Senate debates

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Matters of Public Importance

Gun Control

5:35 pm

Photo of David LeyonhjelmDavid Leyonhjelm (NSW, Liberal Democratic Party) Share this | | Hansard source

According to popular legend, Hitler's master of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, said: 'A lie told once is still a lie. But a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth.' The claim that there have been no mass shootings since the introduction of John Howard's 1996 gun laws has probably been repeated many more than a thousand times, which is perhaps why so many people believe it is the truth. But it was a lie when it was first told, and it's still a lie now. In the 20 years following 1996, there were 14 shootings in Australia involving multiple victims. Of these, 12 involved two or three fatalities, one involved four fatalities and one involved five fatalities. The death toll would have been higher but for some luck and life-saving medical attention. In the 20 years before 1996, there were also 12 shootings involving multiple victims, although there were more deaths in total.

According to America's FBI, a mass shooting is defined as 'four or more people shot and/or killed in a single event at the same general time and location, not including the shooter'. In 2014, there was a mass shooting in New South Wales involving the Hunt family in which there were four victims plus the shooter. This qualifies as a mass shooting under the FBI definition, and yet a couple of academics, Philip Alpers and Simon Chapman, who are in fact foundation members of the anti-gun lobby, recently wrote a paper in which they repeated the lie that there had been no mass shootings in Australia since 1996. Under their definition, a mass shooting requires at least six victims, including the shooter. They gained some publicity for themselves as a result of making this claim, but the simple fact is that they arbitrarily changed the definition of a mass shooting to suit their agenda.

Very few Australians will recognise the fabrication involved in this claim. Most of those claiming there have been no mass shootings since 1996 have never thought much about it. For them, it sounds sufficient to claim that massacres occurred before, but not after, the gun laws. They then draw the simple conclusion that the gun laws made the difference. It might be simplistic, but it sounds compelling. But it is false. There were just as many multiple-victim shootings in the 20 years after the introduction of the 1996 gun laws as there were in the 20 years before they were introduced.

But, really, is that all that matters? Is there something special about being murdered in a mass shooting, unlike being shot in some other way or even killed in some other way? Obviously not. A far better analysis of the impact of the 1996 gun laws would be to look at the overall level of murders attributable to firearms. When you look at that, what you find is that firearm deaths were declining in the 20 years before 1996 and they continued to fall after 1996 at precisely the same rate. Multiple statistical tests have confirmed that it is precisely the same rate. Furthermore, this occurred despite a substantial increase in licensed firearm ownership—many more guns, in other words. The simple fact is the gun laws in 1996 made no difference to the rate of decline—no difference at all.

This 'no massacres, no mass shootings' claim is also often accompanied by a comparison with the United States. There's no denying the US does have mass shootings. Australia doesn't—or not many, anyway—therefore, it must be the gun laws that explain it. Or so the argument goes. It's simple minded claptrap. It's so dumb that it's amazing anyone falls for it, and yet you hear it all the time. Once again, the facts are ignored. Notwithstanding the high-profile mass shootings that do occur from time to time in the United States, the rate of gun deaths in that country during the last three decades has declined quite fast—faster, indeed, than in Australia, albeit from a higher starting point. At the same time, over the same period, gun laws in America have been substantially relaxed. In fact, in 42 states, a person without a criminal record or violent history can now carry a gun for self-defence. In the other eight states, a gun can be carried in case of special need.

Of course, nobody bothers to compare us with countries such as New Zealand that continue to have gun laws resembling those that were found in Australia before 1996 but that, like us, continue to see falling gun deaths; or Switzerland, which has a far higher ratio of guns to people than Australia and yet its rate of gun violence is no greater than Australia's. Yet the assumption is made that, if we relaxed our gun laws to be more like those in New Zealand or Switzerland, we'd end up like America, not like New Zealand or Switzerland. It's an absurd assumption.

I'm all for debate about gun laws, but let's stick to incontrovertible facts, not those that become facts because they have been repeated many times.

5:41 pm

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak in support of the continuing strength of Australia's gun laws. Indeed I would like to see gun laws strengthened—I say that up-front. I can't ever remember a time when I wasn't opposed to guns, even as a small child. Certainly as a parent I went to great lengths to try and educate my children about the dangers of guns. I appreciate that in some parts of Australian society we do have guns. Guns are needed on farms, our police force carry guns and so on. Our armed forces carry guns. I'm not talking about that. I'm talking about the everyday carrying or use of guns by ordinary citizens. I simply don't see the point and I don't support the use of guns. We see the shocking deaths in the US, where thousands of schoolchildren have taken to the streets to say that they want to make their schools safe. What a sad indictment it is of a country when some children feel that it's no longer safe to go to schools. Our schools should be sanctuaries, and yet for some children they are not.

