SSAA has say at Senate saga

As the third and final public hearing for Greens Senator Penny Wright’s self-proclaimed inquiry into gun-related violence in the community got underway in the nation’s capital on October 31, the SSAA ensured the concerns of our 166,000 members were heard as we seized our chance to present factual evidence to the committee.

It was obvious from the beginning that committee chair Ms Wright had no intention of engaging with the SSAA, represented by both National President Geoff Jones and Chief Executive Officer Tim Bannister, who were denied the opportunity to present in a dedicated timeslot. No reason was given for the chair’s denial of this reasonable request and so the SSAA sat on a panel with other organisations.

In addition to this snub, the SSAA and others were subjected to the chair’s apparent breathing issues, with constant coughing and a case of the curious ‘sniffles’ creating a rude soundtrack to many of the testimonies. This appeared to immediately subside, however, when she touted her inaccurate ‘facts’ to witnesses who even slightly engaged with her line of questioning. Senator Wright’s discussions with her secretary also seemed to cease importance when this rare event occurred; at other times, the chair barely bothered to hide her blatant disrespect for some of the witnesses.

All this was foreshadowed by Senator Wright’s media appearances spreading information at odds with the evidence presented during the first two public hearings. This included a stint on Channel Ten’s The Project in which her claims that most stolen firearms come from licensed owners was broadcast as fact, despite constant testimonies otherwise.

The Canberra hearings on October 31 once again reflected much of the evidence already presented in Melbourne and Sydney, which was apparent in the first testimony for the day from the United States Crime Prevention Research Center’s John Lott. Dr Lott started the proceedings by outlining the facts on banning or heavily restricting firearms in other jurisdictions and the lack of effect this has had on crime. He was the first to be interrupted by the chair for the day.

Then it came time for the SSAA to have its say, with Geoff giving a driving and well-researched speech outlining the questionable quality of the data available surrounding stolen firearms; the porous nature of Australia’s borders; the more than adequate current storage requirements; and the fact that legal firearms held by licensed owners are no threat to the community. This was reiterated by Tim’s answers to the committee, including in response to perceptions of shooting in the community.

“Some elements of the media in the past have enjoyed sensationalising the sport of shooting,” Tim testified. “We have many regulations. We have many rules, many hoops to jump through. We are in all likelihood the most law-abiding of society - we have to be if we want to maintain our licences.”

During the panel session, Senator Ian MacDonald raised a curious ideological concept of how the firearm buy-backs did not aid public safety, at one point even saying the ordinary Australian “just felt that that was a good idea”. Ignoring this condescending view and simplified justification of the buy-backs, the panel continued, with Tim this time the victim of the chair’s interruptions. Senator Wright wanted to focus on what a Utopian world would look like without any firearm laws, instead of reality.

Shooting Australia president Catherine Fettell was also on the panel and outlined the considerably less funding this organisation receives from the Australian Sports Commission (ASC) for elite shooting athletes compared to other sporting organisations. The SSAA was not given the opportunity to indicate that we receive no funding from the ASC or other additional government means, despite being the largest sports shooting organisation in Australia.

Although time poor, the SSAA clearly made its point that the Association did not support any further restrictions on the licensed and law-abiding gun owner, and that it is the unlicensed perpetrator with an unregistered firearm who commits the crime. It is not the sporting shooter.

The veracity of figures was back in the limelight, echoing the Melbourne and Sydney hearings. CrimTrac chief executive officer Doug Smith noted that the intelligence gathered through the ballistics network and police information sharing “deal with those records of firearms that are known”, not what exists outside the records, including undetected imported weapons.

The Australian Crime Commission (ACC) then took the stand. The chair was at it again with her misinformation, telling the ACC that theft is considered an easier option than importation. Firearms tracing expert Gary Fleetwood pointed to new weapons recovered by authorities that would have had to come in through illegal importation, evidence at odds with her statement.

Stepping up to answer more questions about the source of stolen firearms was the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC). The AIC’s appearance was always going to be an anticipated affair; after all, the main source of data quoted by witnesses from Melbourne to Sydney to Canberra was attributed to a few key ‘Firearm Theft in Australia’ reports written and published by this body. Because of this, the AIC was in for a grilling. It seemed, however, that report author Dr Samantha Bricknell was not prepared for what quickly became a roasting.

The chair at first seemed almost pleased to hear that illegal firearms are sourced predominantly through the deactivation loophole and theft (50 per cent, the AIC testified), but facts don’t often exist in a vacuum. Senator Bridget McKenzie closely questioned the AIC on this, asking Dr Bricknell if her reports included any data from Australia Post, or if she had conducted any research on firearms coming in from overseas parcels, instead of simply relying on notoriously inaccurate police data. The answer was a resounding no.

