US needs public safety focus, not gun control grandstanding

Gun control is expected to be a major political focal point in the United States in 2024 as President Biden’s campaign for re-election kicks into gear. This agenda has been directly motivated by mass shootings in American schools and rightful outrage over these events in the community.

His most recent efforts to expand background checks for firearms purchases is in the final stages of approval following more than 12 months of executive action on the plan via the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act. It began in 2022, when Congress passed and President Biden signed into law bipartisan legislation to help address this check by modifying the definition of who must become a federally licensed firearms dealer. Then, earlier this year, President Biden signed an executive order to expand the use of background checks for firearm purchases in the US, requiring a dealer to employ this measure.

This is not without teething problems; however, with the NRA Institute for Legislative Action (NRA-ILA) outlining that the classification of a ‘dealer’ could capture someone selling a firearm privately even just once and potentially forcing a background check each time.

Biden has long made calls for ‘assault weapons’ to be banned, but commentators expect this will never come to fruition and instead policing and community programs will make up the firearms reform measures he spruiks. Considering the academic world is mixed and unclear on whether tightening of firearm controls causes a reduction in firearm-related deaths, this may be a more effective approach in improving public safety. In Australia, in particular, research out of the Australian Institute of Criminology points to an unlicensed person with an unregistered, illegal firearm who is responsible for crimes and, in almost all cases, crimes are drug, gang and organised crime related. Bans, buybacks and firearms laws directly affect law-abiding civilians motivated to follow the law to own and use firearms legally.

At state level across the US, many changes are occurring within local firearm laws. In the state of New York, the New York State Police will now conduct all firearm and ammunition-related background checks, replacing the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in this role. There are numerous bills in the works in California, including fee increases for ammunition eligibility check requests, criteria for carry permits, annual training for firearm dealers and employees, an 11 per cent excise tax on sales of all firearms, parts and ammunition to go to a ‘gun violence fund’ and more.

The ongoing debate, changes and federal focus on firearms in the US are very different conversations to what would be had in Australia. Unlike America, where the Second Amendment gives their citizens the right to bear arms, Australians don’t have such rights. In a Western democratic system, however, we do have the freedom to own and use firearms. We also have to prove that we are a fit and proper person for that freedom.

For the licensed law-abiding firearm owner, our firearms licence represents a good check of character and that we are a fit and proper person who can be trusted by society.

We use our firearms for sporting or food-gathering purposes, whether it’s competing at the shooting range or hunting for the table to the benefit of the environment, as well as removing foxes, feral cats, goats and pigs, and other introduced species. Hunting is Australia’s oldest and safest outdoor recreational activity.

Social commentary often considers Australia to be like the US in many ways, but when it comes to firearms there is a fundamental difference in laws, attitude to ownership and use. This centres around the Constitution of the United States and the Second Amendment referring to ‘the right of the people to keep and bear Arms’. SSAA National is often approached to comment on occurrences in the US involving firearms and we all bear witness to the fear mongering in media and politics that Australia could ‘end up like the US’ if firearm laws are relaxed. An unfounded attempt at sensationalism when you consider the sheer population and America’s National Rifle Association has similar goals to that of SSAA National but a very different operating environment and modes of action, namely due to the Second Amendment rights of their members. The NRA also sits in a space where the First Amendment dictates a freedom of speech in law and instances of groups and organisations trying to silence this speech or make it harder to operate is becoming more prevalent. Most recently the NRA has called out New York authorities, politicians and office holders for attempting to silence the NRA by impacting its financial operations by calling on banks and insurance companies to cut ties with the Association. These tactics are not limited to the US however, with some banking systems and travel companies having discriminated against Australian firearm owners and the firearms industry in the past.

SSAA National operates advocacy and lobbying functions in the national political sphere and is in regular contact with relevant entities and departments such as the Attorney-General’s Department. Australia’s political system means licensing and hunting laws are handled at a state and territory level, meaning SSAA state and territory associations are in the position to lobby, advocate and respond to these functions. In the federal space, where SSAA National operates, representation is largely related to border controls, the National Firearms Agreement and any matters that rise to the federal level such as recent discussions around a National Firearm Register.

In the US, the states have legislative control over their jurisdictions and when it comes to federal regulation of firearm laws, the President’s powers are limited, unless there is congressional support. He can direct existing processes that would affect background checks or import controls, but the reality is state and local officials control firearm laws. This means Biden’s stance on firearm laws leading in to his re-election campaign is likely more about popularity and winning votes than getting to the root of America’s public safety issue when it comes to illegal firearm use.

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