I don't really think it matters if gun violence and deaths from shootings are declining. What matters is that they're happening in the first place. Any death through a shooting is a shocking thing and we should all, as a society, be opposed to that. I certainly don't support young children being able to get gun licences, as is the case in some states across this country. I'm proud to say that in Western Australia you have to be 18 years of age to get a gun licence. In Western Australia, if you've got a history of domestic violence, you also can't get a gun licence. If you've got an issue around mental health, you are, again, unable to get a gun licence. But, really, our gun laws should be uniform across this country. What applies in one state should be the case in another state because we don't want to see people being able to take advantage in one state where they can't in another.

I've never been a fan of John Howard's—never ever—but his bravery in standing up after Port Arthur needs to be commended. I remember seeing him on the news being absolutely heckled by people who thought they had some right to carry arms and by the National Rifle Association, which is way, way too influential in our politics these days, particularly in state politics. He did a great job, but what we've seen since then is the watering down of gun laws. It's starting to become easier, and we don't want that. We don't have that history of the right to bear arms and the gun violence that we see in the US, and we certainly don't want to see that in Australia as a rule.

I commend my friend and colleague, Michelle Roberts, who is concerned that in Western Australia we have seen a spike in drive-by shootings and woundings. She has taken action on that, and she's looking at some of the recommendations by the WA Law Reform Commission to introduce what are known as firearms prohibition orders, which already exist in other states. Again, gun violence should be something where we simply have national standards so that, for every state and territory in this nation, there's a uniform provision around gun laws. I have to say that I was quite shocked to learn that there are differences, and I was really shocked to hear that, in some states, children of 10 years of age can be given a gun licence, presumably to shoot on a range somewhere. That's just inappropriate. Why we would want to introduce our children to guns at such an early age defies logic, as far as I'm concerned. And I want to make sure that Australia remains a safe country and that we don't have guns being freely available. I do admit that they are somewhat freely available at the moment, but the more we can clamp down on that, the stronger our laws can be on stopping guns, and the more we as a culture embrace the fact that we don't want to see guns in this country, the better off we'll be.

5:47 pm

Photo of Stirling GriffStirling Griff (SA, Nick Xenophon Team) Share this | | Hansard source

The Nick Xenophon Team agrees with the need to strengthen our firearms laws to reduce gun violence. Indeed, we could have had stronger gun laws last year when the government's Criminal Code Amendment (Firearms Trafficking) Bill 2017 was amended and adopted by the Senate in February 2017. It’s now over 13 months since the nation could have had tougher, stronger and better gun laws, but, due to government stubbornness, the bill as agreed to by the Senate was rejected in the other place. As a result, we do not have those laws in place today.

The Nick Xenophon Team sought to strengthen the bill by moving sensible amendments that would have increased the maximum penalties for firearm-trafficking offences within Australia and into and out of Australia. As I said before, these amendments were supported by the Senate. We also supported Labor's amendments which sought to strengthen the bill with life sentences for the worst kinds of firearm traffickers and which also sought to remove the mandatory sentencing provisions in the bill. Mandatory minimum sentences are inappropriate and do not currently exist in the Commonwealth Criminal Code. They restrict judicial discretion and hamper the sentencing judge's ability to hand down a sentence that is appropriate after taking into account all of the circumstances of an individual case. Mandatory minimum sentences depart from the fundamental principle that the punishment should fit the crime. Law enforcement agencies don't like mandatory minimum sentences because they mean offenders are less likely to cooperate with the police to bring down other serious criminals.

Illegal firearms remain a major issue in Australia. During last year's national firearms amnesty, 57,324 firearms were handed in. Authorities received around 2,500 fully automatic or semiautomatic guns that were previously unaccounted for, and 2,900 handguns. That is a lot of firepower that had the potential to cause very serious harm.

All of us in this place must work to keep our communities safe. We must support tougher sentences for gun traffickers. The government should have passed the bill as it was agreed to in the Senate. It is now time to stop playing political games with peoples' lives and for the government to take the right action to protect all Australians.

5:50 pm

Photo of Fraser AnningFraser Anning (Queensland, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

This MPI is another example of an attack on our individual freedoms, thinly veiled as a progressive solution to gun related violence. The real solution to gun related crime is to target criminals who use illegal weapons to commit acts of violence with effective jail terms, not law-abiding licensed gun owners. Australians already have some of the strictest gun laws in the world, yet our rate of gun crime is still similar to that of New Zealand. We have legislation that allows firearms to be banned just for their appearance—not for their effective range, rate of fire or capacity but for how they look. They can be banned just because they look scary. This is verging on the irrational.

