State gun laws still at loggerheads

John Maxwell

Here’s something you don’t see too often – politicians from both sides declaring they’ll overturn a police move to tighten gun laws. That’s what’s happening in Tasmania, where Police Commissioner Donna Adams announced in January they’d eliminate an exemption excluding pre-1900 firearms from licensing, registration and storage requirements.

From what police said the exemption only (or mostly) applied to antique muzzleloaders, many of them family heirlooms and pieces held by collectors. This came into effect on January 18 with Tasmanian police embarking on a transition project, warning those who own antique firearms must now take steps to ensure they complied. For those without a licence that would involve disposing of the firearm or acquiring a licence and going through the registration process. Not on, responded the Liberals. “We’ve listened and accept that the changes introduced recently don’t get the balance right,” said Felix Ellis, who just happens to be Tasmania’s police minister.

Labor promptly promised to match the Liberals’ commitment to amend the laws. Not surprisingly the Greens were unhappy, as was Roland Browne of Gun Control Australia. “The Liberal and Labor parties have decided they know best when it comes to community safety and that is just so wrong,” he said.

Tasmania was heading for a state election on March 23, the outcome of which will be history as you read this. At time of writing the Liberals were in power on the island state, the last Liberal state government standing in a nation of Labor state, territory and federal governments. Tasmanian state governments are inevitably finely balanced and at the 2021 election, the Liberal Party was re-elected to a third term with 13 of the 25 House of Assembly seats, Labor nine, Greens two and one independent. For the March election the parliament increased to 35 seats, opening the way for more minor party and independents MPs.

As shooters well know, Tasmania’s where it all started. With the Port Arthur tragedy and 1996 National Firearms Agreement, the state’s permissive laws gave way to laws generally consistent with the rest of the nation. And they certainly weren’t out of step with an exemption for pre-1900 guns. For example Victoria permits possession of pre-1900 long-arms and handguns with a licence, however they must be muzzleloaders or those firing metallic cartridges, which aren’t commercially available. In practice that means flintlocks, matchlocks and their kin and even remote-controlled model warship cannons.

Queensland takes a similar approach but does require registration of pre-1900 handguns, though no licence. NSW doesn’t exempt pre-1900 revolvers. Tasmanian police justified the crackdown on old guns as improving community safety. “A firearm can be used to intimidate or threaten, regardless of whether it can be fired.  That’s why replica firearms aren’t legal,” said Assistant Commissioner Rob Blackwood.

But if there was any specific incident or incidents to back the need for this change, police made no mention. Yet the exemption was problematic for a number of reasons, they said. First off it wasn’t actually legal. Under the Tasmanian Firearms Act, the Commissioner didn’t have the power to exclude a whole category of firearms. Furthermore, the exemption appears to have been broadly interpreted, apparently allowing some people to own firearms able to fire commercially available cartridges. There are of course a significant number of pre-1900 firearms which work perfectly well with appropriate factory ammunition, for example various models of Winchester.

Police also said it was difficult to determine whether commercial cartridge ammunition was available for a particular firearm, technological advancements meaning previously obsolete cartridges were now available. It was also difficult to determine a firearm’s actual year of manufacture.

Assuming the Liberals have been returned to office, the government will legislate to ensure antique gunowners are able to safely store their firearms “while respecting the value these antique pieces offer”. However, that won’t be the broad exemption which previously existed.

Ellis said there’d be no licensing requirement or need for owners to sit a firearms safety course, though any guns manufactured before January 1, 1900 would need to be registered with Tasmania Police. They’ll also need to be securely stored to prevent theft though that won’t apply to cartridge firearms, no matter whether pre-1900 or for which commercial ammo is unavailable.

So what about Labor? “A Tasmanian Labor Government will match the Liberals’ commitment to amend the law and ensure antique gunowners can keep their firearms without having to obtain a gun licence and comply with other recent changes,” said Labor MP Shane Broad.

But Tasmanian shooters face yet another challenge – a decision by the state’s Court of Criminal Appeal which, on the face of it, appears to mean anyone borrowing a friend’s gun could be guilty of firearms trafficking. Further to that, police could be in the same predicament as they technically don’t own the guns they carry on a daily basis.

How could this be, you may well ask? It all started in October 2020 when Tasmanian police searched a man’s home and found an air rifle and homemade .22 pistol, which he admitted he’d acquired from another person, apparently for two packs of cigarettes. Neither was registered. He was duly charged with Unlawful Trafficking in Firearms based on his admission he received the guns from other persons and transported them from one place to another.

He pleaded guilty but the judge vacated his plea on grounds there was no intention to sell or pass them to another person, based on the ordinary meaning of the term trafficking. The Tasmanian Attorney General then appealed and that’s when it gets very legalistic. The Court of Appeal ruled the trial judge erred in directing the jury it was open to the accused to rebut the presumption he was trafficking in guns by proving, on the balance of probabilities, he was not trafficking. Got it?

Though in this case the guns were unregistered and the defendant apparently unlicensed, this appears to have significant implications for licensed Tasmanian shooters who, for example, take a friend’s legally-owned and registered gun on a hunting trip. And possibly police too. Clearly the defendant committed various breaches of the state’s gun laws but it seems highly questionable to label him a firearms trafficker.

Now the Tasmanian election is run and done, politicians examining the legislation relating to pre-1900 firearms could usefully also turn their eye to fixing this issue. And Tassie isn’t the only state adjusting weapons laws, as late last year Queensland announced a ban on the sale of replica firearms such as gel blasters, along with edged weapons, to under-18s.

Juvenile knife crime and knife crime in general has long been a problem in Queensland, as it is in many other places. That was tragically highlighted on February 3 this year when Vyleen White, 70, was stabbed and killed in a robbery attempt in a shopping centre carpark in Ipswich. A 16-year-old has been charged with her murder.

In May 2023, Queensland passed what was termed Jack’s Law, granting police greater powers to stop and search for concealed knives on public transport and nightclub precincts. That followed the murder of Jack Beasley, 17, who was stabbed to death in 2019 outside a Surfers Paradise convenience store during a night out with friends. In practice that means police deploying handheld metal detectors, with a trial period on the Gold Coast in 2021 and 2022 detecting a worrying assortment of machetes, screwdrivers, flick-knives, knuckledusters, tasers and a replica gun.

Following Mrs White’s death the Queensland government moved to increase penalties, with a maximum 18-month jail term for a first offence of knife possession in public and two years for a second offence. The government also planned to fast-track laws prohibiting the sale to minors of knives as well as axes, swords, sickles, daggers, double-edged blades and spears, with retailers required to lock away sharp weapons. Vendors must also check identification before such items can be sold.

All of which brings Queensland more into line with other jurisdictions. For example NSW and the ACT ban knife sales to anyone under 16, while in Victoria, SA and WA that applies to under-18s. Typically exemptions apply for occupational use such as kitchen knives and small utility knives, such as those on multitools. Queensland remains the only Australian jurisdiction where gel blasters remain legal but clearly their sale to minors isn’t the main problem.

According to the latest Australian Institute of Criminology Homicide in Australia study, for 2020-21 knives remain the most common murder weapon, used in 38 per cent of homicides (79), followed by firearms in 11 per cent (23) and hands and feet nine per cent (20). “Knives and other sharp instruments have consistently been the primary homicide weapon in Australia between 1989‒90 and 2020‒21, with 35 per cent (3071) of incidents,” the study said.

Across that period firearms were used in 17 per cent (1492) of homicides, falling from an average of 20 per cent in 1989‒90 to 1998‒99 to an average of 14 per cent during the following two decades.

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