Furphies and fantasies from former PM - John Howard on his infamous firearms laws

Presenting selective statistics and showing blatant ignorance towards the legitimate sport of shooting, a recent interview with former Prime Minister John Howard regarding his infamous firearms laws has again highlighted that the government’s response to a rare tragedy was knee-jerk and showed utter contempt towards the nation’s sporting shooters and recreational hunters.

The picture painted by Richard Fidler on the ABC’s Conversations radio program was biased from the start, as the radio host used the recent spate of shootings in the United States to set the scene for the loaded interview. In his introduction, Mr Fidler surmised that before Port Arthur, 11 mass shootings had occurred in Australia. “Before the new gun laws, Australia was averaging one gun massacre a year. Since the change, well we haven’t had any,” he declared.

The SSAA has long pointed out that homicides using a firearm were on the decline well before the incident of Port Arthur. In fact, Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data shows that the crude firearm death rate declined from 4.8 deaths per 100,000 in 1980 to 2.6 in 1995. In other words, firearm deaths fell by 46 per cent during the 16-year period without any drastic changes to firearm laws. Today’s latest figures show that homicide using a firearm equates to 16 per cent of homicide cases; it was 15 per cent in the years leading up to Port Arthur, showing an actual increase.

Others, including the SSAA, often cite the independent study by University of Melbourne researchers Wang-Sheng Lee and Sandy Suardi that supports the ABS data and further demonstrates that the National Firearms Agreement (NFA) has not had any large effects on reducing firearm homicide or suicide rates. Meanwhile, the favourite catch-cry peddled out by anti-gun groups that “there hasn’t been a massacre since 1996” completely ignores the pain and suffering felt by the family and friends of those murdered in mass killings by other means. It also overlooks the sad reality that there have been mass killings since Port Arthur.

The Childers Palace Backpackers fire in June 2000 saw 15 people killed by the perpetrator simply using a match. The case of the Cairns stabbing massacre in December 2014 shocked the nation when a mother killed seven of her own children and her niece, aged between just 18 months and 15 years. And let’s not forget the Sydney Siege that left two hostages dead and hostage-taker Man Haron Monis killed during a 16-hour stand-off in Martin Place, leaving six others injured. Although the definition of a ‘massacre’ is debatable, the Sydney Siege can be seen as a case in point where Australia’s apparent world-leading gun laws did not prevent an extremist with a history of false play from getting an illegal firearm and conducting this terrifying incident.

But back to the interview. Mr Howard - who regularly cites the NFA as one of his greatest achievements in the nation’s top job - ignored mental health issues, domestic violence and systemic failures that almost always go hand in hand with murders. “It’s easier to kill 10 people with a gun, particularly a semi-automatic weapon, than it is to kill them with an axe or knife,” he pointed out, completely missing the point that if someone wants to kill or harm another person or group of people, they will find a way to do it regardless of the laws legislated by predominately city-centric politicians in Canberra.

The media’s favourite phrase “high-powered weapons” rang out across the airwaves as Mr Howard, who can perhaps be credited as the founding father of the misused line, saying that these particular firearms presented the biggest threat to physical safety at the time of Port Arthur - not, as the SSAA and other intelligent people would argue, the people whose hands in which the inanimate object is being operated.

Confessing that changing the gun laws was “discussed immediately” following the incident, Mr Howard pointed to the apparent cultural influence the US has on Australia through film and television, ignoring the rise in home-grown talent that is in-turn influencing Hollywood itself. “We had to avoid going down the American path,” he stressed, an argument still used today despite the growing cultural divide. To his credit and probable disappointment of his friends at Gun Control Australia, Mr Howard noted that today, the US and Australia “are very different”. “I don’t want to overdo it and the last thing I want to do is pretend the culture and the circumstances in America and Australia are the same,” he said.

Further proof that Mr Howard’s ignorance towards firearms continues to reign supreme was shown in reference to crimping the magazine of some firearms: an idea raised to ensure law-abiding firearms owners could retain their personal property while still complying with the new laws. Although supported by the Australian Federal Police, Mr Howard - confessing that “I don’t understand the mechanics of automatic rifles” - said he was “sceptical” of the process and ordered firearms to be crimped and sent to the Australian Army, where it “took those Army blokes no more than half an hour to reverse the crimping process”. Ignoring the fact that modifying a firearm was (and is) actually illegal as part of the NFA, Mr Howard’s ineptitude at understanding the technicalities of firearms and his insinuation that reversing crimping of the magazine could somehow magically make a single-shot firearm have self-loading capacity shows a complete failure in understanding the issues before enacting major policy changes.

In a case of history repeating itself, Mr Howard explained that the only way to ensure changes to firearms legislation were successful was to persuade the states and territories. Today, we are seeing this very notion played out again as discussions to re-categorise lever-action shotguns with a capacity of more than five shots continues to face opposition from some of the states, with the SSAA actively lobbying against any changes, particularly without any evidence of these firearms used in crime.

Perhaps the icing on the cake for sporting shooters was Mr Howard’s simplistic view of our sport, labelling shooters as “people who like firing guns for fun [who] may have seen themselves as the part of society that had been passed by by economic change and felt left out and alienated”. “I was aware of that, and I also became aware as time went by that more thoughtful people from the bush understood, despite the discomfort,” he said, sinking the boot in and showing a lack of understanding about the many reasons why we participate in our inclusive, all-abilities sport and volunteer our time for pest control and conservation activities.

Mr Howard’s ignorance towards our sport and pastime shone through again when discussing the graphic footage showing the destruction of thousands of firearms following the buy-backs, including those passed down throughout the generations that had suddenly become illegal almost overnight. “I thought it was terrific footage,” he smirked, stomping on the pride many shooters take in their tools used for the sport and recreation.

As media hype amps up in the coming months and the vocal minority is unfairly portrayed as the majority, the SSAA will continue to stick to the facts and measurable affect our firearm laws are having in preventing crime and stopping criminals from obtaining firearms. We will continue to advocate for more resources to tackle organised crime groups and illegal imports. We will fight against any further restrictions on shooters who were treated like criminals following Port Arthur and are still fighting for a fair go 20 years later and we will continue to protect the interests of the new generation of law-abiding firearm owners who simply want to participate in this legitimate pastime without fear of more red tape or impeding hurdles.

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