The Sydney Siege two years on - and the reality of firearm deaths

December marks two years since a criminal known to authorities held up a cafe in central Sydney with an unregistered and illegally modified firearm. After three people were killed, including the perpetrator Man Haron Monis, the SSAA weathered the storm of media inquiries that tried to link sporting shooters with the terrorist attack.

While the Joint Commonwealth and New South Wales review into the siege was released in early 2015, the inquest into the incident continues and questions surrounding how an unlicensed person obtained a firearm to begin with, and whether or not the authorities responded to the threat adequately, are still being considered. But just how common - or uncommon - are firearm deaths in Australia?

While the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) fought off a wave of criticism surrounding the bungled 2016 National Census earlier this year, the SSAA Legislative Action (SSAA-LA) department was analysing the latest homicide statistics. The Recorded Crime - Victims, Australia, 2015 report released in July showed that knives and beatings remain the common methods used in homicide - nearly double the number of times firearms are used. This alone disproves anti-gun advocates who argue that further restrictions on legal firearms ownership are urgently needed to stop crime and prevent another Sydney Siege type incident.

Knives were used in 70 homicides in 2015, a slight decrease from 75 incidents in 2010, while 69 homicides involved no weapons (such as beatings, brute force) in 2015, compared to 75 in 2010. Firearms were used in just 27 homicides in 2015, compared to 38 in 2010. Unfortunately, the study did not identify if the firearms used were registered or sourced illegally, but with less than three per cent of stolen firearms from licensed owners subsequently used to commit crime, the SSAA-LA argues that the number of stolen registered firearms used is minuscule.

Despite popular belief, the statistics also show firearms homicide rates have barely changed since the introduction of the National Firearms Agreement (NFA) 20 years ago. Homicides using a firearm were on the decline well before the anomaly of the Port Arthur murders, with firearms used in around 15 per cent of homicide incidents prior to the introduction of the NFA. Today’s latest figures show a slight increase in firearm homicides, at around the 17 per cent mark.

But what do these figures really mean? For licensed shooters, it shows that when we say to non-shooters or anti-gun advocates that the NFA has not drastically curbed the use of firearms in murders, we are correct. It also supports the argument that those who want to commit a crime will find a way, regardless of what the NFA says.

Additional statistics released in September by the ABS into cause of death figures showed that firearms as a self-harm method remains steady, accounting for 5.8 per cent of total suicides in 2015 (177 people), with hanging, poisoning and ‘other’ methods the more common means by far (85 per cent of deaths). The suicide rate overall has decreased slightly across many decades, well before the introduction of the NFA. Even in cases of assault resulting in death, sharp objects were the cause in 104 cases, compared to firearms in just 27 instances.

On the same day the latest cause of death figures were published, notorious hoplophobe Gun Control Australia’s (GCA) Roland Browne embarrassed himself with erroneous claims about the real effect former Prime Minister John Howard’s knee-jerk changes to Australia’s gun laws have had on suicide rates. Mr Browne told The Daily Telegraph that: “The reforms to the gun laws saw dramatic decreases in suicide rates and gun death rates across Australia, a reduction in violence in the home and reduction in assaults with guns.”

A reality check for Mr Browne is that homicides using a firearm were on the decline well before the glitch of the Port Arthur murders. His erroneous remarks about violence in the home fail to acknowledge the ‘epidemic’ of domestic violence in Australia, with White Ribbon Australia noting that more than a third of all murders in Australia are due to domestic violence. Mr Browne has once again downplayed the effect other forms of violence have on victims in his quest to paint all firearms - legal or illegal - as the biggest threat to society.

The inquest into the Sydney Siege is still ongoing, with findings expected to be delivered by the New South Wales Coroner next year. Just what lessons the authorities have learned from the terrorist incident remains to be seen. However, whether the police should have handed over control to the Australian Army’s Tactical Operations Group East has been a hot topic throughout the inquiry, along with whether police snipers should have taken a shot at Monis when they had the chance.

Whatever the outcome, one thing is clear: further restrictions on law-abiding firearm owners will not stop criminals from illegally importing or accessing black market firearms, nor will knee-jerk, emotional changes to current firearms legislation.

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