How Howard fast-tracked the NFA

At the start of every year the National Archives of Australia (NAA) releases the latest batch of Federal Government cabinet documents, submissions received by the prime minister and his ministers and the decisions they made.

Previously these were withheld  from the public for 30 years but under reforms made by the former Labor government, that period was reduced to 20 years with a transition period in which two years’ worth of documents are released at once.

This most recent batch of documents was for 1996 and 1997, the first two years of the John Howard coalition government. That included the first big issue for the new government - the 1996 Port Arthur massacre which led to the National Firearms Agreement and banning of self-loading rifles and pump action shotguns and introduction of national firearms registration and licensing.

Firstly the Cabinet documents. These relate to the highest level of government decision making and make for pretty dry reading. Even so, it would be nice to think they reveal startling new details about controversial government decisions, such as the confiscation of some 500,000 guns from law abiding gun owners, without consultation, because of the actions of one man.

Generally there are few revelations. Contentious issues are reported in detail at the time and politicians write memoirs covering the big issues of their time in sometimes excruciating detail. Gough Whitlam’s The Whitlam Government 1972-75 a case in point.

Howard wrote about Port Arthur in detail in his Lazarus Rising biography. So what do the 1996 cabinet documents tell us about his gun laws - that Port Arthur provided an opportunity to implement his anti-gun agenda? That’s certainly not revealed in any of these documents.

Even NAA consultant historian Associate Professor Paul Strangio, who reviewed the documents in detail before release, said they were not as illuminating on guns as he’d hoped.“Given the urgency, a lot of it was done from Mr Howard’s private office and the big arguments were in the party room rather than Cabinet. The tensions were particularly around the National Party,” he said.

The first document is a Cabinet minute - a decision from a Cabinet meeting - dated April 29, 1996, the day after Martin Bryant’s shooting spree which claimed the lives of 35 people. This clearly indicates the direction the government was heading in.

It notes that Social Security Minister Jocelyn Newman, a Senator for Tasmania, made an oral report of her trip to Tasmania “in relation to the Port Arthur tragedy”. Most significantly it noted agreement had been reached between the Liberal state government of Premier Tony Rundle, the Labor opposition and the Greens to “support the banning of military style semi-automatic weapons and require registration of all guns”.

This was significant as Tasmania, along with Queensland, had previously resisted pressure to tighten their gun laws and now they were on board. Gun laws were then and remain the responsibility of individual states and territories and each had developed laws according to the inclinations of their constituencies. Other than regulating what came into the country through its control of  customs, the Commonwealth had no powers to make gun laws. But it could wield the big stick through its control of funding to states and territories.

At the time Tasmania had possibly Australia’s most relaxed gun laws. It was possible to own fully automatic firearms and Bryant, who didn’t have a licence, was still able to acquire the AR-15 rifle he used at Port Arthur.

Though Howard received the credit, the concept of standardised national gun laws was around long before he was PM. The National Committee on Violence, formed in 1988 following the Queen Street and Hoddle Street shootings in Melbourne, had recommended national gun laws including restricting self-loading firearms, mandatory safekeeping and that all gun owners be licensed.

That process of forging a national approach was under way but had stalled over the objections of states, particularly Tasmania and Queensland. Without Port Arthur it would have proceeded incrementally, likely with substantially more input from shooters.

So with Tasmania on board, Howard had overcome a key obstacle. There was a Plan B which he termed the “nuclear option”. “That was to have a referendum and transfer power from states to the Commonwealth, which I think incidentally would have been carried. It would have been an unnecessary option,” he said at the launch of the Cabinet documents in Canberra in December. “The states in the end were helpful. NSW was very helpful, Victoria was helpful. South Australia as well. There were difficulties with Western Australian and Queensland.”

The other notable development outlined in the April 29 Cabinet minute was a meeting of police ministers to be held on May 10, brought forward from July. From this meeting of the Australasian Police Ministers’ Council came the National Firearms Agreement (NFA) and from then on it was just a matter of implementation and ironing out fine detail.

