Should Australia be contributing to the gun toll in the USA?

It’s a timely question for the Defence Export Control Office in the Department of Defence in Canberra, says Adjunct Associate Professor Philip Alpers, of at the Sydney School of Public Health, University of Sydney.

Philip Alpers writes:

If Canberra follows precedent, around 10,000 surplus Australian police firearms will soon be for sale in pawn shops and gun shops across the United States.

To save cash, police forces in South Australia and Victoria have signed contracts with US arms dealers to export thousands of surplus Smith & Wesson .357-calibre police revolvers for re-sale on the US civilian gun market.

Every deal like this has to be approved by a dedicated federal arms export licensing section in Canberra. But on past performance this shouldn’t be a problem for the arms dealers.

When US gun maker Smith & Wesson won two recent tenders to re-equip 14,500 frontline police in South Australia and Victoria with modern semi-automatic pistols, the company also bargained a back-end bonanza for themselves — buying back their old revolvers. It’s common practice in the arms trade to offer military and law enforcement clients a ‘new for old’ gun swap.

A trade-in like this might save Australian police millions of dollars off the purchase price of brand new pistols – but then Smith & Wesson gets to sell Australia’s sturdy old police revolvers on the streets of New York, Los Angeles and anywhere in between.

Most easily concealable handguns such as these, sold from US pawn shops, and with decades of lethality left in them, might never be misused. But some will surely be used in domestic violence, suicide and armed crime. And that’s a risk to public health.

These venerable .357 S&W revolvers, rarely fired, well maintained, each one with Australian police markings and decades of history in law enforcement — and perhaps the added cachet of coming from a country where such weapons are largely prohibited in private hands — should fetch a good price among the 62,119 licensed gun dealers in the United States.

It’s a bit strange, really. Australia leads the world with gun buybacks and destruction programmes — and of course when our law enforcement officers and Customs seize illegal guns, they always destroy them — yet here we have police and federal government licensing the export of several tonnes of concealable handguns to the only developed nation which suffers Third World rates of gun death and injury.

Australian police routinely ask US authorities to trace American-made guns seized in local crime. How will they feel when the traces go the other way – when they’re asked how an Australian police revolver came to be found at a homicide scene in Chicago?

Australia is almost alone in doing this

Most of the governments we admire already prohibit this behaviour. At the United Nations, Australia takes a leadership role in several campaigns to curb global gun running. Encouraging the export of thousands of used handguns to the United States seems to be a Canberra blind spot.

Countries in which the declared government policy[i] is to destroy surplus state-owned small arms rather than to re-sell them on the secondary arms market include:

United States,[ii] United Kingdom, New Zealand, Canada, Japan, India, China, Germany, Netherlands, Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, Latvia, Croatia, Georgia, Moldova, South Africa, Burundi, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Eritrea, Guyana, Mexico, Costa Rica, Brazil, Antigua & Barbuda, Trinidad & Tobago.

All participating states of the OSCE (56 Northern Hemisphere developed nations) have also agreed that “the preferred method for the disposal of small arms is destruction… Any small arms identified as surplus to a national requirement should, by preference, be destroyed.”[iii]

Countries which have not yet declared such a policy include: Australia, Namibia, Uganda.

The federal agency charged with licensing or denying all exports of arms and ammunition is the Defence Export Control Office, Department of Defence, Canberra. In recent years, Australian policy has been to stringently control, choke off and prohibit firearms and ammunition exports to its neighbours in the Pacific, and to carefully calculate the risk of arms misuse or human rights violations in countries further afield. Many of these suffer per capita gun injury and death rates far lower than those of the United States.

It’s been going on for years

1997-2000: In a deal worth $10.5 million, NSW Police bought 13,000 Glock pistols. Under public pressure in the aftermath of Port Arthur, the NSW government then agreed to destroy the old revolvers they replaced.

1998-2002: Queensland Police bought 8,600 Glock pistols, then in return for a million-dollar saving, and with permission from Canberra, traded 3,674 of its old Ruger and S&W revolvers onto the foreign secondary arms market.

Commenting later on the Queensland deal, Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty said:

When the AFP went from Smith & Wessons to Glocks we actually destroyed the Smith & Wessons. Other agencies, for purely economical reasons, did trading deals with the firearms suppliers so there is no guarantee where those weapons ended up.

2007-2011: South Australia Police first thoroughly trialled, then signed a contract to buy enough new Smith & Wesson M&P (military and police) .40 calibre semi-automatic pistols to arm its 4,000-officer frontline force. The fate of thousands of S&W .357 calibre revolvers now surplus to requirements at SAPOL has yet to be made public.

2007-2011: After a long debate, in April 2010 Victoria Police signed a $7 million deal with Smith & Wesson to deliver 10,500 new S&W M&P .40 calibre semi-automatic pistols for deployment to all front-line officers by the first quarter of 2012. The fate of 7,513 surplus Victoria Police S&W .38 calibre revolvers has yet to be made public.

Victoria is the last of eight Australian jurisdictions to re-arm with semi-auto pistols.

Time to reconsider

Australia’s long-standing policies and world leadership in the reduction of armed violence by way of export control deserve to be applauded by all but despots, tribal fighters and criminals.

Yet Canberra’s assessment of potential risk seems almost colonial – commendable concern for developing nations, but less for outwardly wealthier communities whose residents face a higher day-to-day risk of gun violence.

One has to ask: What is it that makes shipping thousands of handguns to the streets of America less of a public health and human rights risk than sending the same weapons to say, Bosnia, Palestine, Vanuatu, Uganda or Myanmar – all of which have lower per capita gun homicide rates that the United States?[iv]


[i] Firearm export controls in each UN Member State are documented by, a project of the Sydney School of Public Health, at In the left hand column, search ‘Facts by Country,’ then in the chosen Country Page, open the category: Gun Regulation / Collection, Amnesty and Destruction Programmes / Destruction and Disposal Policy.

[ii] The United States imposes the most rigorous firearm export controls of any UN Member State. Ironically, once imported to the US, ex-Australian police handguns are unlikely to be granted US State Department approval for re-export, on the grounds that they could well be used in armed violence and human rights abuses.

[iii] OSCE Document on Small Arms and Light Weapons FSC.DOC/1/00. Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Vienna, 24 November 2000

[iv] To compare international rates of gun death and injury, select a primary country at / Gun Death and Injury / Rate of Gun Homicide per 100,000 People, then click on the Compare button.