Gun numbers top pre-Port Arthur levels
by Ian Townsend
More than a decade after the horrific Port Arthur Massacre, gun ownership is on the rise in Australia, but experts say this resurgence is highlighting serious problems with the current regulation and registration system.
In the 15 years since Martin Bryant killed 35 people at the popular Tasmanian tourist site, the flow of firearms into Australia has eclipsed the amount recovered in the government funded buy-back scheme.
Last financial year alone Australians imported more than 85,000 firearms, including 44,000 rifles, 12,000 shotguns and nearly 20,000 handguns, and research by Radio National’s Background Briefing program has revealed a resurging interest in guns and hunting.
“I would say about 80 per cent of our membership are hunters,” Tim Bannister, from the 134,000-strong Sporting Shooters Association of Australia (SSAA), said.
“We’ve seen a change of the demographic. So we’re seeing younger members, we’re seeing women. Once upon a time it was perhaps older men, but now we’re seeing a real mix, which is really good.”
The new interest in shooting is reflected in increasing gun club memberships and long waiting lists for the mandatory firearm safety courses.
“We hold a safety course here once a month, but we could virtually do a safety course of about 15 people once a week,” Ron Dixon, president of the SSAA gun club at Ipswich, west of Brisbane, said.
The club has had a 10 per cent jump in membership in the past year, from 1900 members to 2100.
“A lot of young people are joining. A lot join for hunting, you know, they like to come out to hunt. They’ll come out here and sight their rifles and get ready to go out hunting.”
In the past 16 months, 47,000 new guns have been registered in Queensland alone.
One of those new gun owners is Tim, who three months ago bought a .30-30 hunting rifle. He was at the Ipswich gun club recently with three friends who were hoping to get gun licenses.
“Traditionally, it was a lot of older guys,” he said.
“But I think maybe with the influence of video games and what not, guns are getting a bit more attention; hopefully, a bit more positive attention.
“There are misconceptions of the sport, and it is a good, fun, safe sport.”
Gun control advocate Rebecca Peters says gun control groups are worried a resurgence of guns means a return to a pre-1996 gun culture.
“It’s possible that gun ownership is becoming cool again,” she said.
“It’s possible that the interest in guns is rising. I don’t think that’s a good thing, because in general it’s a kind of a pastime which is more associated with Australia’s past than with the modern Australia.”
And crime experts are warning the current system is ill-equipped to deal with the rise in gun use.
After the Port Arthur massacre, tightened gun laws made it mandatory to register every gun, and a streamlined national gun registration and licensing system was also promised.
Today, that national system is in a mess. No federal agencies or crime researchers were able to tell the ABC exactly how many registered guns or licensed shooters are in the country, and by how much gun numbers and gun owners were increasing.
The best estimate was 2.7 million registered guns, based on patchy figures supplied to Background Briefing.
The national police information service CrimTrac does have a national database, and it lists 4.3 million registered firearms. A CrimTrac spokesperson says it has no control over the data and was unable to say anything else about those 4.3 million guns.
For the past 15 years, gun homicide rates have been falling, but researchers fear because gun data is poorly kept and rarely shared, new crime trends involving guns are being missed.
Don Weatherburn, the director of the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, says there needs to be a uniform system for recording crime statistics.
“It’s not just national gun statistics. National crime statistics are in a dismal state and they really need significant attention,” he said.
“We have some states counting things differently to other states, they’re often non-comparable and for a while there the Australian Bureau of Statistics even made it impossible to compare one state’s crimes with another states crimes.
“And that’s important because it’s the statistical information that tells the public what’s going on and also helps organisations like ours to analyse the trends and identify the patterns that can help police. So it’s true to say that national crime statistics are badly in need of repair and reform.”
Listen to ‘Guns are Back’ on Background Briefing, ABC Radio National, Sunday November 13 9.10am, Tuesday November 15 7.05pm.
Original source: Australian Broadcasting Commission