National Register will be with us ‘in four years’

John Maxwell

At the height of the Afghanistan conflict I visited Kabul and the Afghan Army’s logistics hub, a large room where wizened old men in traditional garb hand-wrote details of equipment shipments in large hardcover ledgers. There wasn’t a computer in sight. Elements of Australia’s current national firearms registration system aren’t hugely different and while not quite in the same Dickensian state, they’re still far from 2024 digital database state-of-the art.

As most shooters are well aware, national firearms registration was implemented in the 1996 National Firearms Agreement (NFA) following the Port Arthur tragedy. Some state and territories already operated registration schemes but those which didn’t – Tasmania, Queensland and New South Wales – had to introduce them and fairly quickly. Yet doing so in a manner which would permit linkages across states, territories and the Commonwealth wasn’t highest priority.

We’re still living with the consequences. Despite a patchwork of reforms over more than two decades, they never worked very well and here are some reasons why. At the heart of Tasmania’s firearms registry is a filing cabinet full of paper records. Even Gun Control Australia grumbled that Tassie remained the only state still relying on paper forms and carbon copies for firearm registration.

Previously, Queensland firearms dealers mailed in paper forms to the state’s firearms branch where staff keyed details into computers, the consequence being delays of up to eight months in even the most basic transactions. Queensland is currently in the process of updating its registration system, fortuitous timing as the Commonwealth will now foot part of the bill.

Discrepancies between different state and territory registration systems have permitted some profound abuses. In July 2020, a Port Kembla gun dealer was jailed for 13 years for selling around 300 handguns to criminals. He did this undetected for six years by forging forms to the NSW Firearms Registry indicating he’d sold those guns interstate. Criminals source guns anywhere they can from theft, the ‘grey’ market and illicit imports, though dodgy dealers have contributed significantly to arming the underworld and gangland wars in Sydney and Melbourne.

The impetus for finally creating a truly national registration system emerged from the Wieambilla shootings of December 12, 2022. In that tragedy, a trio of religious conspiracy cranks shot dead Constables Matthew Arnold (26) and Rachel McCrow (29) along with local Alan Dare (58), when they arrived at a remote Queensland property for what they anticipated would be an unexceptional check on a resident.

Police in turn shot dead brothers Gareth and Nathaniel Train and Gareth’s wife Stacey. Police subsequently said they located six firearms, two registered to Nathaniel Train, three unregistered and one unknown. According to The Australian newspaper, Nathaniel Train owned guns simultaneously registered in both NSW and Queensland.

That’s indicative of the kind of issues a national registry would resolve, though it’s hard to see what benefit it may have delivered to Train, other than satisfaction at messing with a system he despised and perhaps a hope his guns might disappear down bureaucratic cracks. Would police have behaved differently, with more caution and perhaps greater numbers had they known of the guns at the property? If they had information which might have emerged with better linkages between Queensland and NSW firearms registries? Maybe the inquest, now in its preliminary stages, will deliver a clearer picture.

The decision to finally stitch together the differing state and territory registries into a seamless whole emerged from meetings of state, territory and Commonwealth  officials and was announced by Attorney General Mark Dreyfus last December. He said this would ensure police across all Australian jurisdictions had timely and accurate information to assess any firearms risk and protect the community from harm.

“It will address significant gaps and inconsistencies with the way firearms are managed across states and territories, allowing the near real-time information about firearms ownership to be shared across the country,” he said. “Establishment of the Register will enable the connection of firearms information with key risk information for police to act upon. This will include police intelligence, criminal records and other relevant government and court information.”

If creating a national registration system was cheap and easy it surely would’ve been done by now. For all the talk about the need for a national system, it appears it may only have happened because the Commonwealth agreed to pay a significant component of the tab, especially for the smaller jurisdictions.

As surely as night follows day, the states and territories cried poor and stuck their hands out for Commonwealth funding to meet the substantial outlay involved, with cost-sharing arrangements still being finalised. The total will run to $250 million with the Commonwealth paying half the bill for NSW, Queensland, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia and three-quarters for the ACT, Northern Territory and Tasmania. Final costs are subject to each jurisdiction’s budget and procurement processes.

The plan is for all this to be fully operational in four years from July 1. When fully implemented, the national register will be a central information-sharing hub, providing data to and from existing Commonwealth, state and territory registries, portals and firearm management systems. This will feature fully standardised data. One of the hindrances of the existing system has been differing terminology across registries, for example describing types of firearms.

Delivering overall direction will be the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC), which will lead the technical build of the central register and coordinate state and territory registry uplifts to ensure compatibility and interoperability. However, each jurisdiction will be responsible for their own development and procurement processes.

The central register will be managed by ACIC, while states and territories will remain responsible for their own registries, processing firearms transactions including licensing, registration and change of ownership. The aim is to maximise online or digital transactions, which will be reflected in the central register in near real-time.

As most shooters well know, most firearms-related transactions begin with a paper form which someone somewhere has to key into a computer, with potential for delays and errors. Much of that could be done online, particularly for dealers, updating the central register almost instantaneously. The government says most activity will be internal and have limited to zero impact on individual shooters.

On the plus side, it says improving internal processes, systems and data quality will likely result in benefits for individuals and businesses, including streamlined processing times for firearm transactions, electronic verification of firearms licences and more consistency between states and territories.

A discussion paper released ahead of the final decision for a national registry canvassed extending registration to firearm ancillaries such as magazines, components and ammunition. Yet sensibly the new register will track only complete firearms, frames and receivers and suppressors. There will be no requirement for every firearm to undergo identification and recording of serial numbers, as occurred in 1996 in jurisdictions where registration previously didn’t exist. However each jurisdiction will continue its own processes, for example an unregistered firearm coming into the system would still need to be identified and its serial number recorded.

Historically, SSAA hasn’t backed firearms registration, regarding it as contributing little to community safety, creating a vast expensive bureaucracy directed solely at licensed shooters and having minimal impact on criminal use of guns. However registration is here to stay and the Association believes it should work properly.

“The Sporting Shooters’ Association of Australia supports the concept of a National Firearms Register, giving the ability for law enforcement to better carry out their duties and be safer and fully informed when doing so,” said SSAA Media and Politics Officer Rachael Oxborrow. “We support the need for evidence-based regulation of legal civilian firearm ownership when public safety benefits can be clearly identified.”

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