On December 12 last year when many Australians were contemplating the Christmas break, Constables Matthew Arnold (26), Rachel McCrow (29) and local man Alan Dare (58) arrived at a remote Queensland property for what they thought would be a routine check on a resident. In what followed, all three were shot dead in a brutal ambush and subsequently the three culprits – brothers Gareth and Nathaniel Train and Gareth’s wife Stacey – were shot and killed by responding police.
Much of what occurred, the how and the why of this tragedy, hasn’t been revealed but will no doubt emerge at the inquest. What this did initiate though was a renewed push for a national firearms registry, linking the different state and territory registries into a more seamless whole, allowing police anywhere to check on the licensing and registration status of any person and any firearm.
In the case of the shootings at Wieambilla, a rural locality on the Darling Downs in south-east Queensland, the issue is whether police might have behaved differently, with more caution and perhaps greater numbers had they known of the guns and background of those at the property. According to media reports Gareth Train was a rabid conspiracy theorist, an active participant in conspiracy websites, sovereign citizen, anti-vaxxer and gun enthusiast hostile to government and police.
The officers’ visit to the property apparently had a dual purpose, one a request from NSW for a welfare check on Nathaniel Train initiated by his estranged wife (he hadn’t been in contact since October). The other was a separate check on Train over an incident on December 17, 2021 when he apparently tried to sneak from NSW into Queensland by backroads at the height of Covid lockdowns. His vehicle became bogged at the border crossing and for some reason he abandoned two registered firearms. The warrant related to a breach of Covid restrictions.
Police had unsuccessfully visited the property previously seeking to locate Nathaniel Train so was there any reason to believe this visit would be any different? Again the inquest might shed some light. Train held a NSW firearms licence which had been suspended at the time of the shootings because of the border incident, police subsequently saying they found six firearms at the property, two registered to Nathaniel Train, three unregistered and one unknown.
So were there any red flags which may have alerted police to the danger their officers might face at this remote property that day? Again we’ll have to wait for the inquest, though the mainstream media was already running stories about how this might all have been prevented had there been an effective national gun registration regime. This is a longstanding issue.
In the 1996 National Firearms Agreement (NFA) those jurisdictions without firearms registration (NSW, Queensland and Tasmania) agreed to create registration systems, while the others were required to review their existing registration systems so databases could be linked. And so was developed the National Firearms Licensing and Registration System (NFLRS) to serve as an Australia-wide reference library for police and law enforcement agencies. That has passed through various incarnations and in 2002 CrimTrac took over its management which, for shooters, meant unfortunate connotations. Were we criminals in need of tracking?
Most recently individual state and territory registries were linked by way of the Australian Firearms Information Network (AFIN), previously known as the National Firearms Interface and operated by the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC). AFIN was commissioned in 2018-19, requiring states and territories to transition to the new improved new system.
What’s proposed now appears to be what was aspired to back in 1996 but if seamlessly linking registries was cheap and simple, it would’ve been done long before now. Considering the ambitions, history, diversity of data and legacy of state and territory systems, what’s proposed has the potential to be the IT project from hell, costing a fortune and taking forever to implement. The underlying problem is the existing national system has never worked very well and has been described as ‘clunky’.
Some of the shortcomings have been highlighted in various inquiries. The one into the 2014 Martin Place siege suggested authorities experienced challenges in ascertaining the status of the gun used by the perpetrator. This seems curious as that perpetrator had never held a NSW firearms licence and was in possession of a pump-action shotgun (banned for pretty much everyone since 1996) which had its barrel and stock shortened.
In the report of the 2015 Senate committee inquiry into firearm-related violence (initiated by the Greens), CrimTrac said NFLRS was a capability which did its best to bring information to a single place but didn’t replace the local system. Even the newest state registration systems and their databases hark back to the 1996 NFA, when the priority was getting it all up and running quickly, not so much ensuring they could effectively communicate outside their state or territory.
