Handgun ownership facts in Australia

The lawful ownership and use of handguns for approved purposes has a long history of being well regulated in Australia. Penalties for the illegal ownership and use of illegal handguns are also well codified. These penalties are only a deterrent to the illegal use of illegal/legal firearms and they have no effect upon a person who is willing to disregard them and accept the consequences of that decision.

Fact: it is illegal to own, use and possess a handgun in Australia without a licence to do so and has been the case long before John Howard and his National Firearms Agreement of 1996. It is now and always has been, illegal to kill, injure, frighten or annoy another person with a handgun, whether it is registered or not. The police can arrest and place before the courts anyone who commits an offence in relation to the use of firearms and the court may caution, fine or jail any offender.

Steps you need to take to legally obtain a handgun

The sport of competitive handgun shooting exists only within a framework of police-approved clubs, which coordinate events on police-approved ranges across the nation. Gun laws are a state-based issue, so each of the scenarios that control the pistol shooting sports may vary slightly, but in essence the following may be taken as the general rule across our nation.

The Prime Minister announced an agreement between states and the Federal Government on December 6, 2002, which covered 28 resolutions tightening handgun controls for the legitimate sporting shooter. A person should attend at a club and make it known that they are interested in joining. The details of clubs can usually be located within firearm publications or by searching the internet. The person then has to undertake formalised safety training in the safe use of firearms. In some states this is done within the club framework or the course is completed in an external agency. The safety training is a mandated requirement for police to start the licence issue process. Some states state in legislation that safety training is to be undertaken, whilst others regulate that the registrar may require completion of a satisfactory course before issuing a licence.

The candidate then must complete six months probation within the club, during which time they are not allowed to purchase a handgun. Ongoing instruction about the club rules and firearm safety occurs within this time frame, after which the person may then, with club consent, apply to the registrar of firearms for a handgun licence.

Recent changes to firearm laws as a result of the COAG December 2006 agreement now restricts the new member to an initial purchase of a small calibre target pistol. The applicant must also have applied for and been granted a firearm licence, which is dependent upon a nation-wide criminal record check, looking for a history of violence, warrants and domestic violence orders. The applicant must also submit proof of successfully completing the firearms safety training course at the time of licence application.

Once the person receives a firearm licence with personal photograph attached, they can then attend at a licenced firearm dealer and select a handgun which is suitable for the competition in which they intend to take part. This firearm may be a single-shot air pistol, a single-shot .22-calibre pistol or a .22-calibre revolver or self-loading pistol.

When the details of the selected firearm are known, they are submitted back to the police on an Approval to Purchase form, which is checked by police as to the correct details of the firearm, the current owner (seller) and that the person submitting the approval request is, in fact, in possession of a current firearm licence.

The applicant has to wait 28 days for this process to take place. If the police approve the purchase, the applicant is notified in writing and they can then collect the handgun from the dealer upon producing their current photographic firearm licence and the Approval to Purchase form approved by the police.

The applicant then has 14 days to take the firearm to the nearest police station to where they live and register the firearm in their own name. (This is a SA policy and may vary in different states.) After payment of the fee, the applicant can then only use the handgun at an approved range for an approved event within the approved club. This means that the handgun cannot be used for any other purpose other than target shooting at the pistol club. Breaching this purpose of use will result in punishment as defined by the Act.

The club member must attend at least four to six club events a year to retain club membership and endorsement for a handgun category of their firearm licence. The clubs are bound to advise the registry if a member has not completed those events.

The handgun owner is under a legal requirement to store the firearm under security arrangements defined under the Act and regulations. Gun safes usually cost about $400 to $800.

If the club member wishes to purchase another handgun, then they must go through the same process of approval to purchase, club endorsement, registration and secure storage regime. If the club member wishes to sell a handgun, then it can only be sold to another licenced person (after the purchaser obtains an approval to purchase) or to a licenced firearm dealer.

Comments on the illegal handgun market

The media in Australia generally cannot differentiate between the illegal and legal use of firearms, especially handguns. The Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) reports on firearm theft within Australia released in both May 2000 and April 2007 indicate that handguns were the least type of firearm stolen. So where are the criminals obtaining their illegal handguns?

The availability of illegal handguns soared soon after the introduction of the 1996 National Firearm Agreement (NFA), especially in the eastern states of Australia. The rush to implement the NFA resulted in differing interpretations of what constitutes a handgun in different states.

Thankfully, all loopholes have now been identified to stop any leakage of firearms to the illicit market. The government and the media need to focus on the positives sides of firearm ownership and the reduction of illegal firearms on the illicit market.

Gun crime

Of course, some handguns are illegally imported into Australia every year. The Australian Customs Service (ACS) cannot hope to stop this situation. But has there been many reports of the ACS seizing large quantities of Glock self-loading pistols? Or are the media reports telling us that, in fact, the “handguns seized” are soft airguns, which are illegally imported both by individuals and ‘one-dollar shops’ from Asia? No large-scale seizure of illegal handguns has been reported by the ACS, other than soft air-pistols.

The AIC has also reported on various occasions that the licenced firearm owner is not responsible for the use of firearms in homicide. The Federal Government’s own think-tank on firearm violence has recognised what firearm owners have known for a lifetime - that their lawful activities are not involved in the rise of violence within our community.

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