Firearms Restrictions: Recent Developments

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Advice on legislation or legal policy issues contained in this paper is provided for use in parliamentary debate and for related parliamentary purposes. This paper is not professional legal opinion.


Briefing Paper No. 03/2004 by Rowena Johns

This briefing paper examines developments in firearms regulation since late 2002, and some of the criminal conduct that has influenced reforms. While the jurisdictional focus of the paper is New South Wales, developments at a Commonwealth level are also outlined as they often provide a framework for the States.

Chapter 2 – Background information: 1996 was a landmark year in the evolution of firearms regulation in Australia. Events in 1996 that are important for understanding the present regulatory system include the National Firearms Agreement and the National Gun Buyback (pages 2-4).

Chapter 3 – Trends in gun violence: Statistics from national and state research organisations are presented on various aspects of firearms-related crime, such as the registration status of firearms and the types of firearms used to commit offences. Also examined in this chapter is the proliferation of gun violence in south-west Sydney in 2003, particularly drive-by shootings and thefts of handguns from security guards. One of the key policing responses to the problem was the formation of Task Force Gain (pages 5-17).

Chapter 4 – Sources of illegal firearms: Two sources of illegal firearms in New South Wales are importation from overseas and thefts from local legal stocks. The debate over which is the predominant source is reviewed, with reference to Commonwealth and State political perspectives and empirical studies (pages 18-21).

Chapter 5 – Recent legislation: Numerous legislative restrictions upon firearms, especially handguns, have been introduced since late 2002. Commonwealth Acts and regulations include the Customs (Prohibited Imports) Amendment Regulations 2002, the Crimes Legislation Amendment (People Smuggling, Firearms Trafficking and Other Measures) Act 2002, and the National Handgun Buyback Act 2003 . The main legislative changes in New South Wales are found in the Firearms Amendment (Public Safety) Act 2002, the Firearms Amendment (Prohibited Pistols) Act 2003, and the Firearms and Crimes Legislation Amendment (Public Safety) Act 2003 . New legislation is also discussed in Chapter 7 on bail developments and Chapter 8 on the security industry (pages 22-33).

Chapter 6 – Handgun buyback and amnesty: The Council of Australian Governments (COAG) resolved that a buyback scheme should operate throughout Australia from 1 July 2003 to 31 December 2003 to provide compensation for newly prohibited handguns. COAG also agreed that an amnesty should be conducted to encourage the surrender of other illegally-held handguns, without compensation, during the same period. The Commonwealth Parliament passed the National Handgun Buyback Act 2003 to facilitate funding arrangements with the States. In New South Wales, the starting date for the buyback and amnesty was delayed to 1 October 2003, continuing until 31 March 2004 (pages 34-38).

Chapter 7 – Bail restrictions: The Bail Amendment (Firearms and Property Offences) Act 2003 , which was not yet in force at the time of writing, will create a presumption against bail being granted for a range of firearms offences, including: unlicensed possession of a firearm; possession of a loaded firearm in a public place; unauthorised selling, purchasing and manufacturing offences; stealing firearms; firing at dwellings; and unauthorised dealing in firearms or their parts on an ongoing basis (pages 39-41).

Chapter 8 – Regulating the security industry: Concerns over the vulnerability of the security industry to criminal infiltration, in view of the access that many security personnel have to firearms and sensitive information, led to stricter eligibility criteria for licence applicants under the Security Industry Amendment Act 2002 . Fingerprinting requirements for security guards were tightened by the Security Industry Amendment (Licence Conditions) Regulation 2003 , while further reforms under the Firearms (General) Amendment (Security Industry) Regulation 2003 will restrict the calibre of handguns available to security guards and improve the safe storage of guns when the regulation commences on 1 May 2004 (pages 42-48).

Chapter 9 – Gun courts: In November 2003 the Carr Government appointed Gordon Samuels QC to conduct a review into the suitability of adopting gun courts in New South Wales. Gun courts are specialised courts that exclusively deal with firearms-related offences. The first gun court in the United States was established in 1994 in Rhode Island. There are different versions of gun courts in the United States: some are created by legislation, some consist of a designated judge or prosecutor at an existing court handling all firearms cases, and often they accept only juvenile offenders. In addition, numerous States have introduced court-imposed gun awareness programs (pages 49-60).