so they disappeared from the regulatory system, APMC noting there had been several significant recent thefts of handguns and parts. In one, more than 350 complete handguns and parts for a further 250 had been stolen.

Then there was the issue of sale of deactivated handguns which was quite legal in some states. APMC said states held different approaches to deactivation of functioning handguns and depending on standard of deactivation, the gun might be restored simply by replacement of some parts, adding that differing standards and processes enabled a dealer to sell an easily reactivated firearm or the parts to enable reactivation or to falsely certify a handgun as deactivated then sell it. There was no requirement for licensing of owners or registration of deactivated handguns. “This is especially attractive to the black market since falsely certified ‘deactivated’ handguns can be sold to criminals without any checks or records of the buyer,” APMC said.

Ms Vanstone noted a case was currently before the Queensland courts of a dealer who legitimately imported more than 1000 handguns from China. Charges related to illegal modification, failure to complete records of sales and fraudulent issue of certificate of deactivation, some deactivated/reactivated guns having already surfaced in criminal investigations. In fact two Queensland dealers faced the courts and in 2003 both were acquitted, the court apparently accepting their standard of deactivation exceeded what the government required.

It appears the fundamental failing was with Queensland law which permitted the practice in the first place. That was speedily changed and state and territory laws have since gone substantially further by outlawing imitation guns, airsoft guns and most recently gel blasters, not because they pose any risk whatsoever but because they look too much like real guns. Deactivated then reactivated handguns are still out there.

The 2016 Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission report on Illicit Firearms in Australia noted a substantial number of handguns entered the illicit firearms pool through regulatory loopholes in legislation around deactivated firearms. “It is estimated more than 5000 handguns have entered the illicit market in this way,” it said.

“Issues around deactivation are not limited to a single jurisdiction. The ACIC’s FTP (Firearms Trace Program) has identified a number of previously deactivated firearms that have been reactivated. The most significant loophole relating to deactivation was in Queensland’s firearms legislation which was subsequently changed in 2000.”

In its 2000 submission, APMC did warn that tighter border controls might generate an increase in use of clandestine means to import handguns for the illicit market and in the two decades since that has certainly been the case. In 2017 police busted a gang in Sydney which imported 130 Glock handguns from Germany and sold them on the black market. Australian Federal Police and Australian Border Force officers have also made a number of busts of handgun and rifle components which criminals have sought to smuggle into the country hidden in otherwise innocuous items.

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