Port Arthur: What have we learned 25 years on?

OPINION John Maxwell in Canberra

Twenty five years after the Port Arthur tragedy Australia’s gun laws are 1: A model for the rest of the world especially the US or 2: Teetering on the verge of collapse through undermining by a well-resourced pro-gun lobby. The answer is neither, although there was no stopping members of the anti-gun gang when they gathered for a seminar on the eve of the 25th anniversary to reflect on the national policy response.

Shooters will well remember that time. Despite having done no wrong we were compelled to surrender cherished firearms because of the murderous actions of a madman. Quarter of a century on the National Firearms Agreement (NFA) introduced by Prime Minister John Howard remains firmly in place. There’s no sign we’ll ever get our semi-autos back and, despite no state or territory fully implementing the NFA, neither is there any sign of it crumbling.

Curiously coinciding with the 25th anniversary, Australia’s gun laws were widely discussed in the US media, though that was more to do with the first tentative steps of the new Biden Administration to impose some gun controls, hence the international interest in the online seminar staged by Sydney University’s School of Public Health seminar.

Sydney Uni gives itself a big pat on the back for its role in Australia’s gun control journey. It provided the office space from which the Coalition for Gun Control (CGC), now Gun Control Australia (GCA) and its frontperson Rebecca Peters campaigned for national gun laws following Port Arthur. It also hosts gunpolicy.org, the global website run by anti-gun academic Philip Alpers, one of those speaking at the April 27 seminar.

Other speakers were Ms Peters, Federal Labor MP Andrew Leigh (convenor of the parliamentary Friends of Gun Control group) and US academic Professor David Hemingway (professor of public health policy at Harvard School of Public Health). So what did we learn from this? The answer would appear to be not much we didn’t already know as, beyond a couple of observations, foreign onlookers wouldn’t have gained much to advance their agendas.

One observation worth repeating was the utter shock of Port Arthur. There’d been gun spree killings in Australia previously but the 35 victims – ordinary people visiting a historic site – was at that time the largest mass shooting of its type anywhere in the world. “For American listeners, 35 dead in a country of 18 million people is equivalent to a gun massacre in the US today that claimed 600 lives,” said Mr Leigh.

“It had an extraordinary impact on the country and one of the really striking thigs was the speed with which authorities acted. Even before all the bodies had been laid to rest, just 12 days after the tragedy, police ministers from states and territories were meeting to discuss tightening Australia’s gun laws.”

Another point is Australia’s gun law changes were spearheaded by a conservative prime minister. Would a Labor PM have achieved comparable results in convincing conservative states? Maybe not. That would appear to have relevance in the US where Democrat President Joe Biden has launched some modest measures. But what if Donald Trump had stood up following the October 2017 Las Vegas massacre (60 dead) to declare: “I know this will be hard for many of you but enough is enough.” As if.

Compared to many places, especially the US, Australia’s gun laws are regarded as a great success though statistically that’s far more ambiguous. Australia’s firearms murder rate was falling before Port Arthur and continued afterwards – it’s not as though the gun death rate peaked in April 1996 then dropped like a stone. That pre-Port Arthur decline has been attributed to various factors including growing urbanisation and states and territories progressively implementing more rigorous licensing procedures.

Some have argued the NFA accelerated that process which is arguable at best. The anti-firearms crowd are on firmer ground in pointing to the abrupt decline in mass shootings after ’96, an achievement which seems all the more laudable with every new mass shooting in the US. According to a report on the US National Public Radio (NPR) website there were 194 mass shootings there this year up to May 10 – we only hear of the most significant. The US now defines ‘mass’ as four or more victims killed or injured, excluding the shooter. To allow consistent comparison over 25 years, gunpolicy.org has stuck with a definition of five dead, excluding the perpetrator.

Australia’s record as Mr Alpers acknowledged isn’t perfect. In May 2018 a man shot dead six members of his family then himself, the worst such incident since ’96. Not acknowledged are other mass murders with higher death tolls but no involvement of guns – the Childers backpackers hostel fire (15 dead), arson during the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires (10) and the 2011 Quakers Hill nursing home fire (11).

The latest homicide figures (2018-19) released by the Australian Institute of Criminology under its three-decade homicide monitoring program show 35 incidents of murder by gun, up from 23 (the lowest ever) in 2017-18 but consistent with numbers across the past decade, that’s half the number killed by knives. What the AIC study doesn’t reveal is how many of those who committed murder by gun held licences and used registered firearms.

