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Australian gun laws


The recent mass shooting in Connecticut in the United States has led to commentators to again consider Australia’s approach to firearms controls following, in particular, the 1996 Port Arthur Massacre which involved the use of several assault rifles, and also the 2002 Monash shootings perpetrated with a semi-automatic pistol.

National agreements by Australian governments after each incident formed the basis of current regulatory controls.

Responsibility for the regulation of firearms in Australia 

The form of the two national agreements reflects the allocation of regulatory authority for firearms under the Australian Constitution. State and territory governments are responsible for regulating ownership, licensing, use and sale of firearms. The Commonwealth, consistent with its responsibility for border control, has authority over the import and export of firearms. 

1996 National Firearms Agreement

The Agreement committed all states and territories to a system of firearms licensing and registration. The terms of the Agreement included: 
  • banning automatic and semi-automatic firearms; 
  • limiting the availability of non-military style semi-automatic rifles and shotguns to primary producers, professional vertebrate pest controllers, and a limited class of clay target shooters; 
  • introducing registration for all firearms; 
  • grouping firearms into 5 broad licensing categories reflecting their characteristics and relative risk (see the list below); 
  • requiring all licence applicants to establish a genuine reason for firearms ownership; 
  • requiring licence applicants to establish that they have a genuine need for the particular category of firearm;           
  • requiring that permits be acquired for every new firearm purchase, with the issue of a permit to be subject to a waiting period of at least 28 days to enable appropriate checks to be made; 
  • stricter storage requirements for all firearms; and 
  • requiring all sales to be conducted by or through licensed firearms dealers. 

Examples of the firearms in the five licensing categories are: 
  • Category A: rimfire rifles, and single and double barrel shotguns. 
  • Category B: single shot and repeating centre fire rifles. 
  • Category C: semi automatic rimfire rifles with a magazine capacity no greater than 10 rounds; and semi automatic or pump action shotguns with a magazine capacity no greater than 5 rounds. 
  • Category D: self-loading centre fire rifles. 
  • Category H: handguns. 

This system is stricter than that of a number of comparable countries. 

First, and in contrast to the position in the United States, there is no legal right to gun ownership. Owning and using a firearm is limited in Australia to people who have a genuine reason and self-protection does not constitute a genuine reason to possess, own or use a firearm.

Secondly, the Australian system requires both the licensing of individual shooters and the registration of each firearm. In contrast, countries such as New Zealand and Canada broadly speaking only require shooters to obtain a license, which enables them to freely purchase firearms appropriate to that licence.

2002 National agreement on handguns 

In 2002, a student killed two fellow students at Monash University in Victoria with semi-automatic pistols he had acquired as a member of a shooting club. 

The subsequent national agreement on handguns led to legislative changes in all jurisdictions to limit access to more powerful or easily concealable handguns. Changes included a 10-round magazine capacity limit, a calibre limit of not more than .38 inches (9.65 mm), a barrel length limit of not less than 120 mm (4.72 inches) for semi-automatic pistols and 100 mm (3.94 inches) for revolvers, and stricter probation and attendance requirements for sporting target shooters. 

Are the guns used in the US shootings available in Australia? 

According to media reports, Adam Lanza was armed with a Bushmaster AR-15 assault rifle, as well Glock and SIG-Sauer pistols. 

The Bushmaster AR-15 is based on the US military standard issue firearm (often referred to as the M16) and is a semi-automatic centre fire rifle firing .223 calibre (or 5.56mm) rounds. Under Australian laws, it would be classified as a Category D firearm, with ownership restricted to military, police, and professional vertebrate pest controllers. 

It should be noted that fully-automatic rifles (‘machine guns’) are never permitted for civilian ownership. 

Glock or SIG-Sauer pistols may be legally owned in Australia, providing they fall within the length, calibre or shot capacity limits of Australian law. Both companies manufacture a wide variety of models, so it is not possible to generalise. However, some media reports have stated that the Glock pistol used was chambered for 10mm ammunition, which exceeds the maximum permitted calibre in Australia. 

Recent developments

Following meetings of the Standing Council on Police and Emergency Management in June and November, Ministers announced a number of measures to strengthen the integrity of Australia’s firearms regime. These included the development of a national firearms registry and improved capacity to trace firearms linked to crime.