Firearms in Australia: a guide to electronic resources

9 August 2007

Janet Phillips
Social Policy Section

Malcolm Park
Statistics and Mapping Section

Catherine Lorimer
Law and Bills Digest Section

Introduction

On 28 April 1996, 35 people were killed and 18 others were wounded at Port Arthur in Tasmania by an assailant using a semi-automatic rifle. In response, The Australasian Police Ministers Council convened a special meeting on 10 May 1996 and agreed to a national plan for the regulation of firearms the Nationwide Agreement on Firearms. This agreement banned self-loading rifles and self-loading and pump-action shotguns, introduced a nationwide registration of firearms along with limitations to firearm ownership, and led to the Australian firearms buyback scheme.

Other shooting incidents since then, including one at Melbourne s Monash University on 21 October 2002 in which two people were killed and five wounded by a gunman, have prompted other government initiatives, in particular the National Handgun Buyback Act 2003 and the National Firearms Trafficking Policy Agreement 2002.

On 18 June 2007, a gunman shot and killed a man who had come to the rescue of an assault victim on a busy Melbourne street during morning peak hour. Two others were also shot and seriously injured. The violent incident has once again sparked calls in the media and Federal Parliament for even tougher gun controls in Australia.

This brief is a guide to some of the literature, statistics and information on firearm ownership, firearm offences, firearm controls and government policies since the Port Arthur massacre in 1996.

How many legal firearms are there in Australia?

In 2000, the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI) conducted an International Crime Victims Survey that included comparative data on firearm ownership in Australia, the USA, Canada and the UK. From this survey the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) estimated that in 2000 about 10 per cent of Australian households owned a gun, reflecting a decline of 45 per cent in gun ownership since 1989. In Australia, the majority of households which owned a firearm did so for hunting or sport-related purposes. Details of the findings were published in the firearm ownership section of Australian Crime Facts and Figures 2001.

After the Nationwide Agreement on Firearms was introduced in 1996, the AIC was asked to establish the National Firearms Monitoring Program which regularly produces publications on firearm offences and related issues in Australia.

According to recent firearms data from the AIC, there are currently about 2.5 million registered firearms in Australia belonging to 731 567 individual licence holders. This compares to nearly 2.2 million registered firearms and 764 518 licence holders in July 2001 (AIC, Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice No. 230: Firearms theft in Australia). In 2002 03 just under 41 000 legal firearms, including antique and military, were imported into Australia (for more detailed statistics of legal and illegal imports for 2000 03 see the answer to a Question on Notice from Senator Mark Bishop in March 2004).

The numbers of registered firearms by type are not regularly published, but some rough estimates can be calculated using data from the AIC report Firearms theft in Australia 2004 05. For example, using the number of handguns stolen in 2004 05 (96) and the percentage that this represents of registered handguns (0.05 per cent), it is possible to estimate that in 2004 05 there were approximately 192 000 registered handguns in Australia.

How many illegal firearms are there?

As to the number of illegal firearms, in International traffic in small arms: an Australian perspective and the media release Illegal trafficking of small arms, the AIC points out that there is no way of assessing the number of illegal weapons . Recently, a gun control researcher from Sydney University s School of Public Health, Philip Alpers, estimated that there are about 20 000 illegal handguns in Australia. Similar reports are available on the gunpolicy.org website hosted by the University of Sydney s School of Public Health.

There is information available on the number of stolen firearms, including handguns. In Firearms theft in Australia 2004 05 the AIC found that less than 0.1 per cent of registered firearms (almost 1500 firearms) were reported stolen to police. In 2004 05, rifles accounted for the majority (58 per cent) of all stolen firearms, with bolt action rifles the most often listed. One-quarter of stolen firearms were shotguns, and nearly 40 per cent of these were single-barrelled. Handguns constituted seven per cent of firearms reported stolen, with around 40 per cent of these being semi-automatic handguns. This report also includes data on incidents by jurisdiction and by geography. For more AIC reports see their firearms publications list and the weapons page.

How many offences involve firearms?

According to the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), Recorded Crime Victims 2006, a weapon was used in 74 per cent of attempted murders, 63 per cent of murders and 44 per cent of robberies. A knife was the most common type of weapon used in committing these offences. Over one third (34 per cent) of murder victims, 35 per cent of attempted murder victims, 22 per cent of the victims of robbery and 10 per cent of kidnapping/abduction victims were subjected to an offence involving a knife. A firearm was involved in 25 per cent of attempted murder, 17 per cent of murder and 7 per cent of robbery offences.

