Shockingly ‘soft’ sentences - cross-section of court rulings suggest leniency for gun crime

As licensed firearm owners, we are aware of the harsh penalties faced if we don’t adhere strictly to the relevant legislation. Even the slightest, unintentional mistake can cost us our firearms and even our firearms licence - the two things we have worked so hard to obtain.

However, the penalties for those who deliberately and maliciously misuse firearms for sinister purposes can seem insufficient and even shocking in comparison, especially when licensed firearm owners are so stringently regulated and penalised. Despite the recent Senate Inquiry finding theft from legal owners is not a main source of supply to the illicit market, the mainstream media is still quick to smear and wrongfully link licensed firearm owners with any incident involving a firearm.

Three recent examples reported in the Australian media have highlighted what appears to be leniency in the courts for criminals who handle illegal, unregistered firearms with no licence.

Case one occurred in Victoria and was reported in the Ballarat Courier. A local Ballarat man, whose name has been suppressed, appears to have thought that sending text messages of a handgun with five bullets to his ex-girlfriend claiming there was a bullet “for each one” of her fellow housemates was an acceptable use of a firearm. Along with this threatening behaviour, the man, who admitted to the court that he had a history of substance abuse, had breached intervention orders his ex-partner had against him when he was on the drug ice, explaining to the court that “it [the drugs] did fry my brain and I did go off the rails for a bit”. He also unlawfully used a previous housemates’ credit card to purchase random items around town.

For all this, Magistrate Cynthia Toose ordered him to serve a Community Corrections Order, which could include up to 20 hours of community service activities a week, to receive free treatment for drug or alcohol abuse, and to stay away from particular people. He also received a fine.

Case two was reported by the Cairns Post and saw Queenslander Xa Vang found in possession of an illegal self-loading Ruger P90 handgun. Claiming to have found the gun when out pig hunting, Mr Vang said he had every intention of handing it in to the police, but it was discovered stashed with methamphetamines in the Innisfail man’s home a week later. Adding further worry to the case, the firearm was found loaded in the family home he shared with his wife and eight children, aged between two and 10.

Justice James Henry made clear his suspicions that he hadn’t been told the whole story regarding the firearm, and although he considered sentencing the Thai immigrant to community service, he ruled this out because of Mr Vang’s apparent back injury. Mr Vang is now free in the community after being given immediate parole from his 12-month jail sentence.

Case three occurred in South Australia and was reported by The Advertiser. One Jason Santoro was charged with possessing a military firearm without a licence, instead of the more serious charge of attempting to sell an illegal firearm on the black market, because of the “inoperable” state in which the firearm was found.

District Court Judge Paul Cuthbertson handed down a six-month suspended sentence, $100 three-year bond and 100 hours of community to the criminal, who also had past minor convictions.

The imposition of what are seen in the community as relatively soft ‘slap on the wrist’ penalties has irked SSAA National President Geoff Jones, who said there seems to be a widening gap between how criminals are treated compared to licensed, responsible firearm owners.

“While our members and licensed, law-abiding firearm owners at large are under constant scrutiny and can lose their licence, therefore their ability to participate in their chosen sport and pastime, through a mere technicality, the criminal person with a malicious agenda appears to be let off quite lightly, and quite often,” he said.

“It sends a questionable message to others in the community when those who have followed all the right steps in order to possess a firearm are severely penalised for misunderstanding or forgetting a technicality, while criminals receive an apparent slap on the wrist.”
Mr Jones said that, if the penalties being imposed were a product of restrictions in sentencing guidelines, then those guidelines needed to change.

SSAA South Australia President David Handyside issued a press release about the South Australian case conveying similar sentiments, which was published in The Advertiser.

Some jurisdictions are responding to community outrage expressed by such sentencing. New South Wales and the ACT, for example, are looking at a minimum nine years for those who discharge firearms to resist arrest or with an intent to cause grievous bodily harm, while shooting at a building with reckless disregard for safety as part of organised crime or causing public disorder will earn criminals at least six years behind bars.

The federal government is also championing mandatory minimum sentencing for illegal firearms traffickers, with those convicted facing a minimum of five years’ imprisonment. The SSAA was invited to provide a submission to the proposed penalty, and cautiously supported the move, highlighting the need for clear criminal intent to be proven.

These cases are just three recent examples that the SSAA is aware of through its media monitoring activities, and while some jurisdictions are addressing the lenient sentencing, there is still a long way to go. The SSAA will continue to speak out against such lenient penalties handed down by the courts, and continue to work with legislators to demonstrate that licensed, law-abiding firearm owners are already overzealously regulated, and that any further regulations won’t affect the criminal element of society.

Examples of penalties licensed firearm owners could face in Victoria

Crime: Possessing, carrying or using an unregistered Category A or B longarm.
Penalty: For first offence, $18,200.40 fine or two years’ imprisonment; second or subsequent offences, $182,004 fine or 10 years’ imprisonment.

Crime: For not advising the Chief Commissioner of a change of address.
Penalty: Licence cancelled and possible ban from reapplying for the licence for up to 12 months.

Crime: For incorrectly storing a general category handgun or a Category C or D longarm when the firearm is not being carried or used.
Penalty: $18,200.40 fine or two years’ imprisonment.

Crime: For possessing, carrying or using a registered general category handgun for purposes other than collecting handguns, unless specially licensed.
Penalty: $36,400.80 fine or four years’ imprisonment.
Disclaimer: Information correct as of time of printing.

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