Furthermore, any IT system requiring manual data entry of all those serial numbers, calibres and firearm descriptors is bound to contain errors as many shooters have seen for themselves. And there’s more. Terminology isn’t standardised across the different state and territory registries. “There’s no consistency in terms of any of the systems we run when you run states and territories and a Commonwealth system. And that’s the difficulty of trying to run hybrid systems,” former ACIC head Mike Phelan told a Senate estimates committee in March 2021.
And to put it at its kindest, some state registries just don’t work very well. A 2020 report by the Queensland Auditor-General found a stack of problems with the police-run licensing and registration system, as the firearms register was neither accurate nor up-to-date and was no longer fit-for-purpose, it said.
A 2019 Auditor-General report said WA Police’s key firearm licensing information system didn’t effectively support the entity to carry out its licensing and compliance activities. Basic licence and compliance information was unreliable and hard to get, the Auditor said. “It was disappointing to find that Police still has significant weaknesses in its regulatory controls and information systems, particularly given that this Office in its 2009 and 2013 audits had previously reported many of these weaknesses,” it said. In 2019 the NSW Auditor concluded information on the state’s firearms registry was inaccurate and out of date.
And so getting on for three decades after a national system was first proposed, something which actually works could finally be in sight. After some back and forth between the Commonwealth, states and territories, the go-ahead emerged from an extraordinary meeting of the Police Ministers Council in Sydney on April 3.
Here’s Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus: “We want this Register because we want to ensure we’re doing everything we can to prevent an incident like Wieambilla occurring again,” he said. “We want to keep our police and communities safe. What the National Register will do is create a single shared record of firearms and firearms owners. It’ll give us the ability to trace firearms throughout their life in Australia and police say this will let them assess risk better than they currently can.”
A post-meeting communique set out the broad objectives and a discussion paper went into a little more detail on what the register aims to achieve. The national register will be able to operate in near real-time, supply details of licence holders and provide a single firearm record with technical details, identity and history. It will be inter-operable between jurisdictions, linking firearms and individuals and where possible will make use of existing systems.
That does suggest entire state or territory systems (or elements) deemed beyond remediation will be replaced and significantly, considering what happened at Wieambilla, it’ll provide notification of cross-jurisdictional movement of firearms. So does that mean anyone heading interstate on a hunting trip or to a competition will have to give notice? We don’t know, although that’s already the situation for any shooter travelling to Western Australia.
The discussion paper says that in providing better information on firearm movements (import, export, interstate transfer and ownership), the Register would also aim to increase identification of the movement of firearms to the illicit market “allowing law enforcement to take decisive and timely action to locate and seize these firearms”.
“The sharing of information between jurisdictions could also facilitate efficient administration of licensing, permit and registration systems, decreasing regulatory impost on the firearms community through reducing duplication, while ensuring vital information can be shared between registries,” it says. Any move to reduce the regulatory impost on the firearms community is to be welcomed but on this one we’ll hold judgment.
There’s more. The National Registry, the paper says, would provide a single shared record that uniquely identifies each firearm in Australia, as well as each non-government individual or entity authorised to possess a firearm. It would provide a view of firearms in Australia with an ability to track movement between entities, from import or manufacture to export or destruction. It should feature an alert or notification function for prescribed high risk information or events. For example it would raise a red flag for rejected, suspended or cancelled licences, interstate transfers, detected non-compliance with licence conditions, stolen firearms and ongoing probity checks.
The discussion paper poses some questions, some unexceptional, but number two asks: Should a National Firearms Register trace more than firearms, for example firearm accessories, magazines, parts and ammunition? From the viewpoint of the shooting community the answer should be an emphatic ‘No!’ Firstly it’s challenging enough just tracking firearms and secondly, any tracking regime would require those parts, accessories, magazines to be individually identified by serial number, creating a bureaucratic nightmare and delivering no conceivable community safety benefit.
The discussion paper does suggest firearms dealers will play a greater role. “The contribution authorised firearms dealers make to community safety could be strengthened as part of a Register,” it says. “Specifically, a Register could improve how trusted entities engage with firearms registries by providing a verification service to support licensing and permit systems, capable of electronically verifying any firearms licence or permit issued in Australia.” Furthermore, dealers would be able to electronically submit and manage information on stock and make relevant reports to registries.