Rise in NSW Gun Ownership: A Cause for Concern?

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The issue of gun ownership sparks heated debate from both ends of the spectrum: those in favour of greater gun control typically argue that countries with high levels of ownership have more gun crime, that ready access to firearms increases the likelihood they will be used in heated situations or to exact maximum damage, and that the proliferation of firearms increases the chance they will fall into the wrong hands.

Those against greater gun control point out that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”. They highlight the fact that licensed gun owners are overwhelmingly responsible, that greater gun control would do nothing to take unregistered or illegally obtained weapons away from criminals, and that citizens should have a right to bear arms to defend themselves and their families against criminals and, potentially, agents of the State.

Firearms Reform

This month marks twenty years since Martin Bryant’s brutal murder of 35 people, in sleepy town of Port Arthur, led to a national outcry for gun reform. In one of the few bipartisan moves of his leadership, then-Prime Minister John Howard acted swiftly to put new restrictions on gun ownership in place.

In the years that followed, Australia saw a dramatic decline in the number of gun-related deaths and injuries. Gun control advocates attributed the fall to a reduction in the number of guns, while pro-gun lobbyists argued it was just part of an overall decline in violent crime – in other words, there was no causal link between the reduction in gun ownership following Howard’s reforms and the fall in gun crime.

Latest Figures on Gun Ownership

New figures, obtained by Greens MP David Shoebridge, have reignited debate about gun control, with some asking the question, ‘how many guns does one person need to have?’.

As of July last year, there were more than 850,000 registered firearms in New South Wales, up 40 percent since 2001. There are over 100 postcodes that have more than 2,400 guns and nine postcodes that contain more than 10,000 guns. That’s one gun for every nine people in the state.

The data release was accompanied by a call from Mr Shoebridge, and Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon, to toughen federal gun control laws – by closing loopholes that have allowed some gun owners to accumulate vast troves of weapons.

The call comes on the back of a new study, which suggests a correlation between gun numbers and violent crime. According to the analysis, which used the fresh gun data and BOCSAR statistics, every additional 1,000 guns in a postcode corresponds to 12 more violent crimes committed in that area.

“Public safety will continue to be put at risk if the major parties keep sidelining gun control issues… If we know that there is a link between gun numbers and crime, politicians must act to implement a tougher and more effective National Firearms Agreement.” Senator Rhiannon said.

Response by Gun Advocates

Gun advocates dispute the study’s conclusion, arguing there is no evidence of a causal connection. They highlight the fact that there may be a whole range of factors which explain why crime occurs in any particular suburb.

Moreover, they point to statistics which suggest there has been an overall decline in gun-related crime in Australia between the years of 2001 and 2014, which is consistent with falls in violent crime generally.

For example, there were 24 homicides involving guns in 2001, which dropped to 16 in 2014. In NSW, armed robbery with a firearm fell from a whopping 1,117 incidents in 2001, to 213 in 2015 (compare years on BOCSAR site).

Gun Ownership Laws in NSW

In order to be able to possess and use a firearm in this State, a person is required to have a NSW firearms licence. The NSW Police Force is responsible for issuing licences and permits, and conducting checks to ensure firearms are stored in a legal manner.

Penalties for possessing a gun without a licence, or refusing to surrender weapons to police, are severe. The maximum penalty for an “unregistered firearms” charge is 10 years imprisonment for a prohibited firearm or pistol, or 5 years in any other case.

A person might be refused a firearms licence in NSW if they:

  • Have a criminal record
  • Have been issued with an AVO or interim AVO
  • Don’t have a ‘genuine reason’ for having a firearm
  • Have not completed an approved firearms training course
  • Are not considered a ‘fit and proper’ person

Once in possession of a firearm, the licence holder must store it in compliance with the regulations. Ammunition, and if possible the gun’s firing mechanism, must be stored separately. Police are able to request an inspection of the storage set-up at any time.

The Firearms Act 1996 (NSW) gives police the power to demand the immediate surrender of guns, if a person’s licence is suspended, revoked, or otherwise not in force. Refusal to hand over guns carries a maximum penalty of two years imprisonment.

Although many argue these laws are effective in regulating legal firearms, some are concerned about what they call ‘loopholes’.

Part 6B of the Firearms Act allows those who don’t have a licence to simply sign a form stating they have no mental health issues in order to access weapons at a shooting range. Sadly, this has already resulted in one death in NSW.

Of greater concern to gun control advocates is the fact that although the Act requires a ‘genuine reason’ for acquiring a firearm, licence holder are able to purchase multiple weapons. This can lead to legal possession of dozens, or even hundreds, of guns – which some see as a ‘honey pot’ for potential thieves.

How Many Guns Are In Your Suburb?

The Greens have even put together a firearms database that lets you search to see how many guns are in your postcode.

The database has given gun control advocates further ammunition to lobby their position – traditionally, gun-advocates have argued that controls place an unfair burden on those who have legitimate claims to ownership – namely farmers, hunters, and hobbyists.

However, the locations of some of the larger private gun collections casts doubt on whether these are the people accumulating weapons. According to the website’s Top 100 list, some of the largest private gun collections are actually found metropolitan suburbs like Malabar (302 guns), Mosman (278), Manly (207), Baulkham Hills (100), Penrith (97) and Randwick (76). Topping the list is an owner in the suburb of Cardiff near Newcastle, who has accumulated a whopping 322 guns.

Should this be a reason to rethink gun control? Not quite, according to Shooters and Fishers MP Robert Brown, who argues that the existing regulatory system is already enough to prevent firearms falling into the wrong hands:

“Anybody wishing to obtain a firearms licence has to complete an approved firearms safety course, aimed at ensuring that their firearm is handled and stored in the proper legal manner.” he wrote in a SBS op-ed.

“In fact, any target shooter, farmer or hunter possessing a firearm has to hold themselves to a higher standard of conduct in their everyday lives. This is because of the discretionary power in the legislation that allows Police to deem somebody no longer a “fit and proper person” to possess their firearm.”

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Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Criminal Law Specialist with 25 years of experience as a Criminal Defence Lawyer. He is the Principal of Sydney Criminal Lawyers®.

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