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Australia mulls new gun amnesty as city shootings rise

General scene of the Port Arthur historic convict site in Tasmania. A gunman killed 35 people here in 1996. (Photo by Geoff Hiscock)

SYDNEY -- A crazed gunman shot dead 35 people at Port Arthur, a historic tourist site in the Australian island state of Tasmania in April 1996, prompting then-Prime Minister John Howard to outlaw military-style assault weapons and introduce a gun buyback scheme as part of a tough set of national firearm laws.

Australia's gun homicide and suicide rates have both fallen markedly in the intervening 20 years and there have been no mass shootings (defined as five or more victims) since the tragedy at Port Arthur. But gun-related violence in Australia's biggest cities has risen in recent years, and now federal and state authorities are considering a new gun amnesty and other measures such as tougher sentences to counter a surge of shootings in Melbourne and Sydney.

Drive-by handgun shootings in the two cities feature almost daily on newscasts. Virtually all of these incidents are attributed to turf wars between crime gangs fighting over the drug trade and other illegal activities. Of the four defined terrorist incidents in Australia in the last two years, two have involved firearms, and in both cases the guns were illegally obtained.

Victoria's Crime Statistics Agency says weapons and explosives offences across the state rose 18.5% in the year to March 31 2016, jumping to 16,248, with Melbourne the area with the highest rate of offences. In the latest fatal shooting in Sydney, on Sept. 9, two men used semi-automatic handguns to kill a member of an outlaw motorcycle gang.

Adler A110 lever-action shotgun. The seven-shot version is banned in Australia. (Courtesy of Adler Arms)

Howard's 1996 buyback scheme and follow-on amnesties took more than 1 million firearms out of Australian homes, reducing the number of guns across the nation by a third. But experts estimate that at least the same number of new guns has entered Australia legally in the past 20 years. The problem is that many of them end up in criminal hands, either through theft or illegal trading.

Will a new national amnesty work? A big supporter of the government's proposed amnesty is the Alannah and Madeline Foundation, a children's safety group named after two sisters, aged six and three, who were killed with their mother at Port Arthur. The foundation's CEO, Lesley Podesta, said that reducing the number of firearms in the community -- particularly illegal guns -- reduced the potential for firearm deaths.

'Feel-good' gesture

Philp Alpers, a firearm violence expert at the University of Sydney, says that gun amnesties are the "favorite feel-good gesture" of politicians, but have little practical impact unless linked to a ban on a particular type of weapon.

Alpers, adjunct associate professor at the university's Sydney School of Public Health, said amnesties "bring in the rubbish guns, the guns the criminals don't want. It's hard to imagine a gangster handing over a semi-auto pistol which might have cost $5,000 dollars on the black market," he told the Nikkei Asian Review.

Unlike the U.S., there is no constitutional right to bear arms in Australia, and gun ownership is markedly lower, particularly outside rural areas where farmers use guns to control pests such as wild dogs and pigs. With a population of 24.2 million, Australia has about 3 million legal guns, and an estimated 260,000-plus illegal weapons. There is a substantial sporting shooter base, with the Sporting Shooters Association of Australia claiming about 150,000 members.

Australia has no domestic gun manufacturing industry, and imported more than 100,000 guns legally in the year to June 30 2015. About 7% of these went to law enforcement agencies.

Announcing the gun amnesty proposal on Sept. 14, Federal Justice Minister Michael Keenan said his goal was to ensure law enforcement agencies had the resources they needed to detect and seize illegal firearms. He said state-level officials had given unanimous support in August for a new national firearms amnesty in principle, though its timing and structure are yet to be determined.

Alpers, who is founding director of the website run by the Sydney School of Public Health, said that after the 1996 Port Arthur shootings, the Howard government's long-gun and handgun amnesties "amounted to confiscation of legally purchased, but newly banned private property under threat of jail time, with $500 million paid in compensation."

Alpers said that based on his comparison of 350 jurisdictions, Australia now had the "most comprehensive suite of gun controls in the world."

"They're not the most stringent -- for example, Singapore and others have the death penalty for firearm possession and the UK has totally banned handguns -- but this country's broad range of firearm-related laws and regulations is the most holistic, and the most likely to succeed, given effective enforcement," he said.

There is no doubt, however, that Australia's firearms regulations have been weakened in the past 10 years, he said. "Every state and territory has been persuaded to wind back its gun laws to some degree. The gun lobby pressure to do so is relentless."

Alpers said while mass killers favored rapid-fire long guns, the weapon of choice for criminals was now the handgun. "No voluntary amnesty seems likely to collect the pistols and revolvers, which can be worth thousands of dollars to a career criminal," he said.

While criminals may prefer handguns, public attention in Australia has recently focused on rapid-fire shotguns. In response to campaigns by anti-gun groups, in July 2015 the federal government put a 12-month freeze on the import of lever-action shotguns with a magazine capacity greater than five rounds, such as the Adler A110 seven-shot. Justice Minister Keenan said the government acted after it became aware that 7,000 of these lever-action shotguns were due to be imported in the second half of 2015.

'No threat' to safety

In July this year Keenan extended the ban until a review is completed of the National Firearms Agreement, which was set up by the federal and state governments after the 1996 massacre. The review is set for completion in the next few months.

The ban infuriated gun dealers, with the National Firearm Dealers Association maintaining that the Adler A110 was neither a pump-action shotgun nor a semi-automatic weapon.

According to the Sporting Shooters' Association of Australia, "there is no evidence of lever-action shotguns having been used in crime in Australia since federation," and they demonstrated "no threat to public safety."

Australia's biggest privately owned gun importer, Brisbane-based NIOA, warned on Sept. 16 that there was "every possibility" that changes to the National Firearms Agreement "could lead to compulsory confiscation of some firearms." It said this was "the biggest threat to licensed law-abiding firearm owners since the 1996 gun confiscation." NIOA's managing director Robert Nioa, who is also president of the Firearm Dealers Association of Queensland, said earlier this year that lever-action shotguns were "primarily used for feral pest destruction in areas where feral pigs are devastating local flora and fauna and causing financial hardship for farmers."

Pro-gun politician Robert Borsak, who represents the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party in the New South Wales parliament, has called on Keenan and his state and territory counterparts to clarify details of the proposed amnesty. "The focus of any change to firearms laws needs to be entirely on targeting criminals and the illegal firearms market," he said.

According to figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics and the Australian Institute of Criminology, the country's homicide rate has fallen substantially, down from 341 in 2003 to 236 in 2015. The most-used weapon in 2015 was a knife, accounting for 30% of deaths. About 11% involved a firearm, equal to a rate of about 0.1 deaths per 100,000 people. The suicide by firearm rate in Australia dropped from 2.1 deaths per 100,000 in 1996 to 0.7 deaths per 100,000 in 2014.

In comparison, in the U.S. last year, guns were used in 21,175 suicides (6.7 deaths per 100,000) and 11,208 homicides (3.5 deaths per 100,000), according to the National Center for Health Statistics. More than half of all U.S. suicides involve a gun.

Gun control provokes passionate debate in Australia, but participants agree that cracking down hard on the illegal gun trade is a first priority.

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