The Firearms Act 1996 Vic. was passed by the Victorian Parliament on October 31st 1996 in accordance with the National Agreement on Firearms which aimed to create uniform gun laws Australia wide. The Act repealed the Firearms Act 1958 Vic.
and the Firearms Act Amendment 1983 Vic. and established prohibitions on certain people and guns. Under the Act, a ‘prohibited person’ was defined as anyone who had served a jail term for an indictable, assault or drug related offence or subject to a domestic violence intervention order.New categories for guns were created and gun owners had to pass certain requirements and demonstrate genuine reason for owning a firearm as well as provide appropriate storage for the weapon.
Strict fines and jail sentences were established for offenders, but owners of newly prohibited guns were able to surrender their weapons and receive compensated under the national guns amnesty. Categories C and D guns including semi-automatic rifles, shotguns and pump-action shotguns were prohibited unless the applicant could prove a specific use for the weapon such as professional farming or hunting and that Category A or B weapons was insufficient.Category E included machine, teargas and shot guns and rifles shorter than 75cm. Category E license applicants had to prove the firearm was required for police or military duties.
Handguns, were classified in their own category and had tighter requirements for ownership. The reasons behind the change in gun laws were both social and political. Between 1987 and 1996, 136 people were killed in gun massacres alone. After the Hoddle and Queen Street massacres of 1987, great public concern arose and the Victorian premier tried to tighten gun laws.
The Strathfield massacre of 1991 intensified the debate in Sydney and subsequently importation of semi-automatic weapons was banned nationally. As Australia became more urbanised, 90% of the nation realised the need for stricter gun laws to assure their safety and security by restricting the availability of high powered weapons and banning convicted criminals and domestic violence offenders from owning guns. In 1996 the Australian Institute of Criminology found that the majority of people killed with guns were killed in states with relaxed gun laws.Furthermore, gun deaths dropped 30% after tougher Victorian gun laws were introduced in 1987.
People saw this correlation between stricter gun laws and fewer gun related deaths, exemplified by the Port Arthur massacre where Bryant was able to own a military-style semi-automatic rifle without a licence, and pushed hard for tougher gun laws and longer sentences for offenders. Fear of an Australian gun culture was also of concern, with one in six households owning at least one gun, almost double in rural areas; one of the highest gun ownership rates in the western world.Society as a whole found this unacceptable and pushed to ensure that only those with genuine reason could access to guns. The Port Arthur massacre acted as a catalyst for change , causing public concern and outrage.
However, the choice to change the law was chiefly a political decision. Despite the extreme public pressure, the change in law occurred because the government of the time recognised the need for uniform change. After people recognised the need for a formal change in the gun laws nation-wide, the issue was extensively debated.Individuals and pressure groups with opposing opinions, views and demands of the Government argued their reasons in public meetings, demonstrations and the media.
Prime Minister John Howard took swift political action after the massacre, pushing for “a total ban throughout Australia on all automatic and semi-automatic weapons” and promptly calling a meeting of all Police Ministers, who unanimously backed the National Agreement on Firearms. He attributed the Port Arthur massacre to the lack of national uniformity and the weakness of gun laws in some states, and called for a national gun register and prohibitions on certain people.The Sporting Shooters’ Association of Australia played an important role in opposing most of the Government’s views and fought any further restrictions on their access to firearms, which it felt “treated [sporting shooters] as potential criminals rather than ordinary and responsible citizens”. It claimed “the proclamation of the act had more to do withâ€¦ publicityâ€¦ than with good government” and it was a “disastrous, disgraceful mistake”.
It said “World Health Organisation figures show[ed] there was no relation between lawful gun ownership and gun crime” and that “legal access to guns is not reflected in gun misuse”.Furthermore, it claimed that if gun laws were tightened, criminals would resort to different weapons, and that guns would be pushed onto the black market where government control would be impossible. Martin Bryant himself was important in the change in the law through the fact that he was able to own a semi-automatic weapon without a shooter’s licence; showing the weakness of the previous gun laws. Furthermore, if the Port Arthur massacre had not been happened, the flaws of the old gun laws would not have been exposed and the Australian people would not have had solid reason to rally for tougher laws.
Graham Campbell formed the Australia First Reform Party to represent the views of the pro-gun lobby in federal parliament. He claimed that further gun restrictions would attack citizens’ basic freedoms, be inconvenient for rural communities and make Australia vulnerable to outside attack. Walter Mikac, a survivor of the Port Arthur massacre in which his wife and two children were killed, rallied heavily for tougher gun laws. “Deliver to us uniform laws that will give our children the best possible chance to live without fear of someone having access to violent power that can maim and kill”, he said at his family’s funeral.
He wrote numerous newspaper and magazine articles, did many interviews and spoke at numerous rallies, relentlessly pushing for tougher gun laws. The Shooters’ Party chairman Neville Sayers also spoke out against the new laws in newspapers, interviews and at rallies. He felt the Government acted “hysterically” after the Port Arthur massacre and “didn’t bother to cool off” before changing the law. He argued that tougher gun laws would strip “away important rights of honest shooters” and force the newly-illegal guns underground.
