In the wake of the shooting in the rural town of Wieambilla, which saw six people — including the three perpetrators — killed, Australia is processing how the tragedy could have happened.
Part of that national reflection comes in the form of access to firearms, with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese announcing that gun reform will be on the agenda at the next National Cabinet meeting.
“This tragedy is still, of course, the subject of ongoing investigations,” Albanese said on Tuesday in Parliament.
“My government will take any advice, particularly from police and law enforcement, about better ways in which we can have coordination and better laws to protect people,” he continued.
“I am certainly up for dialogue with the states and territories about how there can be a better national consistency and national information that can serve the interests of police going about their duty.”
However, Albanese stopped short of saying that legal changes would be on the cards, instead suggesting that the system would be updated.
“When we have a meeting of national cabinet next year … I will be asking for a briefing to go to that national cabinet meeting for practical ways in which we can – not change the nature of the gun laws – but change the nature of the way that information is coordinated”.
The Wieambilla shooters had a “massive cache of weapons and ammo,” according to reports, and their property was riddled with security cameras, speed bumps, and electric gates. There is growing evidence that the four police officers, who attended the property to carry out a missing persons check, had walked straight into an ambush.
The “high-powered” firearms used in the attack had been reportedly legally obtained, although they were registered in NSW. Queensland Police Union head Ian Leavers has said that weapons licensing practices should be reviewed
“Weapons are not an issue in the right hands but you need to look at the weapons licensing system, the national database,” Leavers said.
“Can that be better, should it be better where people move from state to state?”
“We are not used to seeing this in Australia. This is what we hear about in countries like the United States and we need to be very careful. But we need to analyse that and that will be done in-depth.”
So, just how hard is it to get a gun in Australia and how often do things go wrong with the current system? Here’s what you need to know.
Australian Firearms Laws
Australian gun laws are largely regulated by the states and territories, with the federal government in charge of regulating the importation of weapons.
Much of the current legal parameters were defined in 1996 under the National Firearms Agreement (NFA) that was signed by all state, territory, and commonwealth governments just 12 days after the infamous Port Arthur massacre. Prior to Port Arthur, there was no nationally consistent framework for gun ownership, with different jurisdictions having wildly different rules.
Then Prime Minister John Howard made it something of a personal campaign to achieve “total prohibition” of automatic and semi-automatic weapons. To this end, the agreement included a $232 million buyback of weapons that were made illegal, taking some 650,000 guns out of the country. This was thought to be roughly one-third of the national stockpile.
The agreement also introduced a mandatory 28-day waiting period between purchasing and receiving a gun and much tighter purchasing, storage, and usage rules.
In 2017, the NFA was updated with further restrictions on the types of weapons available in the country and who was allowed to access them.
The problem with the NFA is that it is not a legally binding document, but rather a set of guidelines for which state rules are based upon. As such, a 2017 report found that Australia’s gun laws have been decidedly watered down since 1996 following “two decades of political pressure.”
Examples of this include the fact that every state and territory allows children as young as 10 or 12 to own a firearm, while the 28-day cooling-off period now only applies to first purchases.
Although we might think of Australia as a relatively gun-free place, that couldn’t be further from the truth. In 2015, we passed the point at which guns in the country outnumbered those before the Port Arthur shooting. In 2021, it was estimated that there are currently around 3.5 million guns in the country and around 868,000 civilian gun licence holders.
While gun ownership per household has decreased in that time, the number of guns bought by individuals has increased. 2017 figures revealed that there are many people out there with collections of 100 or more firearms as the laws pertaining to ownership do not put a cap on the number of guns you can buy. Some, including those in metropolitan areas, have more than 300.
Sydney University Associate Professor Phillip Alpers has said that while the risk of dying by gunshot has more than halved in the past 25 years, there has “also been a significant shift in the country’s gun culture.”
“It’s clear that those who already own guns have bought more, while those who don’t own guns are becoming more numerous,” he said.
How to Get a Gun in Australia
The 1996 NFA introduced the framework for gun ownership that we use today. Guns are divvied up into five categories (A, B, C, D, and H) depending on their usage type and capacity, and have to be registered to a licence holder.
You can only get a licence if you have a “genuine reason” for needing a gun and pass criminal, mental, and background checks. A genuine need would be something like working in agriculture, engaging in hunting, or being part of a sport shooting club. There are also safety training courses and storage requirements that have to be met.
However, a 2020 report by the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission “conservatively” estimated that there are some 260,000 guns in the domestic illegal market.
Guns get into the criminal world either through the ‘grey market’ or through theft from legitimate gun owners. Grey market guns are those that were not registered in 1996 when the registration requirements came in and can be easily passed on to individuals without a licence. There are also a small number that are illegally imported into the country, and some that are made here.
A 2022 Deakin University study found that it was “surprisingly easy” for criminals to buy guns on the black market and that people with “huge caches” of guns is not uncommon.
“Our research found that the black market for illegal firearms is closed to the general population, but if you are well connected and trusted within criminal circles, it is surprisingly easy to get your hands on a gun,” lead author Professor David Bright said.
“Many interviewees told us they could get a gun within a matter of hours after leaving jail.”
What makes this complicated is the fact that firearms rules are not consistent or consistently enforced across states and territories and that information sharing about weapons is not thorough. NSW, for example, has the highest number of guns of any jurisdiction, at approximately one million, and access to them is the most liberal.
That state allows permits for silencer attachments to guns, something prohibited under the NFA, as well as semi-automatic weapons, also barred under the agreement.
In some ways, the NFA created just as many problems as it solved. Gun crime is much lower than it was prior to 1996, and thousands of lives have probably been saved, but it also gave rise to what is now quite a powerful gun lobby in Australia.
Needing to have a “genuine reason” for gun ownership, under the NFA, saw a flood of memberships to the Sporting Shooters Association of Australia. This body, in turn, has been using the money from memberships to lobby state and territory governments to relax their laws on gun ownership for over two decades.
The Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party was also created during this period, initially registered as a joke to annoy the NSW Police Minister.
The result, in the words of Alpers, “we’re the only country in the world with two state political parties built and run by the gun lobby”. Rebecca Peters, an international expert on gun policy for the UN, has said that Australia is a victim of its own success as “no one worries” about gun laws or mass shootings anymore.
“This makes them vulnerable to erosion as finely-balanced parliaments look to do deals with minor parties,” she said.
“The gun lobby’s financial and political power has expanded over the past 25 years, and there is no watchdog to keep them in check. So for me, pride in our gun laws and solidarity with the victims is tempered by anxiety over the future.”
This being said, public approval of guns has only declined since 1996, with polling in 2018 showing that a quarter of the country would support tighter restrictions while only 7% of the country want restrictions relaxed. 62% said the current laws are “about right,” meaning the gun lobby, for all of its efforts, is still fighting an uphill battle and clearly hasn’t managed to turn to tide of public opinion.
While it’s not exactly clear just what kinds of reform Albanese will seek to table at the next National Cabinet meeting, it’s clear that there are a number of key ways in which reform could be implemented. Although Australia has some of the toughest gun laws in the world, perhaps if they had been properly enforced we wouldn’t have seen the tragedy we saw last week.