A Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal (QCAT) decision late last year has called into question the state’s laws prohibiting firearm silencers. The decision considered the Queensland Police’s refusal to grant a farmer’s request to possess a silencer in order to more safely use his firearms to control invasive species on his property.
The health benefits of silencers
The applicant provided evidence to the Tribunal that he had already suffered some hearing loss in one ear that was consistent with the damage caused by occupational rifle use. The Tribunal heard expert evidence that the sound levels resulting from firearm use are sufficient to cause permanent hearing loss even when firearm use is infrequent. The explosive blast of a gunshot is even more harmful and although this harm can be mitigated by the use of earplugs and/or earmuffs, their use does not bring the impact down to a safe level. The use of firearm silencers, on the other hand, can reduce the effects of a gunshot to a safe level.
The Tribunal remarked that the expert evidence before it suggested that any firearm user wanting to protect their hearing would choose to use a silencer, should the law permit it. However, firearm silencers fall within weapon Category R (along with machine guns and rocket launchers) and as such can only be possessed by a person with a collector’s licence or a dealer’s licence and only after the weapon has been rendered inoperable. The only other way a person in Queensland can obtain a silencer is after being issued an exemption from Category R by the Police Commissioner.
Why was the applicant refused?
The applicant had applied for an exemption from Category R and been refused by the Queensland Police on the grounds that weapon possession and use are subordinate to public safety and that strict controls on weapons are required to ensure public safety;
The grounds for review
The applicant sought review of this decision, adducing evidence to support his argument that:
- An audiology assessment showed that he had already suffered hearing loss as a result of his firearm use;
- The Work Health and Safety Act 2011 required him to ensure the health and safety of his workers;
- The Biosecurity Act 2014 required him to manage ‘biosecurity risks’, including invasive animals on his land;
- The assumption that firearms used with firearm silencers are more dangerous than firearms used without silencers is not supported by research;
The Tribunal’s decision
The Tribunal found that the Queensland Police had made an error in refusing to grant the applicant a licence to possess a silencer, as the relevant question for consideration was in fact whether the applicant ought to be granted an exemption from Category R.
The Tribunal noted that the Weapons Act sets out no specific criteria for the grant of an exemption from Category R, but rather confers a discretion on the police commissioner to grant exemptions on a case by case basis.
The Tribunal found that:
- The applicant had established a genuine need to have and use a silencer;
- Grounds existed for conferring an exemption;
- It was up to the Commissioner to decide whether to grant an exemption.
The tribunal remitted the matter back to the commissioner to determine whether an exemption ought to be granted. In doing so it commented that the evidence before it called into question whether firearm silencers ought to be included in Category R. All the other items included in Category R are military grade items and the applicant’s evidence had established a genuine health reason for firearms users to require a silencer.
Responses to the decision
Gun control advocates expressed concern at the Tribunal’s comments, saying that the proliferation of legal challenges to firearm licensing decisions is undermining Queensland’s strict gun laws.
Queensland Police has initiated an appeal against the Tribunal’s ruling.
The decision has also drawn attention to the inconsistencies between state and territory gun laws, as New South Wales laws permit gun license holders to obtain a silencer with a permit.
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