The truth about handgun use in Australia

Over the years, the Australian media has proven, through its reporting of erroneous firearms facts and figures, that it is generally incapable of differentiating between legal and illegal firearm use, particularly when it comes to handguns. As a result, politicians and vocal anti-gun campaigners use this information as fodder for their cause. For example, anti-gun Australian Greens leader Senator Bob Brown has previously, and incorrectly, stated “that there are 300,000 ‘hand-machine-guns’ in Australia, many of which are carried around or hidden in car ‘glove boxes’.” SSAA National used figures from the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) to verify that there were, at the time (September 2008), 145,123 registered handguns in Australia.

On October 28, 2008, South Australian Police Commissioner Mal Hyde admitted that the South Australia Police Department had inadvertently told the AIC that there were 41,599 handguns registered in the state, when, in fact, the figure at the time was closer to 14,599. Before the correction was made, the media used the incorrect figures in a number of articles on gun crime in an attempt to scare the public.

On August 24, 2010, The Sydney Morning Herald reported, “While it is impossible to know just how many illegal guns there are in Australia,, a website run by the school of Public Health at the University of Sydney, estimates the figure to be between 400,000 and 700,000. The vast majority of those firearms are registered and have been stolen from a house or business. They are not guns that have been smuggled into the country.”

When SSAA National contacted the AIC regarding these figures, senior research analyst Samantha Bricknell said the AIC tries not to “release numbers like that” because they are “impossible to estimate”. She also said, “From theft data, only about 3 to 5 per cent of firearms stolen in a year are used in a crime or associated with an offence.” AIC reports on firearm theft within Australia released in both May 2000 and April 2007 also indicate that handguns were the least type of firearm stolen.

In addition to conversations with the AIC, the SSAA has been in contact with each state and territory’s firearms unit to obtain the following accurate statistics on national handgun use. The figures in the accompanying table were correct as of August 2010.

Handgun licences and handguns in each state and territory
State/territory Handguns licences Handguns registered
ACT 389 1242
NSW 11,135 38,752
NT 1129 3427
Qld 12,769 33,795
SA 3557 18,480
Tas 1657 4287
Vic 1292 10,540
WA * 10,267 **
Notes: * WA issues non-category specific firearms licences, which means people are entitled to possess, carry and use firearms enumerated on that licence subject to any restrictions, limitations or conditions that may be applied. As a result, they do not have specific ‘handgun’ licences.
** Recorded against a firearms licence only.

National handgun regulations

Sporting handgun ownership in Australia has always been strictly regulated and continues to be so. Shooting competitions exist within a framework of police-approved clubs, which coordinate events on police-approved ranges across the nation. Excluding professionals such as veterinarians, security and law enforcement agencies and pastoralists, only sporting shooters who belong to and regularly attend handgun clubs can maintain their handgun ownership.

Gun laws are a state-based issue, so each of the scenarios that control the handgun shooting sports may vary slightly. However, in essence, the following may be taken as the general rule throughout Australia.

How to get a handgun licence

In order to receive a handgun licence, you need to let your local club know you are interested in joining. You must then undertake formalised safety training in the safe use of firearms. In some states, this is done within the club framework or the course is completed through an external agency. Safety training is required before the licensing process can begin. Some states require safety training, while others regulate that the registrar may require completion of a satisfactory course before issuing a licence.

You must then complete six months of probation within the club, during which time you are not allowed to purchase a handgun. Ongoing instruction about the club rules and firearm safety occurs within this time-frame, after which you may then, with club consent, apply to the registrar of firearms for a handgun licence.

As of December 2006, new club members are restricted to an initial purchase of a small-calibre target handgun. As a new club member, you must also have applied for and been granted a firearm licence, which is dependent upon a nationwide criminal record check, looking for a history of violence, warrants and domestic violence orders. You must also submit proof of successfully completing the firearms safety training course at the time of licence application.

Once you receive a firearm licence with your photograph attached, you can then visit a licensed firearm dealer and select a handgun that is suitable for the competition in which you intend to take part. This firearm may be a single-shot air pistol, a single-shot .22-calibre pistol or a .22-calibre revolver or self-loading pistol.

When the details of the selected firearm are known, they are submitted back to the police on an Approval to Purchase form, which is checked by police as to the correct details of the firearm, the current owner (seller), and that the person submitting the approval request is, in fact, in possession of a current firearm licence. There is a 28-day waiting period associated with this process. If the police approves the purchase, you will be notified in writing and can collect your handgun from the dealer upon producing your current photographic firearm licence and the Approval to Purchase form approved by the police. You then have 14 days to take the firearm to your nearest police station and register it in your name. (This is a South Australian policy and may vary in different states.)

After payment of the fee, you are only permitted to use the handgun at an approved range for an approved event within the approved club. This means that the handgun cannot be used for any purpose other than target shooting at the club. Breaching this purpose of use will result in punishment as defined by the Act. You must attend at least four to six club events a year to retain club membership and endorsement for a handgun category of your firearm licence. The clubs are bound to advise the registry if a member has not completed those events.

As a handgun owner, you are required to store your firearm under security arrangements defined under the Act and your state’s regulations. Gun safes usually cost about $400 to $800.

If you wish to purchase another handgun, you must go through the same process of approval to purchase, club endorsement, registration and secure storage regime. If you wish to sell a handgun, then it can only be sold to another licensed person (after the purchaser obtains an approval to purchase) or to a licensed firearm dealer.

“If you impose greater penalties on handgun owners, it is not going to impact on the persons who are likely to use them in crime.” (Jenny Mouzos, Australian Institute of Criminology, October 2002.)

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