The latest Australian Crime: Facts and Figures 2006 from the AIC states that the percentage of homicides committed with a firearm continues a declining trend which began in 1969: In 2003, fewer than 16 per cent of homicides involved firearms. The figure was similar in 2002 and 2001, down from a high of 44 per cent in 1968. The Homicide in Australia: 2005 2006 National Homicide Monitoring Program (NHMP) annual report points out that while the use of firearms to commit homicide had decreased over time, the use of handguns as a percentage of all firearm homicide has increased. In 1992 93, 17 per cent of firearm homicides were committed with a handgun, compared with 47 per cent in 2005 06.

The Homicide in Australia: 2005 2006 National Homicide Monitoring Program (NHMP) annual report also states that:

Another consistent finding over the years is that the majority of firearms used in homicide were not registered, and the offenders who used them were not licensed. During the current year, 13 per cent of offenders who used a firearm were licensed to own the firearm and 10 per cent of the firearms used were registered to the offender. Earlier research found that in 1997 98 and 1998 99, nine per cent of offenders were licensed to own the firearm and nine per cent of the firearms used were registered to the offender.

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Firearm deaths

While much of the firearm debate focuses on murders, most firearm deaths in Australia are suicides. In 2005 the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare s National Injury Surveillance Unit (NISU) released a briefing paper, Firearm deaths and hospitalisations in Australia, which found that:

Suicide was consistently the most common type of firearm-related death over the period 1979 2002, accounting for a mean annual proportion of 77 per cent of all firearm deaths during that time frame. The next most frequent type of case was homicide, which accounted for 15 per cent of all firearm deaths. The frequency of unintentional firearm-related deaths was comparatively low (6 per cent).

The latest available information shows that:

  • in 2005 there were 147 firearm suicides (ABS, Suicides Australia 2005)
  • in 2006 there were 46 firearm homicides (ABS, Recorded Crime Victims 2006)
  • in 2003 04, there were 48 accidental firearm deaths. It should be noted, though, that assessment of the source of these data (the National Coroners Information System) suggests that many of these cases would be reassigned as suicides, on the basis of information available after completion of coroners inquiries. (National Injury Surveillance Unit of the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Injury deaths, Australia 2003 04).

In addition to the NISU briefing paper mentioned earlier, some recent articles that have analysed the number and type of firearms deaths in Australia over recent years include:

All of the data and analysis show a general downward trend in firearm deaths since 1979, particularly for firearm suicides since the late 1980s.

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Firearm trafficking in Australia

According to the Australian Institute of Criminology paper, International traffic in small arms: an Australian perspective and the media release Illegal trafficking of small arms, In [the] 5 years to June 1998 just under 260 000 firearms were legally imported into Australia, but there is no way of assessing the number of illegal weapons.

Customs detect and seize approximately 2000 to 4000 illegal firearm parts each year. In 2005 06 for example, Customs seized 3857 firearms, parts and accessories; and the Australian Crime Commission seized or quarantined 1300 firearms and, as a result of activity of its firearms determination, laid 97 charges with respect to the illegal possession of firearms (Source: Answer to a Question on Notice from Senator Mark Bishop, Senate Debates, 19 June 2007). Similar statistics for 2000 2003, plus legal import figures, are available from an earlier answer to a Question on Notice from Senator Mark Bishop in March 2004.

In November 2002, the then Minister for Justice and Customs, Senator the Hon. Chris Ellison, stated in a press release that The Commonwealth has targeted illegal firearms trafficking by significantly increasing border resources in recent years, with 100 per cent of postal items and passenger luggage entering Australia now being x-rayed or inspected. Seventy per cent of all air cargo consignments entering Australia are x-rayed and inspection rates at sea ports continue to be increased through the use of trace particle detection equipment. However, some argue that detecting gun parts in the mail is very difficult and that hundreds or even thousands of gun parts might be arriving in the post or in shipping containers each year. See for example, Criminals use post to beat gun laws, (Daily Telegraph, 18 April 2002) and Dossier: fortress Australia under attack: busted borders, (The Australian, 25 August 2001).

On 21 December 2001, Australia signed the UN Protocol against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Their Parts and Components and Ammunition, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, 2001, but is yet to ratify it. According to the List of multilateral treaty actions under negotiation, consideration or review by the Australian Government on AUSTLII for March 2007, Before ratification, Australia must implement all the obligations contained in the Firearms Protocol. This will involve the taking of various steps/measures in cooperation with states and territories. These steps/measures are being investigated through the Australasian Police Ministers Council (APMC). For example, work is being done by the APMC Firearms Policy Working Group on the nationally consistent regulation of firearms manufacturers in Australia .

A National Firearms Trafficking Policy Agreement was agreed to by the APMC at a meeting in Darwin on 17 July 2002. The Agreement ensures that substantial penalties apply for the illegal possession of a firearm, creating an offence of conspiring to commit an interstate firearm offence; and regulating the manufacture of firearms in a nationally consistent manner, with serious offences for illegal manufacture of firearms.

