Time to get tough on soft sentencing

Firearm owners follow more regulations and jump through more hoops than just about any other group of Australians out there. Licence fees, heavily fortified storage safes, identification tests, background checks and ongoing police inspections make up just some of the procedures in place that all licensed shooters must follow - all of this despite the fact that sports shooting has been shown to be safer than football, basketball, walking and table tennis. Yet, we still happily follow these laws because we understand better than most that safety is the number one priority.

Fortunately as Australians, criminal behaviour has always made up only a small part of our society. When crime does happen, we have police and government departments to investigate and prosecute, while the courts decide if a crime has been committed and what should happen next. The problem is criminals are not easy to catch. But when they are caught, particularly when they are caught breaking firearms laws, a strong message should be sent condemning their behaviour. It discourages future offending and keeps us all, including law-abiding firearm owners, safer.

Unfortunately, this has hardly been the case. Instead, marginal groups have denounced gun ownership generally, rather than going the hard yards to understand that firearms are just one of the many tools occasionally used in criminal activities. Just three per cent of firearms used to commit crime have been traced to licensed owners. The overwhelming majority of firearms used by criminals have been sourced from the illicit market or illegally imported.

Even with all this in mind, criminals also use screwdrivers, knives, telephones, cigarette lighters, cars and computers. Meanwhile, law-abiding firearm owners who do the right thing and follow all the rules are lumped in the same basket as outlaw bikie gangs and hardened criminals. The average citizen doesn’t know the lengths that responsible firearm owners take to secure their equipment. The 24-hour news cycle leads some people to believe anyone who has stepped onto a shooting range could have a boot full of sawn-off shotguns.

The misinformation runs deep. In April this year, a Victorian Magistrate was shocked to find out that you can own multiple guns if they are all registered. In other news, it also turns out you can own multiple cars as long as you register them all. Some people have one car, some have multiple cars and some people living in big cities live perfectly fine with no car at all. Different needs, interests and lifestyles require different equipment.

The illicit market of firearms is a hotbed for illegal activity and a great concern to every Australian. When the police find a prohibited or unregistered firearm, it should be a win for justice. Instead, we see again and again cases with poor or non-existent evidence lead to a ‘slap on the wrist’ or sometimes even less.

Last year, a woman in Victoria was stopped by police who found a stash of guns, knives and knuckle dusters on the front and back seats of her car. Police claim they discovered a pistol, two revolvers, a pump-action shotgun, double-barrel and single-barrel shotguns, a sawn-off rifle, a non-sawn-off rifle, a sub-machine-gun, swords, a crossbow, knuckle dusters, a taser and ammunition. When she eventually appeared in court, all charges were dropped and the woman was free to go. She - very effectively - used the ‘I didn’t know they were there’ defence. The lack of evidence from police meant that there were no repercussions for anyone. No-one took the fall for a sub-machine-gun on a car seat found by the police.

Shockingly, situations like this are not unique. Several court cases over the past 12 months have come to our attention. Keep in mind these are just the tip of the iceberg. A Victorian man pleaded guilty to storing ammunition without a licence and received a $400 fine, much less than the maximum penalty of $9100 or a year’s imprisonment. Police in South Australia found a teenager in possession of a prohibited weapon and ammunition. The teenager was given 75 hours of community service. A woman was shot in the leg twice by her partner. Her partner then tried to hide a self-loading rifle and homemade gun in the bush, but police were later able to find both items. Despite pleading guilty, the man was simply put on 15 months probation and the court did not even record a conviction.

Despite being a known Hells Angel bikie member, a man served only two years imprisonment for eight counts of illegally possessing firearms and ammunition, making an explosive device, knowingly holding an explosive device and possessing a silencer. If that only delivers two years imprisonment, then what does it take to merit the maximum sentence?

The saga continued when Bandido chapter president, Frank Elniz, was found to be in possession of two .22-calibre air rifles in his home in New South Wales. One of the rifles even had its serial number filed off. To make things worse, due to past criminal behaviour, including assaulting police and using a prohibited weapon, Elniz is forbidden to own a firearm. In NSW, the maximum penalty for unauthorised possession of a firearm is five years imprisonment. However, Elniz was sentenced to a paltry 80 hours of community service and received an almost meaningless 12-month good behaviour bond. It’s a great loss when criminal activity is caught red-handed but hardly punished. What a wasted opportunity of setting the record straight and sending a strong message to criminals in Australia.

In the same timeframe, a man with no criminal history was imprisoned for nine months for not securing an unregistered firearm. There doesn’t seem to be any consistency for similar breaches of the law. Perhaps it’s a matter of backroom deals or plea bargaining, but then shouldn’t we be seeing some other outlaws thrown under the bus and being punished? Logic dictates having no criminal connections would be helpful when facing a charge, but apparently not. Transparency is imperative in maintaining our faith in the system because at the moment it seems purely random or even set up to trip over those who are more vulnerable.

Another example comes from Mathew Pinch in Queensland who while high on the drug ice, crashed his vehicle and badly injured a woman. When police arrived at the scene of the crash, they found a sawn-off bolt-action rifle and 14 rounds of ammunition inside the vehicle. Pinch told police that he had the gun “in the event he had to shoot someone in self-defence” - an option the woman he crashed into never had. Pinch was sentenced to four and a half years imprisonment - to be suspended after 18 months.

The SSAA understands that evidence is complicated and some court cases are more complex than court reports can explain. But this seems to be all the more reason to give tougher sentencing for continued illegal behaviour. The consequences for people who flagrantly break the law must be strong enough to change their habits and discourage others. This would also go a long way towards distancing criminals from firearm owners and stop the spread of misinformation about gun violence and crime. This is one of the reasons the SSAA has been in continuing talks for minimum sentencing for firearm trafficking related crimes. Prying back our reputation that has been muddied by criminals is how we maintain and grow our freedoms.

Now we come to where SSAA members can help out. We must continue to demand more resources and better spending on targeting crime, not law-abiding firearm owners. Let your local politicians know you are a proud firearm owner and that you demand law-abiding firearm owners be protected while toughening up on people who blatantly and recklessly endanger everyone around them. Of course, general education, health spending and a strong economy are vital factors in stopping criminal behaviour altogether, so it’s all the more reason to speak to your representatives. Luckily, the early days of a new government are a great opportunity to make a change.

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