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Justice Minister Michael Keenan’s announcement last week that the federal government would introduce the first national gun amnesty since 1996 has been widely reported. But what exactly is a gun amnesty, and why has the government decided to introduce one now?

What is a gun amnesty?

A gun amnesty is a period of non-prosecution that allows people to surrender their unwanted or unregistered firearms without fear of legal repercussions. This differs from a “gun buyback” where the government compensates gun owners for the surrender of firearms, though the two have previously run concurrently.

When was the last gun amnesty? And how many guns were handed in?

The last federal firearm amnesty was in response to the Port Arthur massacre in 1996 and ran from October 1, 1996, until September 30, 1997. The 1996 gun amnesty included both a period of non-prosecution and a national buyback scheme to compensate gun owners whose firearms had become illegal.

In 2003, following the Monash University shooting in 2002, the federal government introduced a new buyback to compensate owners of certain handguns that became unlawful.

While the new federal gun amnesty is the first since the one following Port Arthur, it is almost always possible to surrender unwanted guns to police. The founder of gunpolicy.org and associate professor of public health at Sydney University Philip Alpers told Crikey:

“Over two decades, each state and territory has made the same offer every day of the year. Contact a police station or a registered gun dealer and they’ll arrange to take it off your hands, register it for you, then sell or destroy it. This latest re-announcement merely re-advertises the status quo … a permanent amnesty for unwanted firearms.”

How does the new gun amnesty work?

The new federal gun amnesty will be in place between July 1 and September 30, 2017. During that time, anyone can surrender their firearms or have them registered at approved locations in every state or territory.

How many illegal guns are there in Australia? And how do we know that?

In short: there’s no way to be certain. According to Keenan, the government estimates that there are roughly 260,000 illegal guns in Australia. However, Keenan concedes that there is no way to be certain of the exact number of firearms, having told the ABC, “You never have a complete picture, you only can just make intelligence assessments based on the intelligence we have.”

Those numbers rely on a few different intelligence sources but are primarily based off police seizures and the interception of illegally imported firearms.

While a report by the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission released last year, reinforced the estimate of 260,000 illegal firearms, it also cautioned there could be as many as 300,000 to 600,000 illegal firearms in the country.

Why is the government holding this gun amnesty now?

When announcing the new amnesty, Keenan specifically mentioned Australia’s “deteriorating national security environment” as a contributing factor leading to the amnesty.

The amnesty does follow several high-profile crimes involving illegal firearms, included Yacqub Khayre’s siege in Brighton on June 5. Police have said two shotguns belonging to Khayre were found after the siege, and have since charged a Westmeadows man for allegedly supplying Khayre with those guns.

Keenan has also said illegal guns were used in 2014 during the Lindt cafe siege and again in 2015 during the Parramatta shooting, which killed police accountant Curtis Cheng.

Do gun amnesties lead to less crime?

Both state and federal gun amnesties have resulted in a large number of firearms being either handed in or registered. Since Port Arthur, over 1 million guns have been surrendered to police during state or federal amnesties. A three-month amnesty in Queensland in 2013 resulted in over 19,000 weapons (including one flamethrower) being surrendered and a further 14,000 being legally registered.

However, simply having people hand in guns in doesn’t necessarily reduce the levels of gun violence. While the risk of an Australian dying of gun violence has fallen by more than 50%, since 1996, that amnesty involved the banning and subsequent buyback of a particularly dangerous class of guns.

Alpers has previously suggested that a policy of just firearm amnesty is ineffective at stopping gun violence. This is because people who willingly surrender firearms have typically only used them lawfully, and they bring in “rubbish guns” that no criminal wants anyway. Alpers has said the best policy response to increased gun violence occurs when governments target both illegal and legal gun ownership, thereby reducing the overall availability of guns in a market.

Australia

Apr 2, 2013

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In December last year 24 men and four women, including me, assembled for the compulsory test of the Victoria Police Firearms Safety Code to obtain firearms licences. The test is part of a new suite of laws that prohibit anyone without a gun licence and licence to hunt waterfowl from being within 25 metres of the shore during the duck hunting season.

