This briefing paper provides a update of developments in firearms regulation in Australia and overseas since May 1996. The history of firearms laws in New South Wales, the events leading to the reform of those laws, and the arguments for and against gun control were discussed in the 1996 briefing paper Gun Control: Historical Perspective and Contemporary Overview.
- Nationwide Agreement on Firearms
At a special firearms meeting of the Australasian Police Ministers' Council ("APMC") on 10 May 1996, all Australian Governments reached an historic agreement for comprehensive firearms law reform. The eleven resolutions passed by the APMC became known as the "Nationwide Agreement on Firearms". Prior to the agreement, firearms laws differed greatly across the States and Territories. Since the agreement, every State and Territory has made substantial changes to its firearms laws (page 1).
- Overview of the NSW Firearms Legislation
The NSW firearms laws changed on 1 July 1997 with the commencement of the Firearms Act 1996 (NSW) and the Firearms (General) Regulation 1997 (NSW). Under the new regime any current licence holder had to apply for a new licence before 30 July 1998. The most significant changes to the gun laws were as follows:
Under section 92 of the Firearms Act 1996, a review of its operation is to be conducted 3 years after the date of its assent and a report tabled in Parliament within 12 months after the end of the 3-year period (pages 1-10).
- a general ban on the use of semi-automatic rifles and shotguns and pump action shotguns, except for specific purposes;
- new licence categories;
- the introduction of a single licence which can cover multiple licence categories;
- proof of genuine reasons for a licence and special need for some licence categories;
- the introduction of firearms registration;
- new storage requirements.
- Comparison of the NSW firearms laws with the Nationwide Agreement on Firearms
New South Wales substantially complies with the Nationwide Agreement and subsequent resolutions of the APMC. Areas of non-compliance include membership of recreational hunting clubs as a genuine reason for owning or possessing a firearm, the provision for minors' permits, the lack of a maximum limit on the amount of ammunition that can be purchased in a given period, the absence of a prohibition of the commercial transport of firearms with ammunition, and the lack of mandatory and approved safety training courses for first time licence applicants (pages 10-19).
- Comparative Overview - Firearms Legislation in other States and Territories
All States and Territories have made significant changes to their firearms laws to bring them into line with the Nationwide Agreement on Firearms, although no jurisdiction fully complies with Agreement. In contrast to a number of other States and Territories, New South Wales complies with the APMC resolutions with respect to the 28 day waiting period for licences and permits, and the physical need and ACTA affiliated club requirements for access to Category C firearms for clay target shooting.
The question as to whether the reforms which have taken place in recent years do, in fact, constitute a uniform national scheme is open to conflicting interpretations. There are differences between the various jurisdictions, some of which are points of detail. However others are more substantial in nature, such as the varying requirements in place for firearms safety training courses (pages 19-34).
- The Number of Firearms and Firearm Owners
In brief, there are no accurate figures on the number of firearms and the number of firearm owners in Australia. Prior to the enactment of the new firearm laws, there was no national register of firearms, and figures are not yet available from the new national register. Further, in addition to legally held firearms, the number of illegally held firearms must be considered. Clearly, only estimates of the number of illegal firearms can be given and opinions differ on the appropriate estimates.
Under the 1996-97 national buyback scheme, 643,726 firearms which were prohibited under the new laws were handed in. Opinions differ on how many prohibited firearms were not surrendered. Estimates of the percentage of prohibited firearms handed in range from 43% to 80%.
At the time of writing, the NSW Firearms Registry is unable to provide statistics as it has had problems with its system, and is currently reviewing its data. However, in August 1999, the Sydney Morning Herald published an article stating that a preliminary assessment of information from the Registry shows that 993,000 firearms are registered in NSW. However, the article stated that this figure is likely to fall when the Registry completes its review of the database (pages 34-38).
- The Impact of the Nationwide Agreement on Firearms
The Australian Institute of Criminology is monitoring the effect of the new guns laws and has recently concluded that it is still too soon to determine definitively whether Australia's uniform laws have achieved their aim in reducing firearm-related violence and misuse. However, preliminary findings indicate a decline in firearm-related deaths (pages 38-39 ).
- Proposals for Amendments to the New Firearms Laws
Since the introduction of the new firearms laws, both sides of the gun control debate have expressed dissatisfaction with aspects of the laws and have argued for amendments. Some States have amended the laws contrary to some aspects of the Nationwide Agreement. Areas where there have been calls for amendment include waiver of the 28-day period, access to Category C firearms for members of non-ACTA clubs, changes to the genuine reason of recreational hunting, inspection of storage facilities, minors' permits, removal of guns from homes in cities and towns, banning of semi-automatic handguns, and increased training requirements (pages 39-51).
- Overseas Developments
Australia is not alone in the attention being given to firearms control. In the past few years there have been worldwide increases in the level of interest in firearms regulation. In particular, there have been significant recent developments in Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. In addition, the United Nations is taking an active interest in firearms regulation (pages 51-58).