Gun ownership in Australia

Criminology Research Council grant ; (15/73)

Funds for this project were initially granted by the Criminology Research Council in 1973. Supplementary finance was granted in 1977. With the March 1981 publication of Firearms and Violence in Australian Ute (University of Western Australia Press) by Professor Richard Harding, one of the Council's longest-running projects has reached fruition.

The original purpose of the research had been to ascertain the number of firearms in private ownership in Australia, their types, variations in pattern by State and how many separate owners of such firearms there were. Such apparently elementary data could not be supplied by law enforcement authorities because in only one State (Western Australia) was there a licensing and registration system which in principle should have produced such information. Previous estimates of firearms ownership were wildly disparate and imprecise. It was also intended to acquire more sophisticated information about owners-their socio-economic profiles, their motives for gun ownership, their conduct in relation to their firearm and ammunition, their training and general sense of safety-consciousness, etc. All such data were to be evaluated also against the backdrop of firearms use in crime, accidents, suicide and law enforcement.

During 1973 and 1974 pilot surveys were carried out in Western Australia, both urban and rural areas. These indicated that the basic methodology would work, i.e. that respondents would answer questions about what might be considered a sensitive issue honestly and comprehensively. The researcher was accordingly able to persuade the Australian Bureau of Statistics to become associated with the project on a national basis as part of its General Social Survey 1975. However, that survey was, in the event, incomplete in that it omitted from the sample some 14 percent of the Australian population living in very low density rural areas. Because the pilot survey had indicated that this part of the population had the highest gun ownership rates, it thus became necessary to plug this gap by further surveys. For reasons of finance, these could only be carried out in two States. New South Wales and South Australia were selected-the former because it is the most populous in Australia, the latter because the 1977 Firearms Act had just been passed as a consequence of which it would eventually be possible to obtain an official estimate of firearms and owners against which to measure survey results. These surveys were accordingly carried out in early 1978. Bureau of Statistics data became officially available in mid-1979, and the researcher was able to complete the manuscript of Firearms and Violence by mid-1980.

The key findings were as follows: Approximately 2.5 million firearms are owned by some 1.5 million private citizens; the inventory of firearms is increasing by about 100,000 annually. Patterns varied by State in a way which indicated that legislative arrangements are capable of affecting to some degree this particular social phenomenon. Types of firearms were: rifles, 64 per cent; shotguns, 32 percent; handguns, 4 percent. The most important feature was low handgun ownership, achieved nationally in the only area of firearms law administration where there had previously been any coordination between States.

Motives for ownership were mainly of the sort one would expect: for hunting and sport, for the destruction of vermin by primary producers, and as collectors' items. A disturbing trend was, however, the apparent propensity of Australians to arm themselves for the misguided motive of defence-misguided because it is ineffective and because its tendency is simply to increase the total amount of firearms violence in society. This trend was most marked in Queensland.

The training and safety consciousness of owners were both inadequate. This reflects itself in an unnecessarily high accident rate, causing death and injury; 90 percent of such accidents are due to shooter incompetence. It was apparent that gun club members are safer and better trained than other shooters. This fact should be utilised in licensing laws, by requiring a prospective firearms owner to acquire a shooter competence certificate issued by an approved gun club as a licence prerequisite.

The most significant misuse of firearms is, of course, in crime. The research concludes that, in Australia, this has not yet reached alarming proportions. However, it is argued that we 'are on the same road as the United States' where patterns of gun ownership and misuse are 'destructive, volatile, self-perpetuating and intractable'. A strategy is suggested whereby that situation may be headed off for Australia whilst there is still time; the key point is coordinated Commonwealth/State/Territory legislation. In particular, the Commonwealth should inquire into its present utilisation of the Customs power, which appears not to be working satisfactorily in this area.

The publication of Firearms and Violence attracted a great deal of media attention and political discussion. The Council of Australian Police Ministers announced that uniform legislation would be examined. Western Australia announced that a review of its firearms laws was to take place. In June 1981 an international conference was held in Perth to discuss gun laws; this brought together for the first time a group of shooters, dealers, bankers, private security personnel, police, government authorities, politicians, lawyers and criminologists-including four noted international scholars. A similar conference was held in Canberra later the same month.

The research project thus can be seen to have put an important social issue into the forefront of public discussion, which is now able to be conducted on the basis of hard information and facts.

Harding, Richard W. 1981 Firearms and Violence in Australian Life: an Examination of Gun Ownership and Use in Australia Nedlands, WA: University of Western Australia Press.