But I didn’t want to shoot ducks. I was there to get the pieces of paper I needed to protest against the practice of duck hunting. Here’s the story of how I did just that.

With no preamble, the host produced a mangled tube of metal. We fondled it and passed it on. It was a piece of the action of a shotgun, ruined by someone using ammo of the wrong calibre. It was the closest I’d ever been to a gun. The host went on to take us through parts of a gun, gun types, loading considerations and so on. After that, the local District Firearms Officer lectured on where a gun must be locked up (in a safe place, separate from the ammunition) and the other nine rules of firearm safety.

Then it was time for the 30-question, multiple-choice test. “We want you to pass,” said the policemen. “It’s designed for 13-year-olds!” He addressed individuals as he wandered around during  the test. “Are you sure about that?”; “What about option (B)?” Questions included:

When shooting companions are known to have been drinking alcohol or using drugs the safe shooter will

(A) Make sure that he walks behind them in the hunting party

(B) refuse to shoot with them

(C) ensure they drink plenty of black coffee before leaving for the hunting area or

(D) check their physical and mental reactions before deciding whether they are likely to be safe in the field.

The arcade game Big Buck Hunter seemed more realistic than this. At least in the game you get to fire a shotgun, albeit a plastic one on a crappy swivel. Are there any other lethal weapons you’re allowed to handle in anger after passing only a written test?

With mine duly passed — a couple of incorrect answers notwithstanding — an eight-page application had to be filled out. A medical letter is required  if you’ve been treated in the last five years for psychiatric, alcohol or drug problems. I’ve had the odd psychiatric issue and have a conviction for drug possession. I got my firearms licence in the mail four weeks later.

If you wish to hunt ducks, you must also obtain a game licence, passing a 22-sequence video test identifying  “game” and “non-game” species. Here, I lost points for misidentifying a rare, endangered freckled duck. I passed anyway (with an A). The once-only waterfowl identification test was introduced as a precaution against wild, inaccurate firing in 1990, the result of lobbying by anti-duck hunting activists.

Thus equipped with the legal right to do so, on March 16, wearing wetsuit booties, leggings, shorts and a high-visibility vest, I waded into Lake Bael Bael, near Kerang. Minutes before the official opening of the season, the guns exploded. Five or six flocks of birds burst up and wheeled round in circles, scattering across the sky. Fastest were the game species — pink-eared ducks, with spatulate bills and torpedo profiles, while the sharp-winged silhouettes of avocets and stilts were smaller but unmistakable. Black swans flew majestically while tiny sandpipers pecked at the muddy edges. Shooters shot at everything.

As a perfect dawn flooded the sky, the dismal spectacle of birds falling began. With each hit, you tried to follow the body down. Birds killed cleanly tumbled in a vertical line, while wounded ones flew on at diminishing angles, losing height and speed, crash-landing on the water. Shooters urged their dogs to collect still-flapping birds, or waded over slowly and picked them up. Dying ducks were twirled by the head like yo-yos.

A fellow rescuer scooped up struggling birds with a fishing net. He offered them to shooters; the men refused. Somebody handed me a wounded teal. As a licence-holder, I was permitted to have possession of this native species. I rushed it to the vet, where it was euthanised.

Other rescuers were stopped by wildlife officers and charged with “failing to kill” wounded birds. This charge was tested against rescuer Tony Murphy in court last year and withdrawn. At Lake Bael Bael, the authorities detained a woman with a wounded duck, metres from the vet’s tent. She was aggressively questioned for over an hour; unsurprisingly, the bird died in her arms. None of the shooters was charged with violence, cruelty, or “failing to kill wounded game”. More activists were charged this year than ever before for “harassing and hindering” hunters, “failing to kill” wounded game or breaking the law keeping non-hunters on the sidelines.

Hunters tossed casual obscenities at the rescuers, who appeared to be a minor annoyance as they got on with the business of shooting down the birds. In the worst birdwatching site in the world, I kept the requisite 20 metres from the brown-and-green clad men and trained my binoculars on tiny sharp-tailed sandpipers, which fly here from the Arctic. They flew low, turning together in a frenzy.

