Australians deserve the full picture on gun ownership


From the vantage of 2019 it feels like a story from a foreign country but guns were much more everyday items in Australia just a few decades ago.

Former prime minister John Howard changed that with his political leadership backed by unstinting bipartisan political support and the Australian public.

Illustration: Andrew DysonCredit:

But there is one thing that Howard promised that has never come to pass. He came back from the Port Arthur funerals vowing to set up a national firearms registry and this important work remains largely undone.

Reliable statistics underpin good public policy but when it comes to guns, our knowledge is patchy and updated sporadically.

Instead of reliable and regular official statistics, we get piecemeal research projects from private sources.

Left-leaning think tank, the Australia Institute, made headlines earlier this month when it produced a report claiming Australia now has more firearms than in 1997, even accounting for population growth.

John Howard wears a bullet-proof vest at a rally in Sale in June 1996 to argue for gun restrictions. The national registry that was promised at the time has never eventuated.

John Howard wears a bullet-proof vest at a rally in Sale in June 1996 to argue for gun restrictions. The national registry that was promised at the time has never eventuated.Credit:Colin Murty

The report says the number of licensed gun owners has fallen by a third, but this decline is offset by the fact that gun owners now have an average of 3.9 guns each compared with 2.1 in 1997.

Gun figures also made news earlier in the month when lobby group Gun Control Australia revealed the number of firearms in NSW had exceeded a million for the first time since the Port Arthur massacre, meaning there is one gun for every eight people.

The Greens have an interactive tool at a site called toomanyguns.org that lets people type in a NSW postcode and find out how many guns are in their area. In Pyrmont where the Herald has its office, there are 40 firearms owners, 161 registered firearms and one person with 32 guns. There is no such website for Victoria.

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Meanwhile, the most recent official, national data is from 2016 when the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission put out a report. An ACIC spokesman confirmed they did not plan to do it this year.

I find this astonishing. Imagine if unemployment figures were calculated by an official body every few years if they felt like it, while think tanks and lobby groups could reliably generate headlines and outrage by estimating the jobless numbers in between times.

Inconsistent methodology and an irregular schedule make the unofficial figures less useful, even before you consider the vested interests that come into play.

Australians deserve to know exactly how many registered guns there are in the country at all times – the Australian Bureau of Statistics or another appropriate body should simply release the figures without fanfare every quarter or half year.

Meanwhile, the ACIC or the Australian Institute of Criminology should be fully resourced to study illegal guns.

About 700,000 guns were handed in to Australia's buyback nearly 20 years ago.

About 700,000 guns were handed in to Australia’s buyback nearly 20 years ago.Credit:Dean Sewell

It seems so obvious so why is it not the case?

Associate Professor Philip Alpers, who is behind the University of Sydney initiative GunPolicy.org, says some of the states and territories have dragged their heels, in part because of historical aversion to sharing data and in part because they don’t want people to notice the “shambles” their own registries are in.

Alpers says the federal Attorney-General tried to get the national registry up for many years, but many states had no interest in making their data compatible with other states. Eventually, the federal government settled for asking the ACIC for a national database – not a registry.

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Alpers says some states are “exemplary” – the NSW registry is updated daily and Queensland updates regularly – while other states and territories “drag the chain” (the Northern Territory), block requests (Victoria) or have deep-seated differences in the compatibility of data (South Australia). In 2016 the Victorian police declined Alpers’ request for gun figures, citing an exemption from freedom of information laws in the Firearms Act, in a letter obtained by The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

It’s not necessarily in the public interest to be able to look up the number of guns postcode by postcode – broadcasting that one gun owner has a large stash risks creating a magnet for criminals.

But we should certainly know how many guns we have nationally, in each state and at a regional level.

We should also know what type of guns they are. I’m far more worried about the prospect of handguns in cities or any back-pedalling on automatic and semi-automatic restrictions, than low-powered rifles like the type Dad used to own.

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One of the most dangerous ideas is the promotion of guns for personal self defence. You only have to look at the US to see where that leads.

For the past 22 years Australia has stood as a notable international example of the effectiveness of strong gun laws. With each successive mass shooting in the US, our gratitude and pride that things are different here only grows.

When the horrifying Christchurch terrorism attack occurred a few weeks ago, many of us were surprised to discover that progressive New Zealand still had such permissive gun laws.

I was home from university when we saw Howard announce the gun buyback program on TV. I asked Dad if he still had the gun, he said “yes”, my stepmother said “that has to go”, he said “yes”, and the next time I visited it was gone.

As comedian Jim Jefferies put it in a famous skit: “In Australia, we had the biggest massacre on earth, and the Australian government went: ‘That’s it! NO MORE GUNS.’ And we all went, ‘Yeah, all right then, that seems fair enough, really’.”

The collection of reliable, timely and depoliticised gun statistics is fair enough too.

Caitlin Fitzsimmons is the associate editor of The Sun-Herald.

Caitlin Fitzsimmons is the associate editor of The Sun-Herald and a columnist.

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