Australia’s gun laws returned to the headlines in the wake of last month’s horrific terrorist attack in Christchurch and the subsequent revelation that senior One Nation figures had met with and sought donations from the United States’ National Rifle Association.
One Nation’s leader in Queensland, Steve Dickson, was filmed saying the party would “have the testicles of the Government in our hand at every given stage” if it gained the balance of power.
He was also seen in the Al Jazeera investigation saying that “guns, in the scheme of things, are still going to be the be-all and end-all”.
The morning after the investigation was broadcast, Attorney-General Christian Porter told ABC News Breakfast the Coalition was “utterly stringent in protecting Australians and maintaining the strength and stringency of our gun laws”.
“In fact, as a Government, we have twice tried to pass increased penalties and mandatory minimum penalties for gun traffickers, which has been opposed by the Labor Party,” Porter said.
So, did the Coalition twice try to pass increased penalties and mandatory minimum penalties for gun traffickers?
And were these moves opposed by the Labor Party?
RMIT ABC Fact Check investigates.
Part of Porter’s claim is correct and part of it is incorrect.
Since it was returned to office in 2013, the Coalition has made two attempts to increase maximum penalties for firearms trafficking offences.
Labor did not oppose these. Indeed, it tried to introduce higher maximum penalties.
But Labor has opposed the Coalition’s repeated attempts to introduce mandatory minimum five-year jail terms for firearms traffickers.
A quick look at major gun reform in Australia
The Howard Coalition government introduced sweeping gun control reforms in the immediate wake of 1996’s Port Arthur massacre, in which 35 people were killed.
Federal, state and territory governments entered into the National Firearms Agreement (1996), which provided for restrictions on automatic, semi-automatic and pump action rifles, as well as shotguns.
It also ushered in stricter requirements for the registration and storage of firearms, among other measures.
A national gun buyback scheme saw more than 640,000 firearms handed in.
In 2002, following a shooting at Monash University, reforms aimed at controlling illegal trade in firearms and restricting the use of handguns were introduced as part of the National Firearm Trafficking Policy Agreement and National Handgun Control Agreement.
These three agreements were intended to strengthen gun laws and encourage the adoption of consistent legislation in all states and territories.
It’s important to note that these agreements are just that: agreements, not law.
Each state and territory government is independently responsible for the regulation of the use, possession and sale of firearms in its jurisdiction.
What are the penalties for firearms trafficking?
In 2013, when the Coalition was returned to power, the maximum penalties for illegal firearms trafficking were a fine of up to 2,500 penalty units (equal to $425,000 at the then Commonwealth penalty unit price of $170), imprisonment for up to 10 years, or both.
Today, the maximum penalties remain the same: a fine of up to 2,500 penalty units (equal to $525,000 at the current Commonwealth penalty unit price of $210), imprisonment for up to 10 years, or both.
Did the Coalition try to introduce higher maximum penalties for firearms traffickers?
Yes, it did.
Since 2013, the Coalition has made two attempts to increase maximum penalties for firearms trafficking offences, in the Criminal Code Amendment (Firearms Trafficking) Bill 2015 (the December 2015 bill) and the Criminal Code Amendment (Firearms Trafficking) Bill 2016 (now 2017), (the 2016-17 bill).
In both bills, the Coalition proposed increasing the maximum penalties for trafficking firearms or firearms parts to a fine of 5,000 penalty units (equal to $1.05 million), 20 years imprisonment, or both — a doubling of the existing maximum penalties.
Did Labor oppose the higher maximum penalties?
No, it didn’t.
Labor voiced support for the increased maximum penalties proposed in the December 2015 bill.
In February 2016, then-shadow minister for justice, David Feeney, told the House of Representatives that Labor “of course, support a harshening of the sentences”.
He pointed to the fact that Labor had already tried, in 2012, to introduce increased maximum penalties in its Crimes Legislation Amendment (Organised Crime and Other Measures) Bill.
Labor’s 2012 bill followed an agreement between Commonwealth, state and territory ministers to a range of measures targeting gun crime, including the introduction of a new category of “aggravated offences” for firearm trafficking, with a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. This bill lapsed at the end of parliament in 2013.
The Coalition’s December 2015 bill also lapsed at the dissolution of the parliament, in May 2016.
Labor also supported the Coalition’s proposal for stronger penalties in the 2016-17 bill. Indeed, the Opposition sought to introduce even higher maximum penalties.
Labor proposed the introduction of a category of “aggravated offences” to be applied to convictions for importing or exporting, taking or sending, or disposing or acquiring more than 50 firearms or firearm parts in a six-month period.
For people convicted of “aggravated offences”, Labor suggested maximum penalties of 7,500 penalty units (close to $1.6 million), life imprisonment, or both.
In the same 2016-17 bill, the Nick Xenophon Team also introduced an amendment to increase the maximum imprisonment for non-aggravated offences to 30 years, a proposal supported by Labor.
Debating the bill in February 2017, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate Penny Wong said Labor believed “the amendments we propose, comprising tough new aggravated offences, alongside the higher maximum penalty for the basic firearms trafficking offences in the bill, which we support, will send a clear message that gun trafficking is as serious as drug trafficking and will attract the same severe penalties”.
The version of the bill passed by the Senate in February 2017 included the new maximum penalties for “aggravated offences” proposed by Labor, and kept the maximum financial penalty for “basic offences” at 5,000 penalty units, but raised the maximum prison sentence for basic offences to 30 years.
The bill was still awaiting debate in April 2019, when it lapsed at the dissolution of parliament ahead of the May election…
Principal researcher: Lucinda Beaman, Sydney editor
Additional research: Natasha Grivas