On 16 June 2017 the Minister for Justice, Michael Keenan, announced that the first national firearms amnesty since the one that followed the Port Arthur massacre in April 1996, would commence on 1 July 2017 for a period of three months. This stems from in-principle agreement to an amnesty from the states and territories in mid-September 2016 and confirmation in late October 2016 that police and justice ministers had agreed to a national firearms amnesty with the aim of ‘reducing the number of unregistered firearms in Australia’. The minister has said that the amnesty ‘is as much about giving a family a chance to get rid of an old heirloom as it is about getting rid of guns off our streets’.
Using ‘a range of intelligence sources, including firearm importation figures and seizure trends over time’, the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission has ‘conservatively’ estimated there to be 260,000 illegal firearms in the community (or as many as 600,000 if United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime global estimates are extrapolated to Australia). This new amnesty comes at a time when Australia has recently seen a number of significant incidents involving illegal firearms, such as a terrorism-related siege in Melbourne, and the fatal shooting of a Queensland police officer.
In acknowledging that there have been state-based amnesties since 1996, the minister declared that ‘it is again time that we give every Australian the chance to dispose of firearms without fear of being prosecuted’. The table below summarises the 28 state and territory-based amnesties since Port Arthur, using information (May 2016) drawn from GunPolicy.org (compiled by the Sydney School of Public Health at the University of Sydney), unless otherwise indicated. Note that there are existing amnesties currently in force in two states.
| Number of amnesties since 1996
(2002; 2004; 2013)
(1998; 2001; 2003–04; 2009)
(2001; 2009; 2014)
(1998–2002; 2008; 2009; 2010; 2012)
A permanent amnesty is in place.
(1996–99; 2001; 2006; 2009; 2010; 2012; 2015)
An amnesty which commenced in December 2015 and was to conclude on 30 September 2017, will now join the new national amnesty.
(2001–04; 2006; 2013)
The 1996 national amnesty and ‘buyback’ ran for 12 months from October 1996 to September 1997 as part of the National Firearms Agreement (1996) which, among other things, outlawed automatic and semi-automatic longarms and introduced the requirement for a ‘genuine reason’ to own, possess or use a firearm (and specifically excluded personal protection as a reason). This resulted in the removal of ‘almost 650,000’ firearms from the community (out of an estimated 1.5 million prohibited weapons). However, it cost some $304 million in compensation, and another $63 million in administration, the $500 million budget for which was funded by a one-off increase to the Medicare levy in 1996–97 from 1.5 per cent to 1.7 per cent (it is currently 2.0 per cent).
The buyback was not only widely regarded as groundbreaking and successful, but also recognised for the significant administrative undertaking involved. As one media report later commented, ‘no other nation had ever attempted anything on this scale’. Australia’s 1996 buyback was once again the subject of international media attention in 2015 when, during the US presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton suggested Australia’s buyback program might be an option ‘worth considering’ in the US.
While there has not been a national firearms amnesty since 1996, there was a six-month national handgun buyback in 2003 as part of the National Handgun Control Agreement (2002) which restricted the possession of handguns based on calibre, barrel length and magazine capacity. This was established in response to a shooting at Monash University in October 2002 carried out by a licensed gun-owner using a handgun, in which two people were killed. The buyback ‘provided compensation to owners surrendering handguns, handgun parts and accessories’ at a budgeted cost to the Australian Government of $69 million. According to GunPolicy.org, this resulted in the surrender of 68,727 handguns nationally.
Buybacks are expensive and the minister has been careful on this occasion to specifically state that the 2017 initiative is not a buyback. However, not all unregistered firearms will have to be surrendered during the new amnesty—subject to where owners live, some firearms may be able to be registered or sold to a licensed firearms dealer.
The question that has so far not been addressed in relation to the new national amnesty is how its success will be measured. As an Australian National Audit Office report into the 1996 amnesty/buyback highlighted, without clear targets based on reliable figures of gun ownership, ‘it is difficult to assess the effectiveness’ of such a program. Furthermore, as federal Coalition MP Mark Coulton reportedly stated recently, the government does not expect ‘“the criminals are going to hand in their pistols”’.
Most amnesties report the number of guns handed in, but the type of guns is perhaps also an important measure. Given that the standard refrain is to ‘get guns off the street’ and reduce their availability, it is tempting to assume that amnesties which result in people mainly handing in antiques, replicas or unwanted heirlooms are less successful than amnesties that see modern handguns and military-style weapons being surrendered. However, supporters of amnesties take the view that the removal of any unwanted or illegal firearms from the community is a good result.