Frank Carmody, a survivor of the Queen Street massacre, also rallied heavily for tougher gun laws, making public appearances and speaking to the media â€“ “People are fed up with excuses. People don’t want this sort of thing to happen again”. Many other individuals and groups spoke out against tougher gun laws including the Victorian Paintball Operators Association, that claimed they would loose business to other states because the Act required paintball players to hold a Category A licence. Recreational shooters were also against the change, which meant that they would only be able to shoot at approved shooting ranges.
The Australian Institute of Criminology’s 1996 report on guns was widely distributed, playing an important role in support of the change. It concluded that 7. 3% of all injury deaths were firearm related and that most firearm deaths were suicides. These important statistics supported claims from groups such as the Human Rights and Responsibilities Commission and the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare for stricter gun control.
In the ten-year period building up to the Port Arthur massacre in 1996, various individuals and groups had demanded change in Victoria’s firearms laws.After the Queen and Hoddle Street massacres of 1987, Premier John Cain tried to tighten Victorian gun laws to restrict the use of semi-automatic weapons in response to the wide public outcry. In 1988, Prime Minister Bob Hawke established the National Committee on Violence in response to public concerns over the growing number of firearms and weak state laws. The committee achieved little prior to the 1991 Strathfield massacre, when it convinced the Federal Government to ban the importation of military-style semi-automatic weapons.
Federal and State Governments responded effectively and promptly to the strong call for stricter gun control from almost all Australians after the Port Arthur massacre. Only 12 days after the massacre, Prime Minister Howard called the historic Police Ministers meeting to discuss tougher uniform gun laws and create the important National Agreement on Firearms. This agreement aimed to remove “dangerous firearms from our community andâ€¦ [establish] uniform registration and licensing together with the introduction of comprehensive conditions for firearms ownership”.The Victorian Government responded to the strong gun control lobby, fuelled by the outrage of Port Arthur, emotional cries from Walter Mikac and demands from groups like Gun Control Australia.
Victoria was the first state to respond to nation-wide calls for stricter gun control. , including the public view “possession, use, acquisition and disposal of firearms are conditional on the need to ensure public safety and peace by establishing a system of licensing and regulat[ion]” in the act.The Victorian parliament responded competently to public demands by complying with all parts of the National Agreement on Firearms, including the ‘genuine reason’ aspect contested by Queensland and Western Australia as a result of strong public demands for guns to be only available where absolutely necessary. Gun law reform reflected the existing values of the majority of the community and also attempted to generate new values through the new laws and stringent penalties.
The value that everyone is entitled to live in a safe environment was reflected generally in the Act.Specifically, it reinforced this value through the gun buy-back scheme by removing dangerous guns from the community, the prohibited persons category by taking guns from potential criminals and different licence categories by ensuring that people only had access to the firearms they were licensed to use. The belief that access to guns should be restricted to only those with ‘genuine need’ was reflected through the Act and was a primary element to be established before a licence could be issued.The Act further enforces this value by deciding “that personal protection not be regarded as genuine reason for owning, possessing or using a firearm”.
The community value that preservation of human life is of paramount importance was strongly reflected in the Act by prohibiting certain groups of people from owning guns. The Act prohibited criminals convicted for indictable, assault or drug related offences from owning firearms for specified periods of time depending on their conviction. Those subject to domestic violence intervention orders were also prohibited because of the high correlation between domestic violence and gun deaths.Despite the inclusion of most common social values, some particularly those held by the anti gun control lobby were excluded from the Act.
Shooters claimed that the most important right was their supposed ‘right to bear arms’. However, Australians have never been guaranteed this right, and this belief was enforced in the Act through the ‘genuine need’ aspect of licensing. Through the Firearms Act, the Government also tried to generate new values as most people respect the law and government and incorporated the new laws into their values, reinforcing the value that society should be free from dangerous firearms.Harsher penalties for firearm offenders reinforced the opinion that people should only have access to the guns they require.
The Act also encouraged a higher public regard for the law through creating reasonable sanctions. The Firearms Act 1996 Vic. impacted positively and negatively on individuals, the legal system and society in general. The Act made the community safer and prevented an uncountable number of firearm deaths, but also restricted legitimate recreational shooters’ access to firearms.
The Act impacted heavily on the legal system because many people rejected the new laws and refused to surrender their newly-prohibited weapons. This forced law enforcement agencies to spend extra time and resources tracking down offenders, causing extra expense to the community and giving the impression that people who disagreed with laws could simply disregard them. Many illegal firearms were siphoned on to the black market, where government control was impossible. The ‘genuine reason’ requirement for licensing stopped a US style ‘gun culture’ from developing in Australia, as only those who needed guns could access them.
Paintball players and operators were also affected by the Act which required all players to hold a Category A shooter’s licence. The added inconvenience of licensing stopped people from playing and subsequently, many paintball centres were forced to close. Many gun shops too were forced to close after the new laws were introduced, because tougher restrictions meant that fewer people had access to guns. Although the Firearms Act has impacted negatively on some parts of the community, as a whole, the Act exemplifies the views and beliefs of most people and has resulted in increased community safety.