It got bleaker for Dr Bricknell and her colleague Rick Brown. The AIC admitted they had been tasked with using data sourced from the police authorities to author their ‘Firearm Theft in Australia’ report series, and agreed with Senator McKenzie that the data presented was “for a very specific purpose”. They conceded that their research could be inappropriately applied for political purposes.

Dr Bricknell’s day worsened when she was forced to admit that the source of stolen handguns did have a high unknown rate of 70 per cent. “All we can really say is that, from the data that we received from the Crime Commission, it was recorded as ‘unknown’ where the source of those particular handguns were. That is why it was categorised to ‘unknown’,” she said.

Then the Attorney-General’s (AG) Department stepped up to the plate, with Senator David Leyonhjelm taking the role of the well-practised pitcher. The two AG representatives seemed out of depth from the get-go, with Senator Leyonhjelm seizing statements by the well-spoken but not well-versed Criminal Justice Director Andrew Warnes, who praised the National Firearms Agreement for creating significant consistencies between the states, with only inconsistent minor issues arising.

“Why is it ‘good’ for the states to be consistent?” Leyonhjelm mused, “...should not competitive federalism similarly apply?” before commenting that it was interesting the AG’s department had a policy on consistencies between the states. He also reminded the Criminal Justice Assistant Secretary Catherine Smith that although there hasn’t been a mass shooting since 1996, it was interesting to hear her claim that tighter regulations were a contributing factor, as this was out of step with the department’s historical undeclared stance on state gun control policy.

The SSAA’s ears pricked up when the AG representative claimed the AG’s Department liaised with a number of key stakeholders through its Firearms and Weapons Policy Working Group, and listed all state and territory police forces, justice agencies, Customs, CrimTrac and the usual acronyms of the AFP, ACC and AIC as involved in assisting with policy. Senator McKenzie was quick to question why important stakeholders “such as the SSAA” aren’t involved to provide “formal answers” on this important area. The AG representatives were almost dismissive in their response, saying they are confident they can access these groups when required.

The SSAA has not received any communication or invitation by the department or working group to provide any input into firearms policy outside of the Minister’s Office or since the disbanding of the Commonwealth Firearms Advisory Council.

The Australian Customs and Border Protection Service also had its day in the sun, starting with a big announcement that it is in the process of training dogs to “sniff out guns”. This had the committee in a flutter, with Senator Leyonhjelm - who was a veterinarian before entering politics - intrigued by the claim. Unfortunately, the claim was just a claim, and the Customs crew directed the committee to specific experts involved in the project for any further questions.

Senator McKenzie once again took charge with questioning, prodding Customs about its understanding of what illicit material makes it into Australia. She pointed to the 140 Glocks illegally imported into a Sylvania Waters post office, also cited in the SSAA’s submission. Customs went on the defensive, claiming it has a “fairly accurate” picture of illegal importations, but farcically admitting it is “guesswork”. They further testified that with their X-ray machines, staff and cross-border intelligence, they are confident “you can see a very clear dip in illicit commodities coming through those channels”.

Concerns were yet again raised over three-dimensional guns appearing on planes, with the various departments all agreeing that Australia’s scanning, X-ray and staff training must keep up with technological advances. This led to the obvious question about Australia’s porous borders, with semantics being the only card for Customs to play and who implored the committee to consider the definition of ‘porous’.

“I have a figure here for last year of over four tonnes of illicit drugs. I think if our borders were considered porous, we would not get those results,” National Director of Intelligence Karen Harfield said. She did not, however, give any evidence about illicit firearm finds.

The final witness for the day was the Australian Federal Police. Assistant Commissioner Julian Slater agreed with the committee that the international mail stream into Australia is enormous and that it would be “naive” to suggest that the national security agencies “are getting everything”. He also agreed that some people ignorantly claim handguns are designed to “kill people”, when “quite clearly there are other purposes for handguns to be used, particularly for target shooting”.

And so the public hearings into the aptly labelled ‘smokescreen inquiry’ concluded, though the information gathering still continues, despite the chair seemingly pre-empting the committee’s findings in the media. The SSAA will be submitting further written evidence, pointing out the folly of the Senate Inquiry and the obvious bias of the Greens chair.

As the final report and recommendations are prepared for release on March 26, 2015, a recent observation on the usefulness of certain government inquiries in The Canberra Times seems apt, with some Senate Inquiry reports rightfully described as “a politically naive waste of time that is ready-made fuel for a bonfire in the prime ministerial courtyard”. Update: The report has been granted another extension. It is now due to be released on Thursday April 9.

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