Guns Trickle in to Australia Turn-in
U.S. policymakers, NRA-ILA, and even some of the most ardent anti-gun researchers, have long understood that gun turn-in programs do not hinder criminal violence. Despite the overwhelming evidence, the Land Down Under is currently in the midst of a National Firearms Amnesty program that aims to rid the country of its illegally possessed guns. Given the results so far, it appears unlikely the effort will make a meaningful dent in the country’s stock of illicit firearms.
Australia’s turn-in is set to last through September 30. Thanks to the work of the Sporting Shooters’ Association of Australia (SSAA), in addition to handing guns over for destruction, the amnesty permits gun owners to register firearms that they are eligible to possess, or to sell them through a licensed dealer. In addition to firearms, states and territories are also accepting ammunition, crossbows, knives, and body armor (which typically requires a difficult to obtain license to use).
The Australian Government’s messaging about the purpose of the amnesty has been convoluted. On the one hand, the government has used the specter of crime and terrorism to justify the turn-in. However, the government has admitted that individuals engaged in such activities are unlikely to relinquish their firearms. Justice Minister Michael Keenan admitted to the Australian Broadcasting Company in June that “it’s probably not going to be the case that we will have hardened criminals, for example, who have made a big effort to get ahold of illegal guns, will not necessarily be handing them in.” Instead, it is the government’s purported theory that diminishing the number of unregistered firearms among the law-abiding will somehow stop criminals and terrorists from accessing guns.
In this vein, the government’s National Firearms Amnesty propaganda is geared at the generally law-abiding.
Amnesty posters and pamphlets feature a man handing over a bolt-action rifle and warn that those who do not comply with Australia’s strict gun laws face up to $280,000 in fines and 14 years in prison. The choice of artwork is odd if the government’s goal is public safety, as a 2008 article from the Australian Institute of Criminology pointed out that Australia’s criminals, like those in other countries, favor handguns.
For their part, gun rights supporters have been skeptical of the program. In June, Liberal Democrat Senator from New South Wales David Leyonhjelmtold the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that “[the amnesty is] purely for appearance purposes. It won’t do anything to address guns on the street, they’ll end up with grandma’s rusty old shotgun or rifle. Which was never going to be used in crime in the first place.” Taking a similar position, SSAA stated that the amnesty is “unlikely to affect SSAA members, nor will it entice criminals to hand in their illegal wares.”
The limited anecdotal and statistical evidence from the current turn-in confirms Leyonhjelm and SSAA’s predictions.
According to Justice Minister Keenan, as of August 9, roughly 12,500 firearms had been brought to authorities throughout the country. While some in the Australian press have boasted about the haul, a closer look reveals little to cheer about. Estimates of the number of firearms illegally possessed in Australia range from 260,000 to 600,000. Moreover, sophisticated criminal networks have demonstrated the ability to smuggle large quantities of firearms into the country.
A breakdown of the firearms being turned over to state and territorial governments also does not bode well for the program’s efficacy. So far in Australia’s most populous state, New South Wales, roughly 6,400 firearms have been brought to the authorities. Of those firearms surrendered, 2,160 were rifles or shotguns, while less than 200 were handguns. As noted earlier, just like in the U.S., Australia’s criminals favor handguns. On an encouraging note, the article indicates that the remainder of the 6,400 firearms were brought in for registration, and will continue to be owned by licensed firearms owners.
The anecdotal evidence also suggests that many of the firearms that have been turned over did not pose a threat to the community. An article from the ABC shared the story of licensed gun owner Alan Pursell who relinquished a forgotten shotgun he had discovered while moving. The piece went on to relay the comments of Tasmania Police Sergeant Phil Burton, who explained that “about a third of the people taking advantage of the amnesty had told police they inherited the gun or found it while administering a deceased estate.” An article from the Herald Sun was accompanied by a picture of several antique handguns turned over by what the writer termed “an old lady.”
To the extent that the National Firearms Amnesty offers gun owners who wish to fully comply with Australia’s onerous gun laws the opportunity to register previously unregistered firearms, it is innocuous. Of course, given Australia’s history of gun confiscation, one might understand why some Aussie shooters would be reluctant make the government aware of their arms. The pernicious aspect of this program is that it continues to perpetuate the myth that such turn-ins and the subsequent destruction of large quantities of firearms, provided overwhelmingly by otherwise law-abiding individuals, can have a meaningful impact on violent crime. All but the most obstinate anti-gun jurisdictions in the U.S. have recognized the flaws in this strategy and the remaining holdouts here and abroad would be wise to follow suit.
© 2017 National Rifle Association of America, Institute for Legislative Action. This may be reproduced. This may not be reproduced for commercial purposes.