As the largest organisation representing sporting shooters and recreational hunters in Australia, the SSAA takes pride in ensuring we remain at the forefront of firearms news, policy and research. So when the integrity of our work and that of our flagship publication, Australian Shooter, is called into question, we will not sit idly by.
In October 2017 during Senate Estimates, where public servants front up to Parliament House to answer questions about government departments, the Australian Federal Police (AFP) was quizzed about gun seizures. Claims and news stories that its national gang-fighting squad had seized an impressive haul of 5600 illegal firearms were put directly to the commissioner by Liberal Democrats Senator David Leyonhjelm, an avid shooter and pro-gun advocate.
Senator Leyonhjelm quoted an Australian Shooter article that revealed this figure overwhelmingly included firearm parts and frames. In the June 2017 magazine, our SSAA Legislative Action department also revealed the vast majority of these items were actually seized some 15,000 kilometres away by authorities in the US. The reality of the seized items was uncovered following months of inquiries, emails and phone calls to the AFP and former Justice Minister Michael Keenan’s office.
While the mainstream media published the figures from the Minister’s press release, and a similar co-branded AFP release from Victoria Police verbatim, the SSAA followed the fundamental press principle of accuracy. That is, we fact-checked the claim instead of publishing unverified and inaccurate information.
Unfortunately, AFP commissioner Andrew Colvin felt it necessary to cast doubt on whether the official publication of Australia’s premier shooting body was a reliable source. He told the committee on October 24, 2017: “I will make the point, though, that I’m not necessarily going to take it as a given that what was in the Australian Shooter magazine is accurate. I will just have to take on notice what the 5600 illegal firearms that were announced in March comprised.”
The AFP was requested to provide an answer to the Legal and Constitutional Affairs committee by December 8, 2017. More than two months later, the question remained unanswered, despite the AFP providing written answers to no less than 14 other questions.
During Additional Estimates hearing on February 27 this year, which the SSAA-LA attended, Senator Leyonhjelm again asked the AFP about the “exaggerated claims”, pointing out that: “I’ve had no answers to those questions, despite a considerable elapse of time.” An unapologetic Mr Colvin confirmed he was now ready to answer the questions, and finally confirmed the figures published by the SSAA more than 18 months ago were correct.
The commissioner confirmed that 4785 items, of which only six were fully operational firearms, were seized in the US. Just 303 firearm parts were seized in Australia. None of the items seized in Australia were complete operational firearms, as the SSAA previously reported.
It also appears the AFP and the then-Minister announced the same seizure on two different occasions, leading the public to believe there had in fact been two separate seizures of more than 5600 firearms. “I interpret that as suggesting we were double counting the 5600 and 5700,” Senator Leyonhjelm rightly stated.
But what came as a shock to the SSAA, was the revelation that the AFP does not distinguish between a firearm and a firearm part: a firearm part is recorded as a functioning firearm. “In total, that operation (Operation Ironsight) resulted in the seizure of 5088 firearms, including parts – we don’t necessarily distinguish between a full firearm and a part,” Mr Colvin said. This raises concerns about the level of data the AFP is collating and offers insight into why the 5600 figure claim was outrageously overstated.
It is extremely disappointing that Mr Colvin, as head of the AFP, felt he needed to mock the expertise of a reputable Association such as ours. It is further disappointing that the AFP dragged its feet in providing answers to an elected representative of the people. As we mused on the SSAA National Facebook page at the time, if this question was about seizing shuttlecocks, would the commissioner feel it necessary to query the legitimacy of Badminton Australia?
An inability by bureaucrats and policy-makers to engage with experts and stakeholders in the firearms community leads to easily avoided mistakes and ill-feelings. The SSAA has an open-door policy for any side of politics and our public servants, including the AFP. We are willing and ready to provide advice and feedback about sensible, fair and evidence-based firearms laws.