Cabinet again considered guns at a meeting on May 20. Readers may recall the guns buyback was funded by an increase in the Medicare levy, paid by just about everyone. But some citizens such as Defence Force members are exempt from the levy. At issue was whether they should have to pay it. Yes they should, the government decided. It also decided that values as at March 1996 would be used to compensate those surrendering their guns.

The meeting on June 11 shows the government was coming under pressure, likely from shooters and some states. The Cabinet minute states “. . . the Cabinet confirmed its position not to vary the Police Ministers’ prohibition on semi-automatic and pump action shotguns.”

Other issues were also emerging, likely because the NFA was produced at such speed without consultation with shooters, allowing problem areas to slip through.

The NFA resolutions go into detail on licensing criteria but make no mention of junior shooters and long-standing provisions which allow those younger than the minimum 18 licensing age be permitted to shoot under appropriate supervision.

The government hastily retreated on this, proposing to the states “the position of under-age shooters under the Police Ministers’ resolutions be clarified to indicate that all jurisdictions would allow and continue to allow persons under the age of 18 but above a specified minimum age to use lawful firearms in supervised situations.”

Then there was the provision in the Police Ministers’ resolutions declaring the genuine reason for sports shooters to obtain a firearms licence would only apply to those “with valid membership of an approved club (defined as participants in shooting sports recognised in the charters of such major sporting events as the Commonwealth Games, Olympic Games or World Championships)”.

On that basis only those shooting at elite level or in special disciplines of elite competition would be licensed. There would be no single action, combined services, practical shooting, benchrest and more. Was someone trying it on? Perhaps, but more likely the reason was simple ignorance of the wide range of sports shooting activities conducted at clubs across Australia.

There were other issues. The original agreement says firearms in a collection manufactured after January 1, 1946 must be rendered inoperable. There was no direction on how that was to achieved, with implication the government may have had permanent deactivation in mind. 

Collectors no doubt reacted with horror at the prospect of an official with a welding torch attacking their valuable items. The government agreed to examine a proposal to allow firearms in a collection to be rendered inoperable by removal of part of the firing mechanism which should be stored separately at all times. Again, it’s hard not to conclude that consultation may have helped here.

The government published a long list of newly-prohibited firearms and what compensation would be paid, but some gun owners possessed collectible firearms whose value far exceeded their compensation value. The government gave the go-ahead for owners and collectors to sell prohibited guns overseas, subject to conditions, including that it only apply to non-military firearms valued at more than $2500.

Then there was the issue of permanent conversion of self-loading and pump action shotguns through replacement magazines (tubes) with new magazines able to hold just two rounds. In theory that would place them on the same footing as legal side-by-side and over-and-under shotguns.

The process of limiting capacity of shotgun tube magazines was known as crimping - essentially embossing a deep cannelure in the steel tube. That offered the prospect of those with prized shotguns being able to retain them, albeit with reduced magazine capacity.

Cabinet at its meeting on June 16 noted a demonstration by Australian Federal Police (AFP) of a particular process of shotgun magazine crimping. So such a process was entirely possible but could it be undone? Cabinet deferred consideration until it received a paper from the AFP describing the process and giving a considered assessment as to whether it was reversible.

Cabinet considered the AFP response at its meeting on July 2. Presumably the AFP thought the process might be undone but the government wasn’t about to give in. It agreed it would only consider supporting general retention of shotguns crimped in this manner if ballistic experts in the Australian Army and all premiers and police ministers, on the advice of their police commissioners, “concurred with the assessment that the process is irreversible”.

This one was passed to the expert armourers at the Special Air Services Regiment who concluded this was reversible, though not easily and would require a specially-made tool, an expanding mandrel, to force out the crimp. That was enough for the government which promptly vetoed the idea of crimping.

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