Wednesday, 10 February 2016
Criminal Code Amendment (Firearms Trafficking) Bill 2015; Second Reading
I support the Criminal Code Amendment (Firearms Trafficking) Bill 2015. This bill effectively seeks to amend the Criminal Code Act 1995 by introducing a mandatory minimum sentence of five years imprisonment for offenders convicted of trafficking firearms and firearm parts. It also doubles the maximum penalties for firearms trafficking from the existing 10 years imprisonment or a fine of 2,500 penalty units, or both, to 20 years imprisonment or a fine of 5,000 penalty units, or both.
I strongly support this legislation which effectively limits access to firearms by criminals yet does not impinge upon access to firearms by legitimate persons for lawful purposes. Firearms have the potential to be used for good and bad purposes. I am strongly in support of legislation that will be effective in combating the illegitimate use of firearms whilst promoting and protecting the rights and liberties of thoughtful, legitimate users of firearms.
There are currently more than 2.7 million legally registered firearms in Australia. Firearms most certainly have a legitimate place in our society. They are used at clubs and in Olympic and Commonwealth Games sports and are an essential part of agriculture for controlling feral pests. Firearms are used to provide food through hunting and for recreational shooting. They are essential to our law enforcement defence and security. Historic firearms collections form part of our cultural and military heritage.
It is the misuse of firearms for criminal purposes which this legislation seeks to curtail. There is no good reason for illegal firearms to enter Australia's borders as their misuse will impact adversely on legitimate use of firearms through negative public perception. Unfortunately, high-profile firearm incidents will continue to elevate firearm related crime to the forefront of public awareness, media headlines and political agendas.
Firearms trafficking is generally defined in the 2001 United Nations Protocol against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Their Parts and Components and Ammunition as the unauthorised import, export, acquisition, sale, delivery, movement or transfer of firearms, their parts and components and ammunition across internal or state borders.
According to a recent report from the Australian Crime Commission, it is estimated that there are more than 250,000 unlicensed long arms and 10,000 unlicensed handguns in Australia. The ACC defines the criminal trafficking of firearms as the movement of illegally owned, modified or manufactured firearms between market suppliers and organised crime. Criminals regularly use illicit firearms to protect their area of criminal operation and in other criminal activities, such as extortion, to settle inter-gang disputes and in the collection of outstanding debts and drug payments. The ACC conservatively estimates that serious and organised crime costs Australia at least $15 billion each year.
From the outset, I should declare that I am a lifelong shooting enthusiast who has participated in a range of competitive shooting sports—pistol, rifle and shotgun—and hunting for more than 30 years. I am a member of both the National Rifle Association and the Sporting Shooters' Association of Australia. The Sporting Shooters' Association of Australia was established in 1948 in order to promote the shooting sports and protect firearm owners' interests. Those roles remain the same today. With more than 175,000 members and 400 clubs, the SSAA is the premier sport shooting body representing licensed owners in Australia. The SSAA manages more than 18 shooting competitions at local, state, national and international levels.
In addition, I am one of the founding members of the Parliamentary Friends of Shooting group, along with Senator Bridget McKenzie. Over the years I have represented Western Australia and Australia in clay target shooting and competed amongst Olympians, Commonwealth Games medallists and even visiting royalty. My hunting expeditions have taken me to remote parts of outback Australia, where I have met and stayed with some very interesting people.
I will now focus on the key aspects of the bill, which provide a strong, nationally consistent approach against firearms trafficking. The amended penalties aim to more adequately reflect the serious nature and consequences of supplying firearms and firearm parts to the illicit market. The penalties will act as a strong deterrent and disincentive for people seeking to illegally import firearms and their parts into Australia. Increasing the maximum penalty for these Commonwealth firearms offences will put the Commonwealth in step with other jurisdictions on their maximum penalties for firearms trafficking offences. These measures have been proposed after consultation with the Australian Federal Police and the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions.
The Australian Institute of Criminology released a report in 2012 titled Firearm trafficking and serious and organisedcrime gangs, which indicated that the main entry points for firearms entering Australia are via parcel post, contained in passenger luggage, and through ports and airports through sea cargo and air cargo. Under the previous Labor government, less than 10 per cent of air cargo and less than five per cent of sea cargo were inspected upon entry into Australia's borders. Since being elected, the coalition government has invested $88 million to increase the screening and examination of international mail and air and sea cargo. The funding boost provides our agencies with more resources to detect and intercept illicit firearms and parts.