Another AIC study released in 2000 and covering the period 1997-99 found the overwhelming majority – more than 90 per cent – of 117 gun homicide offenders were unlicensed and used unregistered firearms. Has that changed in two decades? We just don’t know, highlighting an issue agreed on both sides of this debate – the dearth of good data.

The propensity of criminals to use guns to commit crimes isn’t at all well acknowledged by those agitating for more gun control. Mr Alpers said police conducting unannounced inspections were discovering high levels of non-compliance on the premises of enthusiasts who called themselves law-abiding gun owners “until they’re blue in the face”.

“It’s the blindness to the fact that lawful gun owners are actually part of the problem. The proportion of particularly mass shooters who are lawful gun owners is very very high,” he said. “It’s the majority, yet here we still have all these people saying I’m a law-abiding sporting shooter. Shooters are not a distinct species of people who should be treated differently. They’re just like us, they are us. We need to treat people with guns in the same way we treat people with other lethal objects like cars.”

Certainly a small number of obsessive collectors and some licensed shooters have committed appalling crimes but it’s not licensed shooters conducting drive-by shootings in the suburbs, murdering gang rivals or being busted in possession of commercial quantities of drugs and cash along with illegal handguns.

Alpers did acknowledge the proliferation of police task forces across the country to tackle the problem of illicit firearms and that was having a measurable effect. For a bit of shock and horror, gunpolicy.org released their latest research on gun numbers showing Australian civilians now own more than 3.5 million registered firearms among 868,000 licensed owners (an average of four each).

“It’s clear those who already own guns have bought more, while those who don’t own guns are becoming more numerous,” Alpers said. “Polling confirms this with the proportion of Australian households with a firearm falling by 75 per cent in recent decades.” Unstated but implied was more guns equals more death, something simply not borne out by the statistics.

What seems to bug gun controllers is what Alpers termed “a perverse and unintended consequence” of Howard’s gun law reforms. For a large number of shooters, establishing the genuine reason of sports shooting requires membership of a shooting organisation and for most that’s the SSAA with its established clubs and ranges in each state and territory. SSAA membership now exceeds 200,000, up from around 40,000 pre-Port Arthur.

Alpers said the NFA guaranteed the country’s pro-gun lobby group an uncapped income in perpetuity from a government tax on shooters. “It’s not hard to see war-chests like that being used to try and roll back Australia’s gun laws,” he said.

Ms Peters added: “At least the amount of money going to the gun lobby could be balanced out if similar funds were being provided to people who were concerned to maintain the laws.” In other words, the Government should hand us money. Again there’s an unstated view that shooters should have no voice and meekly accede to whatever restriction government imposes, even when said restriction will produce no public safety benefit whatsoever.

The NFA was handed down by John Howard on May 10, 1996 and among gun-controllers has gained status of holy writ, perfect and immutable from the outset. Alpers again: “From day one, no Australian state or territory fully complied with the NFA. All of them ignore the nationally agreed ban on gun ownership by under-18s.” That’s simply untrue. The initial NFA was the subject of much back-and-forth between the Commonwealth, states and territories to clarify certain elements and nut out the fine detail.

The NFA was initially silent on junior shooters beyond setting a minimum licence age of 18. On June 11, 1996 Federal Cabinet agreed it would propose to the states that: “. . . the position of under-age shooters under the Police Ministers’ resolutions be clarified to indicate that all jurisdictions would allow and continue to allow persons under the age of 18 but above a specified minimum age to use lawful firearms in supervised situations.” Not sure how much clearer that could be.

“In summary,” said Alpers, “the pillars of the NFA do remain solid but there’s never-ending pressure to weaken the public safety provisions that were agreed in 1996. While Australians proudly tell themselves and especially tell those in other countries the country’s gun problems have been overcome, complacency will always remain a threat.”

In one area the gun-controllers do make a fair point. With the introduction of standardised licensing procedures and firearms registration it was always envisaged state and territory registries would be integrated to create a seamless nationally accessible system. More than two decades on we’re still waiting. Further, even within some states and territories their systems are far from perfect – it took a tragedy in NSW for the registry to embark on major reforms after it allowed a man with a long history of domestic abuse to acquire handguns which he used to murder his two children.

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