Useful publications from the Australian Institute of Criminology include:

National Firearms Agreement 1996

On 28 April 1996, 35 people were killed and 18 others were wounded at the historic site of Port Arthur in Tasmania by an assailant using a semi-automatic rifle. The Australasian Police Ministers Council convened a special meeting on 10 May 1996 and agreed to a national plan for the regulation of firearms. The resolutions were refined at subsequent meetings and formed the basis of the National Firearms Agreement. The Agreement committed all states and territories to a uniform system of firearms licensing and registration. The terms of the Agreement included:

  • banning military style automatic and semi-automatic firearms
  • limiting the availability of non-military style semi-automatic rifles and shotguns to primary producers, professional vermin exterminators, and a limited class of clay target firearm users
  • introducing registration for all firearms, including long arms
  • grouping firearms into 5 broad licensing categories
  • requiring all licence applicants to establish a genuine reason for firearms ownership
  • requiring all licence applicants other than those applying for category A firearms to establish that they have a special 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
  • requiring all sales to be conducted by or through licensed firearms dealers.

Firearms which were otherwise prohibited could be owned legitimately if they were deactivated.

Following the Australasian Police Ministers Meeting, the Commonwealth and the states and the territories introduced the Medicare Levy Amendment Act 1996 and the National Firearms Program Implementation Act 1996. The National Firearms Program Implementation Act 1997 extended compensation to certain automatic weapons not covered by the May 1996 Police Ministers Agreement. The National Firearms Program Implementation Act 1998 related specifically to Norfolk Island, Cocos (Keeling) Islands and Christmas Island. Relevant legislation:

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Guns buyback

As a result of the National Firearms Agreement, approximately 660 000 firearms were surrendered under the Government s Australian firearms buyback scheme (Source: Answer to a Question on Notice from Senator Mark Bishop, 19 June 2007).

According to the Federal Government there were about 3.25 million guns in Australia prior to the 1996/97 buyback scheme. This estimate was based on a phone poll conducted in 1999 on behalf of the Federal Government by Gun Control Australia, The ABC of gun control: 101 questions answered.

The effectiveness of the buyback scheme in reducing firearm-related offences and deaths continues to be controversial. For examples of some of the analysis and evaluation of the effectiveness of the scheme since 1996 see:

National Handgun Agreement 2002 and the National Firearms Trafficking Policy Agreement 2002

On 21 October 2002, a shooting incident occurred at Monash University in Melbourne in which two people were killed and five wounded by a gunman. It was subsequently reported that the alleged gunman was a licensed pistol owner with access to several handguns, including semi-automatic pistols and a .357 magnum revolver.

In response to this incident the National Firearms Trafficking Policy Agreement was agreed to by APMC at its meeting in Darwin on 17 July 2002. The Agreement ensures that substantial penalties apply for the illegal possession of a firearm and regulates the manufacture of firearms in a nationally consistent manner, with serious offences for the illegal manufacture of firearms.

On 28 November 2002, the Australasian Police Ministers Council developed 28 resolutions aimed at tightening the control on handguns in Australia.  At its meeting on 6 December 2002, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) endorsed these resolutions in a communique and decided to prohibit the importation, possession and manufacture of certain types of handguns for sports shooting purposes.  The Customs (Prohibited Imports) Regulations 1956 were amended by the Commonwealth to accord with the COAG agreement.

A press release, Firearm laws have been strengthened, from the Attorney-General s department detailed the changes to the control of handguns. Each state and territory agreed to amend its firearms laws by 1 July 2003 to prevent the purchase, possession and use of prohibited handguns used for sports shooting and also those that are held as part of historical collections. Where legislation was not already in place, the states and territories also agreed to introduce substantial penalties for the illegal possession of a firearm.

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National Handgun Buyback

The National Handgun Buyback Act 2003 commenced on the day it received assent, 30 June 2003. This legislation enabled the Commonwealth to appropriate funds for the purpose of providing financial assistance to the states and territories for the handgun buyback scheme that was scheduled to run from 1 July to 31 December 2003.

The appropriation was for two main purposes:

  • to reimburse states/territories for payments made by them to compensate persons for their surrender of handguns, handgun parts, and accessories during the handgun buyback
  • to reimburse states/territories for other payments made in connection with the handgun buyback or with the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) handgun reforms.

Under this scheme, 70 000 handguns were recovered from the community (Source: Answer to a Question on Notice from Senator Mark Bishop, 19 June 2007).