The magnitude of the task of monitoring our borders is on a vast geographical scale that defies comprehension. We have a sparsely populated continent with a significant number of remote towns where only basic port and airport facilities exist, without the advanced security found in capital cities. The vast Australian continent covers an area of more than 7.6 million square kilometres. To provide some context to the scale of operations, in the seven-month period to 31 January 2015, Australian Customs: processed around 23.1 million passengers through Australian airports; processed over 837,000 passengers through Australian seaports; inspected over 1.3 million air cargo consignments; inspected over 69,000 sea containers of twenty-foot equivalent units; and inspected more than 38 international mail items. Detecting illegal weapons can be described as being like finding a needle in a haystack. In February 2015, the government closed a loophole which allowed criminals to avoid prosecution for trafficking firearm parts into Australia. Without these amendments, criminals could evade trafficking offences and penalties by simply dismantling the firearms and trafficking the parts separately.
According to the Australian Crime Commission report titled Organised crime in Australia 2015the online purchasing of illicit firearms is an emerging threat. Increased use of the internet and dark net websites is likely to drive an increase in firearms importation and pose a threat to border security. Websites such as Black Market Reloaded and Agora have enabled the trade in illicit firearms to operate freely, affording anonymity and offering secure online payment systems. The Armoury is an example of a website specifically designed to facilitate the trading of firearms, components and ammunition. In December 2013, a Victorian man was convicted of importing a semiautomatic handgun and possessing ammunition, after the prohibited items were purchased from the website Black Market Reloaded and imported to Australia from the United States concealed in a karaoke machine.
In Australia, the sale and supply of firearms to the illicit market is typically carried out by organised crime gangs and also individual lower level criminals driving the demand for illicit firearms. There are direct links between firearm trafficking and other serious crimes, such as drive-by shootings. Criminal use of firearms includes the distribution and supply of drugs, armed robbery, acts of violence, impeding law enforcement, and in standover tactics, intimidation and threats against rival groups. The National Anti-Gangs Squad was established to target outlaw motorcycle gangs, particularly their role in trafficking firearms. Since the introduction of the National Anti-Gangs Squad in 2013, more than 480 illegal firearms have been seized.
It is true to say that licensed firearm owners in the Australian shooting community overwhelmingly support this legislation. There is no place in the community for illegally imported firearms to be in the possession of criminal elements likely to misuse the firearms to commit crimes. Such adverse publicity affects the public perception of lawful firearms owners and impinges upon their freedoms. Certain aspects of recently introduced firearms legislation and regulation are fundamentally flawed in terms of effectiveness in preventing crime. There has been too much focus on the technical attributes of firearms themselves and insufficient focus on the suitability of the owner in the first instance. I advocate for reforms which place greater emphasis on licensing the firearms owner, with more stringent background checks, safety training and in-person interviews. This would be coupled with a comprehensive firearm registration system which registers individual firearms to suitably licensed owners, for accountability and traceability.
At present, too much emphasis is placed on the characteristics of the firearm itself and not on the suitability of the owner. Some ill-conceived arbitrary measures are in place, such as limiting the calibre of handguns to .38, specifying the minimal barrel lengths and limiting magazine capacities. These measures have practically no effect in improving public safety. For instance, a .38 Super is ballistically superior to a .45 ACP, yet the .38 is permitted and the .45 is restricted. This is akin to an attempt to improve road safety by banning all vehicles capable of exceeding 200 kilometres per hour and limiting the capacity of vehicle's fuel tanks when it is obvious that it is the competence of the driver, and not the characteristics of the car, that affects road safety.
In addition, the current practice of online applications for firearm licences through Australia Post with no face-to-face contact also presents the risk of identify fraud. In the past, applicants were required to attend in person at the police station closest to their residence, and they were interviewed face to face by a police officer, who had the opportunity to assess, to a large extent, if an applicant was bona fide and competent. I support measures to make the licensing of firearm owners more robust and thorough.