Following the deaths of seven in a mass shooting near Margaret River last week, criticisms have emerged of Australian gun laws. Whilst Australia has historically had a reputation as a leader in effective gun control, this tragedy has raised questions as to whether we are doing enough to ensure the safe use of firearms.
What are the gun laws in WA?
Gun licences in Western Australia are governed by the Firearms Act 1973. Under that act, firearms must be registered and a person must be licenced in order to acquire and possess a firearm. A person must be over the age of 18 to obtain a licence, however persons of any age can use a firearm under the supervision of the licence holder.
A person who wishes to possess firearms must apply to the Western Australian Police Commissioner for a licence. The Commissioner must not approve a licence if the person does not have a genuine reason for acquiring or possessing a firearm, such as membership of a shooting club, hunting or recreational shooting or as part of a firearm collection. The Commissioner also must not approve the license if it is not desirable in the interests of public safety to do so or if in the Commissioner’s view, the person is not a fit and proper person (Section 11).
In assessing whether a person is ‘fit and proper’ the Commissioner will consider any history of violent offending, any restraining orders against the person, any recorded history of mental illness and any other matters which suggest the person poses a threat to public safety. In the absence of a criminal record, restraining orders or mental illness history, there is no reason why a person could not obtain a firearm licence for recreational purposes.
Firearms are required under the Firearms Regulations to be stored in a locked cabinet or container (Regulation 11A). A range of offences concerning the misuse of firearms is set out in the Firearms Act. These include using a firearm while intoxicated and altering a firearm from its original design.
Can I lose my gun licence?
Under the Firearms Act, the Police Commissioner can revoke a licence in a number of circumstances. These include that the licence was issued in error, was obtained by fraud or deception or that the user has failed to abide by the firearms regulations. A licence can also be revoked because of the potential for harm to be suffered by a person as a result of the firearm or because the revocation of the licence is in the public interest (Section 20).
Under Section 14 of the Restraining Orders Act, all Family Violence Restraining Orders (FVROs) and Violence Restraining Orders (VROs) must include a restraint prohibiting the respondent from being in possession of a firearms licence or a firearm and from obtaining a firearms licence. This means that if you have a restraining order made against you, whether it is a temporary order or a final order, you are probably going to be required to surrender your firearms licence and any firearms. However, there is an exception to this, which can be relied on by a respondent who requires a firearm in order to carry out their usual occupation. If such a respondent did not use a firearm during the behaviour which led to the order and the court does not consider that anyone’s safety is likely to be affected, the court may allow them to retain their license and firearms.
Should gun laws be stricter?
Although Australian gun laws are much stricter than those in the United States, a number of lethal shootings have occurred in this country, many of which have been in the context of family violence. Views aired in response to the latest tragedy have included that gun laws don’t prevent mass shootings and therefore aren’t the solution; that Australia gun laws need to be tightened further and that the existing restrictions on firearms are sufficient.
Critics of the current gun laws say it is too easy to obtain a firearms licence in this country and for a person with a licence to subsequently misuse firearms, commonly after developing drug or mental health issues. These voices suggest that tighter controls should be placed on gun use and storage, with suggestions including that guns owned by urban residents should be required to be stored at the local police station so that they are not available for the owner to use on impulse, while intoxicated or during a mental illness episode. Other suggestions have included that licensees who are not farmers should be allowed to possess only one firearm and that farmers who cease farming should be required to ‘show cause’ to be allowed to retain their firearm licence.
Opponents of tighter controls claim that the recent tragedy occurred without warning signs and that tighter laws would not have prevented it. They say that current laws around gun ownership and use in Australia are adequate.