How strong are Australia's gun laws?

Australia has some of the 'most comprehensive regulations internationally' around gun control.

In the wake of the Christchurch terror attacks, Australia's gun control laws have once again come under the global spotlight.

The Australian example is being cited as a success story as New Zealand looks to toughen legislation around guns.

So what do our laws say?

The Port Arthur massacre

Most gun laws remain the responsibility of states and territories and up until 1996, varied widely across the country.

In 1990, there were about 3.5 million firearms in Australia or approximately one firearm for every four Australians, according to the National Committee on Violence.

In some jurisdictions during that time, minors were able to obtain a firearms licence, not all firearms needed to be registered and, controversially, automatic and semi-automatic weapons could be legally owned.

John Howard wears a bulletproof vest in 1996.
Source: Twitter

But laws were radically reshaped after the 1996 Port Arthur massacre, when 35 people were killed and 23 were wounded with two military rifles.

In the fallout of Port Arthur, then-Prime Minister John Howard pushed for a sweeping new national framework called the National Firearms Agreement.

It was hammered out over the strong opposition of some states and many gun owners.

In an image that came to define the debate, Mr Howard addressed a gun control rally in Sale wearing a bulletproof vest. It was reportedly the first time an Australian prime minister wore a bullet proof vest on home soil.

The laws

The National Firearms Agreement now frame gun ownership in Australia.

The agreement restricted the private ownership of automatic and semi-automatic firearms, self-loading and pump action shotguns, and certain handguns.

Applicants for a gun owner's licence need a genuine reason to own a firearm, for example gun club membership, hunting, target shooting, firearm collection, pest control, and narrow occupational uses.

Gun owners can only have the number of guns specified on their licence and there are limits on the ammunition they can buy in a given period.

John Howard marks the 10th anniversary of the massacre in Port Arthur.
Source: AAP

And an applicant for a firearm licence in Australia must pass a background check which considers criminal, mental health, physical, addiction, domestic violence, residential and other records. 

Gun owners must re-apply and re-qualify every one to five years depending on the licence category.

These laws were initially accompanied by a large-scale gun buyback program.

New Zealand comparison 

As a result of the measures, there is now about one weapon for every eight people in Australia and there has been a reduction of more than 50 per cent in the number of gunshot victims since 1996.

While in New Zealand, there are roughly one firearm to every four people. There is no ban on semi-automatic weapons and with only semi-automatics needing to be registered, the majority of firearms are left unaccounted for by authorities.

A memorial to the victims of the Christchurch attack.
Source: AAP

Firearm analysis website, run by the University of Sydney expert Philip Alpers, says the difference between the two countries could not be starker.

"Australia has the tightest gun control policies in the Pacific and some of the most comprehensive regulations internationally," it says.

"New Zealand is at the opposite end of the spectrum with some of the most permissive gun policies in the Pacific region. Among developed nations, it stands alone with the United States as the only two countries without universal gun registration."

Political risks

Former deputy prime minister and Nationals leader Tim Fischer, who was in office in 1996, recently told AAP about the turbulent period around passing gun control measures.

He recalled an effigy of himself being set alight outside a public hall in Queensland as he and the cabinet took their policy around the country.

A cache of gun taken in as part of a buyback program.
Source: AAP

"[But] if you count 10 or more victims as a gun massacre, we had several before 1996, we've had zero since," he said.

"The US has several every month of every year of the 21st century."

He warned that Australians shouldn't become complacent, and must guard against any attempts to wind back the gun control laws.

It's an issue New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will now have to grapple with after promising changes following the Christchurch massacre.

Additional reporting: Joy Joshi, AAP

Published 18 March 2019 at 6:51pm
By Nick Baker