'Tighter gun laws could have prevented my dad's death'

Alpha Cheng at his father's funeral (Photo by Sam Ruttyn-Pool) Source: Getty Images

It is time for another amnesty on firearms, writes Alpha Cheng, and for all parties to come together in making society safer.

Twenty years ago my father and I moved to Australia from Hong Kong. We lived in a room above his small business in Eastwood. Coincidentally, this was in John Howard’s electorate of Bennelong. My biggest concern at that time was whether or not I’d make new friends and fit in. I distinctly remember watching the Port Arthur Massacre unfold that same year. I never expected to be sharing the same forum with survivors 20 years later.

One of the survivors of Port Arthur, Carolyn Loughton, sat next to me on Insight. I was stunned and horrified as she recounted how the events unfolded: how Martin Bryant walked into the cafe with an oversized sports bag during a busy lunch session; how he proceeded to shoot his victims in quick succession with a semi-automatic rifle; how she was shot as she threw herself over her daughter, Sarah, only realising later in the hospital that Sarah had been fatally shot in the back of her head.

This was a chilling precursor to my story. On October 2 last year, as my dad was leaving work, a 15-year old boy walked up and shot him in the back of the head.

Carolyn and I are living testaments to the terrible tragedies that occur when guns end up in the wrong hands. There is widespread belief that the gun control measures introduced post-Port Arthur largely eradicated illegal guns in Australia. I certainly believed that our gun policies would have prevented a 15-year old from illegally accessing a .38 Smith & Wesson revolver. This was clearly not the case.

The Australian Institute of Criminology estimates that on the illicit market there are about 250,000 long arms, such as rifles and shotguns, in circulation and 10,000 illegal handguns. The AIC conducted the National Firearm Theft Monitoring Program from 2004-05 to 2008-09 and the average number of firearms reported stolen per year was 1545. This statistic is alarming and it highlights for me the gaps in our current approach. More needs to be done.

Firstly, there needs to be fewer guns. During the Insight forum, I asked John Howard whether he thought it was time for another national amnesty on guns, firearms and weapons, especially unregistered and illegally obtained weapons. He agreed.  Indeed, this was one of the few points that appeared to have unanimous support from both anti- and pro-gun sides of the audience.

The pro-gun members of the audience challenged my preconceptions. I had never met a gun supporter or a licensed shooter before the program. After hearing their perspective, I acknowledge the need for pragmatic gun laws for recreational users, sport shooters and people living on the land. However, this should not, and I believe it does not, contradict the need for tightening gun policy to prevent guns from being obtained illegally or for illegal means.

Preventative measures, such as thorough background checks and access to mental health records need to be consistent across the nation. For law abiding users, the checks and balances must be of the highest standard as a gun is a device that, although has recreational and occupational utility, also has the potential to kill in the wrong hands.

The current limitations on semi-automatic and rapid-fire firearms need to be reviewed. Current loopholes need to be tightened, so that rapid-fire lever action weapons are listed under the most restrictive category, category C. This includes the Adler lever action shotgun, which is currently undergoing a legalisation review for importation. It can shoot seven cartridges in seven seconds. At present, if legalised, it would be listed in the least restrictive category, category A. I have not heard any persuasive reason why any civilian, sport shooters and farmers included, would need such a rapid-fire weapon.

Any loosening of current restrictions would be a grave mistake.

Reactive measures include more law enforcement surveillance, and efforts to reduce the access of guns on the black market. As I see it, no harm would come from tougher powers to search and seize firearms from criminals, their associates and at-risk individuals suffering from certain psychological conditions or have a history of violence. By logical extension, tougher penalties for the possession of illegal weapons and gun-related crimes would communicate that Australia has zero-tolerance for gun violence.  

Any loosening of current restrictions would be a grave mistake.

We hear a lot about personal freedom in this debate and I believe that the freedoms we have in Australia are precious. The freedom to be able to walk where you want and not fear for your safety: that is our right as Australians. It is now the responsibility of decision makers to maintain and protect this. It is time for another amnesty on firearms and it is time for all parties to come together, show some collective courage to put aside differences to create a safer and more harmonious country for all.  


Alpha Cheng is a guest on Insight's show on gun control in Australia | Catch up online now:

A version of this article originally appeared in Fairfax publications. 

Stay up to date with SBS NEWS

  • App
  • Subscribe
  • Follow
  • Listen
  • Watch