Our firearms laws, according to Senator Rhiannon, are the envy of the world, yet she is still advocating stricter controls. For example, banning the Adler shotgun—a firearm that many rural Queenslanders have had to use—is making a tough life on their cattle places that little bit tougher. Firearms aren't the issue; people are. If you are a radical or a lunatic who wants to kill innocent people, you will find a way. As we have seen with Bourke Street, with the radical in France who took to the pavement in a truck or with the London Bridge attack, those who are hell-bent on causing terror and harming innocents will. However, by the same token, if you drive your van on to the sidewalk and kill people, are we going to ban vans? What about if you go on a stabbing spree—are we going to ban knives? Increasing the already chokingly restrictive gun controls isn't going to change the outcomes for our nation. We need a clearer focus on those who commit crimes, not more firearm controls.

There are approximately 34,000 gun related deaths each year in America, 94 per cent of which are committed by criminals with illegal weapons. A change in the gun laws will not get the desired outcome. They are already outside the regular framework. The bottom line is that, overwhelmingly, gun related violent crime is done by criminals using unlicensed firearms. Changing the legislation has no more effect on the gun crime rate than watering your geraniums. Look at Chicago, Detroit or New Orleans: they have some of the strictest gun laws in the US—and the highest murder rates. There is a common misconception that an increase in registered firearms means you are going to see more gun violence perpetrated across the community. Once again, law-abiding gun owners are being targeted and victimised simply for owning firearms. To reiterate, a real solution to gun— (Time expired)

5:53 pm

Photo of Andrew BartlettAndrew Bartlett (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I speak in support of this Matter of Public Importance. It is now over 20 years since the horrendous massacre in Port Arthur in Tasmania, and it is very important that we remain as vigilant as ever not to allow our gun laws to be weakened. Indeed, in some cases, I believe they need to still be further strengthened. It's particularly concerning to me—and the Greens more broadly, as my colleague Senator Rhiannon mentioned in her comments—the increasing amount of money that the gun lobby is pouring into Australian politics and towards Australian political parties.

In my own state of Queensland, it's very clear that the cashed-up gun lobby tried to buy the results it wanted in the Queensland election. The Queensland Shooters Union is affiliated with the notorious NRA in the US and threw thousands into the campaigns of One Nation candidates. The Katter party received over $175,000 from one particular gun dealer, and the Electoral Commission's disclosure system showed that in total the Katter party received nearly half a million dollars from firearms interest groups. The Shooting Industry Foundation of Australia spent over half a million dollars itself on TV, radio and online advertising trying to get a weakening of the gun laws in Queensland.

Just like the NRA, the Queensland Shooters Union and the Shooting Industry Foundation of Australia are not merely gun enthusiasts concerned about their rights. I support sporting shooters and their right to conduct legitimate activities. I support farmers and their right to use firearms appropriately in the course of their business. But what these lobby groups are about is trying to expand the firearms industry. In the US, the NRA buys politicians to protect the profits of the arms industry. That is something that cannot be disputed. Unless we move urgently to reform our own political donation system, we could see the same here. The lives of our friends, families, children and loved ones could, potentially, be sacrificed for profit.

So we need to ensure that we ban political donations from the gun lobby. The Greens' view is that we should ban political donations from all for-profit corporations but particularly those from industries that seek to promote profits in areas that are harmful. The Queensland government has made a small advance in moving to ban donations from property developers, which have been shown quite directly to corrupt our political system. Surely, in areas such as this, the gun lobby in particular is an industry we need to be banning donations from. (Time expired)

5:56 pm

Photo of Pauline HansonPauline Hanson (Queensland, Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The demonising of law-abiding gun owners is unhelpful to the debate about violence in this country. The bashing of gun owners must stop. Many law-abiding Australians responsibly use firearms to work and hunt and for sport, and this needs to be taken into consideration. A gun to a farmer is what a wrench is to a plumber—a tool that, if removed, makes the business unworkable. A farmer's central job is to protect the environment, to make the land profitable and productive. There is no greater threat to our precious environment than feral pests such as wild pigs, foxes, cats, dogs and rabbits.

If the Greens want to contribute to this debate in a productive way, they could analyse and honestly discuss the existing laws. Existing laws state that only licensed gun dealers can trade or sell guns. Adverts for guns are very closely monitored. The police work with gun traders and are tough on illegal gun sales, as they should be. If the Greens were serious about stopping gun violence, they would look at resourcing police. The trouble with guns comes when they get into the hands of criminals. The logical extension to solving gun violence is resourcing the police so they can find illegal arms dealers and bring them to justice.

Australians have been lawfully and reasonably carrying weapons for a variety of reasons for generations. New laws introduced over recent years have made owning a gun even tougher. Law-abiding citizens are not the problem with guns; criminals are. They are the ones who the Greens should focus on, not law-abiding gun owners.

Photo of Gavin MarshallGavin Marshall (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The time for this debate has now expired.