Planned Handgun Restrictions Alarm Australian Gun-Owners

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:12 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - The Australian government is about to considerably tighten the laws on handgun ownership following a deadly shooting last month on a university campus.

Federal and state ministers meeting to discuss the issue have backed a range of new measures, but critics accuse the government of trying to impose "social revenge" on law-abiding gun-owners after the double murder.

Two students at Monash University in Melbourne were shot dead last month by another student, who was a licensed gun owner.

Among the steps under consideration is a federal government proposal to outlaw some 250 types of handguns that are not used in law enforcement or in recognized shooting competitions, coupled to a "buyback" scheme to facilitate recovery of the newly-banned weapons.

Sporting shooters will be expected to enter a minimum number of competitions if they are to keep their weapons, and authorities will also be able to refuse or revoke handgun licenses on the basis of criminal intelligence recommendations.

Anyone wanting a firearm license will be required to belong to a legitimate gun club, and a gun owner whose weapon is stolen through negligence could lose his or her license.

Strongly pushing the measures is Prime Minister John Howard, who told a South Australia radio station Wednesday it was "ludicrous" that ordinary Australians should have access to handguns.

"A lot of them do," he said. "The rules are too lax."

Howard said while he admired much about the U.S., one thing he didn't admire was what he called "the worship of guns in that country."

"It's brought untold misery and harm and also delivered to America a very high murder rate for a stable, open, Western society," he said.

He did not want to see Australia go down that path.

But the move has exposed differences in Howard's ruling coalition.

Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson, who heads the junior coalition partner National Party, cautioned Wednesday against steps that could make law-abiding gun owners feel like criminals.

Anderson said there should be more consultation with firearm owners before the law changes are introduced.

"I'm adamant that decent gun-using Australians - whether it's in their occupation or for sporting reasons - should not be made to feel like criminals," he said.

"They must be fully consulted and fully respected for having legitimate reasons for owning and using firearms. They are not the Australians we are after."

Asked whether the planned laws would cause difficulties for sports shooters, a spokesman for the Sporting Shooters Association of Australia said Wednesday some members may have to surrender their handguns if they are banned. They will be offered compensation.

"The government must realize that every time there is a murder with a gun they cannot expect the majority of law-abiding gun owners to pay a penalty," he said.

He did not believe the proposed restrictions would be effective in reducing crime.

A 2000 report by the Australian Institute of Criminology - a statutory authority - found that, in the three preceding years, more than 90 per cent of firearms used to commit homicides were not registered, and their owners not licensed.

The report also found that, whatever policy steps were introduced, "there will always be individuals who attempt to circumvent legislation for illicit purposes."

Restrictions have made it more difficult for irresponsible people to get hold of weapons legally, so they are turning to illegal means to do so.

The AIC concluded that stronger measures were needed to combat illicit trafficking in firearms, and in ensuring legal weapons were stored safely.

Andre Haermeyer, the police minister for Victoria - the state where last month's shooting took place - welcomed the proposed new laws but also argued for more to be done about weapons being smuggled into the country.

His counterpart in neighboring New South Wales, Michael Costa, echoed the concerns, calling for a tightening of searches at shipping container ports.

He cited government figures indicating that only three in 1,000 cargo containers were being searched for illegal weapons and drugs.

See earlier story:
Shooting Prompts Appeals For Handgun Ban (Oct. 22, 2002)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow