Australia’s Hidden Gun Problem

Anneke Ray
marie claire

Image: Getty

April 28 marks 20 years since the Port Arthur massacre and the implementation of Australia’s groundbreaking gun legislation. But with gun ownership back to 1996 levels and firearm restrictions under threat, are our gun laws failing to protect us?

It was just after 5pm on a brisk winter Sunday in Sydney, and the sickening sense of worry was building in Michelle Fernando’s stomach. She was due to meet her father, Vincent, that evening to attend a talk by a lawyer they both admired, but he hadn’t been answering his phone all day.

It was not like him. As the sunlight began to disappear, Michelle called her mother, who told her Vincent had gone over to Michelle’s sister’s house to help her fix a computer. The knot in Michelle’s stomach grew tighter. It seemed an unusual thing to do, given that Vincent had barely spoken to his mentally ill daughter in years because she suffered paranoid delusions about him.

Then the unthinkable became a horrific reality. Michelle drove the few blocks to her sister’s house and found the street teeming with police cars and crime scene tape. Earlier that day, her sister had walked out of a pistol club in the city’s south-east with a stolen semiautomatic handgun and 30 rounds of ammunition hidden in her handbag, before using it to shoot her father dead.

“It was horrifying, I can’t think of any other way to describe it,” says Michelle, almost six years on. “Even just getting the death certificate for my dad days later and seeing the cause of death – gunshot wounds. It was just the most ignoble, unfitting end for someone like him who was so gentle and funny and intelligent. Even the way he responded to my sister’s illness and her paranoia about him was so dignified and calm.”

In the aftermath of the tragedy, Michelle, a criminal lawyer, started looking into how her sister was allowed into a gun club. To her shock, she found that in a deal with the Shooters & Fishers Party in 2008, the NSW Labor government had changed the law to let people aged 12 and up enter a gun club to try shooting, without either a licence or the previous 28-day waiting period for criminal and mental health checks. Michelle’s sister was required to declare on a form if she had a mental illness, and simply wrote “no”. Her sister’s theft was not an isolated incident. Eight people have committed suicide in shooting clubs since 2002 and a gun stolen from a range was used in a siege. At a club in Sydney in 2012, a mother with postnatal depression signed up to the beginners’ shooting program and used the gun to kill herself.

The change to the law around gun clubs hasn’t been the only change to legislation brought in after the Port Arthur massacre in 1996. Some states have lowered their age limit for children who want to try sport shooting, while WA doesn’t even have a minimum age limit for its gun clubs; hunting has been approved in some national parks and the 28-day “cooling of ” period for purchasing subsequent guns has been scrapped.

Michelle started writing to politicians, begging them to repeal the 2008 legislation. Years later, she continues to fight against what she says is the gradual rolling back of Australia’s worldleading reforms.

“I had always thought we had really strict gun laws and this just seemed like such a casual thing to allow anyone into a shooting range,” she says. “I think most Australians don’t realise these kinds of changes are being made.”

During the firearms buyback and amnesty that followed Port Arthur, a staggering 700, 000 guns were handed in to be scrapped. Image: Getty

April 28 will mark the 20th anniversary of the day Martin Bryant killed 35 people with semi-automatic rifles at Port Arthur, Tasmania. He killed his first 20 victims in 90 seconds with 29 bullets. Days later, the federal government enacted comprehensive gun laws including a ban on semi-automatic rifles and pump-action shotguns, a mandatory buyback of those weapons, tough licensing restrictions and a national registry of firearm owners.

There have been no mass shootings since, and John Howard, who was prime minister at the time, still calls it one of the most defining moments of his career.

Yet gun ownership has crept up again. Australians have quietly restocked their arsenals and now own just as many firearms as they did before Port Arthur.

Research data indicates there are as many as 3.2 million guns in the country. The Australian Crime Commission estimates there are a further 10,000 illegal handguns and 250,000 illegal rifles and shotguns – the majority never handed in after Port Arthur, or smuggled guns and legal firearms that have been stolen. Couple this with the chipping away of some aspects of Howard’s laws and gun control advocates are worried.

“I think we’ve taken a lot for granted,” says Samantha Lee of Gun Control Australia. “There’s a very strong gun lobby in Australia that has been ferocious in trying to water down those laws and they’ve been successful on a number of levels to the point where now, I think we’re looking out over a cliff and wondering what’s going to happen.”

One 2015 report showed NSW gun registrations up 10 per cent in fve years, to 850,000. Guns outnumber people in a reported 24 Victorian towns, and in 22 of the 600 NSW postcodes. However, the number of Australian households with guns has fallen from 15 per cent in 1997 to eight per cent, leading researchers to conclude the increase is from existing owners stocking up on more guns.

The 20 biggest gun owners in Victoria have more than 80 each with one registered for 131 weapons, including rifles and shotguns. Figures for Queensland indicate 49 people hold more than 100 firearms each.

Gun clubs have also embarked on aggressive recruitment drives, adding to their ranks of casual sporting shooters. In Queensland, there has been a reported surge in interest among young girls. Many pistol clubs are reporting long waiting lists and membership rises.

Calls for a re-think on gun laws are also increasing, among them prominent senators like the anti-nanny state campaigner David Leyonhjelm and Victorian farmer Bridget McKenzie. Wearing pearl earrings and with a Beretta shotgun slung over her shoulder, Senator McKenzie recently took the media clay pigeon shooting. She has stood up in senate hearings to deride the “arrogant innercity elitists” who can’t understand how anyone could enjoy law-abiding hunting.

“It’s about time we belled the cat on those who think they’re morally superior and choose to denigrate people participating in a legal, historic and cultural practice that has been celebrated for centuries and indeed is part of our very DNA as human beings,” she declares.

Senator McKenzie is correct in claiming the bulk of legal gun owners are responsible citizens not involved in crimes. But gun control campaigners believe that more guns, along with easier access to gun clubs, means we’re less safe.

“The more guns there are, the more opportunities for them to be misused, the more opportunities for there to be near misses or suicides or injuries,” maintains Tasmanian lawyer and gun control advocate Rowland Browne.

“As a lawyer, I see them being used dangerously even in very indirect ways. Women have told me about being in an argument and the husband will bring the gun out and start cleaning it.”

About 1500 guns are stolen each year – a number that has risen only slightly over the years, probably thanks to strict storage requirements. However, the person most at risk of dying by gunshot in Australia is the owner themselves.

Suicide accounts for 77 per cent of gun deaths and is the “elephant in the room” when it comes to discussing gun ownership, according to Associate Professor Philip Alpers, director of GunPolicy.org, a global project at the University of Sydney’s School of Public Health. Suicide with a legal firearm is about 10 times more common than with an illegal firearm, academic Helen Klieve concluded after examining Queensland suicides between 1997 and 2004.

The next person most at risk of dying at the hands of a gun is a spouse, with domestic violence featuring heavily in gun homicides. Between nine and 20 per cent of gun killings are committed by legal firearm owners, points out Professor Alpers.

Gold Coast woman Debbie Nolan knows this all too well – because it cost her beloved stepsister, Nadia Cameron, 52, her life.

Nadia, a stunning, vivacious real estate agent, was killed by her ex-partner in a murder-suicide in the NSW regional city of Bathurst in July 2015. Weeks before, she had broken up with Elie Issa, a larger-than-life cafe owner well known around town. There had never been any violence in the relationship, but Issa legally owned a gun because he once ran a service station on a remote stretch of highway.

He was a proud man, remembers Debbie. She believes he was embarrassed by the break-up and, with looming debts threatening to take away his cafe, his luxury cars and his home, it may have been the last straw. When Nadia came around to talk through the break-up, he shot her several times before turning the gun on himself.

“If the gun wasn’t there, I don’t think either of them would be dead,” asserts Debbie. “She was found on the lounge with a gunshot wound through her hand, as if she’d put her hands up to say, ‘Don’t do it’. She couldn’t run away. I just keep thinking about how she felt on that lounge for the last few seconds of her life.”

There’s no denying that laws brought in after Port Arthur have saved lives. Gun suicides and homicides have more than halved since then. A study by former Australian National University economist Andrew Leigh, now a federal politician, found 200 deaths per year, mostly suicides, had been prevented due to Howard’s laws.

And, after averaging one mass shooting a year in the lead-up to Port Arthur, Australia hasn’t had one since. “The chance of this being due to luck alone is less than one in a 100,” concluded Leigh.

Nationally, overall gun crime has declined over the past two decades, but some pockets of Australia tell a different story. Since 2011, there have been an average of 20 drive-by shootings in NSW every month, while there has been a 300 per cent increase in the number of pistol-related offences in the decade to 2015. Victoria’s rate of gun crime doubled between 2010 and 2015, while in Melbourne’s northwest (a particular hotspot police refer to as the “red zone”), guns are being discovered during routine car inspections every second day.

Back in 2012 Australian and German detectives smashed an international gun smuggling syndicate run in part from a suburban post office. Police believe up to 220 Glock pistols from Austria/Germany were posted in parts from around the world to Sylvania Waters post office in southern Sydney. The weapons were then reassembled and sold to the underworld. “This isn’t just a border security issue, this is a national security issue,” said NSW Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione at the time. “It is something that we need to understand is a major concern ... because guns coming into our community are nothing short of weapons that are used to kill and maim.”

It’s the growing number of illegal weapons in Australia that is a worrying trend, according to Dr Terry Goldsworthy, a former Australian police officer and now a lecturer in criminology at Queensland’s Bond University.

“The estimates are that there are 250,000 long-barrelled guns in the illegal market, and 10,000 handguns,” he says. “It is a concern – more so handguns, because they’re more suited to the purposes criminals will use them for.” Today, Michelle Fernando continues to fight to bolster gun laws, but says she doesn’t solely blame the lack of checks and balances for her family’s tragedy.

“Obviously my sister’s illness was at the heart of it,” she concedes. “But that, to me, is the point. We can’t cure people’s mental illness or their sheer anger or their desire to commit a crime, it’s just something that needs to be managed. And as part of that, we need to have reasonable safeguards around guns.”

She believes we all need to do more to keep guns from falling into the wrong hands and she won’t stop campaigning for the safety of people like her adored father and sister. “I suppose it’s my tribute to both of them.”

This article originally appeared in the May 2016 edition of marie claire.