The total indicative cost of the handgun buyback program to the Commonwealth is expected to be $69 million, to be appropriated out of the Consolidated Revenue Fund. The COAG agreement specifies that the handgun buyback will be funded firstly from the $15 million left unspent from the 1996 firearms buyback. The balance is to be met on a cost-sharing basis between the Commonwealth and the states, with the Commonwealth reimbursing two-thirds and the states one third.

Other consultation mechanisms

In 2001 the Firearms Policy Working Group was also established by the Australasian Police Ministers Council (APMC) to assist in the provision of advice on firearms policy matters. It continues to work in conjunction with the Australasian Police Ministers Council and the Attorney General s Firearms Unit to develop Government policy on firearms and ensure there is consistency among state and territory approaches to the control of prohibited firearms.

In 2003 the Sporting Shooters and Firearms Advisory Council was formed, comprising representatives of farmers, sporting shooters organisations, firearms dealers and the security industry. The Council had its inaugural meeting in Canberra on 9 October 2003 and is a forum through which the Federal Government can consult with representatives of the firearms industry on firearms-related issues and regulations. At the first meeting, the Minister for Justice and Customs, Senator Chris Ellison, foreshadowed a full review of Customs regulations regarding the firearms importation process and the transfer of firearms safety testing from the Australian Federal Police to Customs to overcome delays in the safety testing of imported firearms.

Government expenditure

According to the Attorney-General s Department Annual Report 2005 06:

  • under the 1996 National Firearms program, the Commonwealth provided $398 million to the states and territories for compensation for the purchase of semi-automatic weapons and $63 million for administering the program of which $56.6 million was paid to the states and territories
  • under the 2003 National Handgun Buyback program, approximately 70 000 handguns and more than 278 000 parts and accessories have been surrendered and $96.6 million paid in compensation. The Government also provided just over $70 million in reimbursements to jurisdictions for administrative procedures.

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Legislative reforms

Historically, the Commonwealth has used its overseas trade and commerce power to make regulations about the importation of firearms into Australia and to legislate for firearms importation offences. Thus, a number of Commonwealth regulations were made in response to the Nationwide Agreement on Firearms. In 1996, Commonwealth regulations were made to increase controls on the importation of rimfire self-loading rifles and self-loading or pump action shotguns. Later that year, regulations were made establishing a new structure for the control of firearms importation, tightening controls on the importation of handguns with a fully automatic firing capacity, and introducing controls on the importation of all parts, some firearm accessories and all magazines and ammunition.

The Customs Legislation Amendment (Criminal Sanctions and Other Measures) Act 2000 made it an offence to import prohibited firearms into Australia and made an offender liable to a maximum penalty of 10 years imprisonment or a fine of $250 000, or both.

The Customs (Prohibited Imports) Amendment Regulations 2000 (No. 7) was designed to impose stricter controls on the importation of handguns. The regulations ensured that handguns are now released into the community on an as needs basis and once a legitimate end-user has been established. They permit the importation of only a small number of handguns for dealer stock for the purposes of testing and demonstration, as well as providing an exemption for persons competing in the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games. In addition, the regulations also provided that firearms dealers may hold a limited number of Category C firearms (these include self-loading rimfire rifles, self-loading shotguns and pump action repeating shotguns) as stock for testing and demonstration purposes.

The Customs (Prohibited Imports) Regulations 1956 were further amended by the Customs (Prohibited Imports) Amendment Regulations 2002 (No. 4) to prevent the importation of prohibited handguns and handgun parts with the following features by sporting shooters, or their direct sale by firearms dealers/importers to sporting shooters:

  • a calibre that is greater than .38, unless the handgun is used to participate in a specially accredited sporting event in that case a calibre of up to .45 will be permitted
  • a barrel length of less than 120 mm for semi-automatic handguns and less than 100 mm for revolvers and single-shot handguns, unless the handgun is a highly specialised target pistol
  • a magazine/shot capacity that exceeds 10 rounds.

The firearms provisions of the Crimes Legislation Amendment (People Smuggling, Firearms Trafficking and Other Measures) Act 2002 amended the Criminal Code Act 1995 and commenced on 16 January 2003. The amendments make it a criminal offence, in the course of trade and commerce between any states and territories to:

  • dispose of or acquire a firearm, where the disposal or acquisition of that firearm is an offence under a state or territory law
  • take or send a firearm from one state or territory to another, intending that the firearm will be disposed of in the other state or territory in circumstances that would constitute an offence against the firearm law of that other state or territory.

The maximum penalty is imprisonment for 10 years and/or a fine of 2500 penalty units (currently $275 000).
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Legislation

  • The government s firearms regulation policy page is available on the Attorney-General s site
  • See the firearms section of the Criminal Law Resource Guide, produced by the Law and Bills Digest Section of the Parliamentary Library for links to relevant legislation.

Key resources

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Key links


For copyright reasons some linked items are only available to members of Parliament.

 

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