After the opening weekend, Field and Game Australia’s chief executive said some who had obtained firearm licences and game hunting permits might be “in breach of the genuine reasons they used to obtain a firearm licence”. Indeed — I will never hunt.

In Victoria, no one defends these birds except a ragtag army of self-styled “rescuers”; the media are kept away. If these rescuers weren’t out there, no one would ever hear about the gross acts of cruelty, the protected and threatened species killed and the sheer unaccountability of duck hunters. As a society, we are all implicated, should we let it endure.

Markets

Dec 14, 2012

5 comments

A strange corollary of American politics is that the US small arms industry seems to prosper not when Republicans are in power but when there’s a Democrat in the White House. And when there’s a Kenyan-born Muslim socialist in the Oval Office, that’s especially the case.

Gun sales have soared in the US since the elections on November 6 and are running at their highest level for 14 years — in fact, since Bill Clinton was in the final years of his presidency.

After the surprisingly comfortable win by Barack Obama last month, the election of more women and wins in state referenda for issues like gay marriage and legalising dope smoking (including for medical use), you’d have thought the Land of the Free had relaxed a little.

Not so on the Right: applications for gun purchases soared in November to an all-time high of more than two million, as records from the FBI reveal. That’s the first time in the 14-year history of FBI background checks on prospective gun buyers that the number of applications had topped 2 million in a month. This year looks likely to see more than 18 million background checks for firearms, well up on 2011’s 16.5 million. Adjusted for population, it reflects how gun ownership has surged under a Democratic president.

The impact on gun companies is dramatic. Business is surging, pushing sales and profits higher for the likes of Smith and Wesson, one of the biggest gun makers in the US. In its second quarter profit announcement last week, the company told investors the improvement in sales had swollen profit margins by more than a third in the past year.

And the biggest US gun maker, Sturm, Ruger and Co, told the US market in late October that in the three months to September, “earnings increased 62% from the third quarter of 2011, driven by the 47% growth in sales”.

Sales jumped in many states, especially the hunting states of Texas, Ohio, Michigan, Alabama, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Virginia and the Carolinas, but also New York and California, though fell in some other likely suspects like Kentucky, Montana and Maine. Intriguingly, sales were slightly down in resource-rich states.

According to a recent Gallup poll, 47% of Americans own a gun — the highest percentage share since 1993.

Another, more recently emerged obsession of the Right in the US is with gold — many Tea Partiers, to the dismay of mainstream Republicans, urged a return to the gold standard, not out of any awareness of its economic implications but because it has the safe, nostalgic ring of the Founding Fathers to it. Demand for gold coins soared last month in the wake of the election result. Fears about the impact of the fiscal cliff with its spending cuts, higher taxes and possible damage to growth and employment, have been given as the reason for the surge in purchases.

The US Mint says its sales of American Eagle coins jumped 131% last month, which dealers put down to the election result and fears about the economic outlook among core investors. The Financial Times reported one dealer saying coin sales started rising sharply later in the week of the poll on November 6. So large has been the surge that gold coin sales in 2012 will be the highest in 14 years. Eagle coin sales in November totalled more than 131,000 ounces, or three times the level of November 2011 and the highest since November 1998.

“While coins are a small part of the overall gold market, the jump in sales highlights gold’s role as the favoured investment of disenchanted Americans. The political gridlock in Washington and the prospect of further quantitative easing when the Federal Reserve’s ‘operation twist’ expires at the end of this year have fuelled demand for precious metals among small investors,” FT reported.

Interestingly, the price of physical gold has dropped in the same time, falling under $US1685 an ounce late last week before rebounding to close around $US1711 overnight for not much change in the past six weeks. It seems some big investors, such as hedge funds, don’t see the need to hedge their positions or protect themselves by buying gold, copper, oil or other physical commodities, even though they could be paying more tax in 2013 and beyond.

Evidently they don’t have the same fears about the fiscal cliff, or inflation or the possibility of President Obama establishing a socialist tyranny.

United States

Dec 1, 2009

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