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Violence: directions for Australia
Part Three - The prevention and control of violence: conlusions and recommendations
Public sector agencies: criminal law, evidence and procedure
Firearms Control

It was the two mass shootings in Melbourne in 1987 which shocked Victoria, indeed, all of Australia, and brought about the creation of the National Committee on Violence. Few, if any, issues in Australian State politics produce such a degree of controversy as firearms control. Because of the circumstances surrounding the Committee's origin, and because of the intensity of community interest in firearms policy, the Committee has chosen to accord a considerable degree of detail to its recommendations in this area. In addition to the numerous individuals and interest groups who put their views to the Committee, the Committee considered the arguments of scholars both in Australia and abroad, who support greater and lesser restrictions on the availability and use of firearms. Among the leading authorities in this area are Fine (1988), Wright (1988), Zimring and Hawkins (1987) and Harding (1981).

No other subject which the Committee has considered over the course of its inquiry has elicited such a degree of intense comment as has the proposal to restrict access to firearms. The subject of firearms control is indeed an emotive issue, and emotion has served to obscure the reality of firearms as a cause of death in Australia. Firearms are lethal weapons. As noted above, nearly 700 Australians die each year from gunshot wounds, the vast majority of them intentionally self-inflicted. This compares, for example, with 249 opiate-related deaths in 1986 (Department of Community Services and Health 1988).

It has been estimated that there are 3.5 million firearms in Australia - one for every four Australians. That a majority of Australian shooters are responsible persons is beyond dispute. But any city-dweller who ventures beyond outer suburbia cannot help but be struck by the ubiquity of bullet-ridden road signs; and 100 firearm homicides per year, a substantial proportion of them occurring in the family home, is too many. There is no doubt that significant disarmament of the Australian public would save lives and prevent injury.

It has been argued that, to the contrary, there are countries with high rates of gun ownership and low rates of homicide, such as Switzerland. However, it is important to realise that the Swiss are armed in the cause of civil defence, with all the training and retraining thus entailed, that safe storage is emphasised, and that draconian penalties are imposed for misuse. Furthermore, in spite of these measures, in 1986 Switzerland was second only to the United States in the rate of suicide by firearms (Magnuson 1989).

The Committee is aware that the segment of the Australian community which poses an obvious danger in terms of criminal violence, the subculture of professional criminals, will be minimally affected by any regime of firearms licensing and registration. They will often be able to obtain guns for criminal purposes. The Committee concedes this, but wishes to emphasise that firearm use by so-called "professional" criminals is only a small part of the problem of criminal violence in Australia. The vast majority of firearm homicides are unplanned and impulsive, and in all likelihood would not occur if such a lethal weapon were not to hand. The availability of a firearm in these circumstances makes death a far greater likelihood, for research has demonstrated that the death rate for victims assaulted by guns is several times that of those assaulted with lethal intent by knives or other weapons (NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research 1973; Zimring & Newton 11969). The proportion of Canadian homicides committed with firearms decreased significantly following the introduction of restrictive licensing and registration measures (Canada 1983; Sproule & Kennett 1989).  [But, did the homicides decrease?]

The Committee is convinced that the availability of firearms increases the risk of violent death, both accidental and deliberate. This is demonstrated by statistics relating to gun deaths in urban and rural areas. In New South Wales, for instance, significantly higher gun availability in rural areas is accompanied by significantly higher rates of gun deaths (Wallace 1986; see also Zimring & Hawkins 1987 and Harding 1981 for a comprehensive review of research on this subject). The Committee's aim therefore is to recommend measures which will militate against any further increase in the proportion of Australians owning guns, and to ensure as far as possible that firearms are used only by responsible, skilled shooters. The Committee acknowledges that there is no unanimous community view on ways of approaching firearms regulation. For instance, the Shooting Sports Council of Victoria opposed more stringent gun laws on the basis that while it supported a system of individual licensing and moves to improve safety and training, gun registration was a waste of community resources.

It is fair to say, however, that most submissions which the Committee received which referred to the issue of gun control favoured more stringent regulation. For instance, the Uniting Church in Australia (Synod of Victoria) stated in its submission to the Committee that guns formed part of a "culture of violence" and that "any idea that firearms should be part of the accoutrements of a normal household should be subjected to serious questioning". A number of submissions drew attention to the gender dimension to firearm ownership and use. Ms Carolyn Worth from Gun Control Australia told the Committee that guns tend to be used as a control mechanism in domestic violence situations. The Domestic Violence Advocacy service of New South Wales noted in its submission that a 1987 study showed that 6.4 per cent of clients [said they had been threatened with a weapon. Mr Roland Browne from the Tasmanian Coalition for Gun Control put forward the view that there is a link between gun ownership and perceptions of masculinity.[All "experts" how?]

The following statement by the Anglican Archdiocese of Melbourne represents a common view expressed in submissions:

... the death of innocent people in Hoddle and Queen Streets and the trauma resulting from that demands in our view responsible action from Members of Parliament. The freedom of some people may need to be restricted in order to protect the community from these disasters with guns ever occurring again.

The two Commissioners of Police who are members of the Committee maintain that a national system of firearms licensing and registration will assist the police in the prevention and control of firearm violence, and will enhance the safety of both the general public and Australian police men and women. On this the entire Committee is in wholehearted agreement, as they are with regard to all of the following recommendations relating to firearms.

The Committee believes that firearm ownership is a privilege, not a right, and that strict controls will impress it upon the public that firearms are inherently dangerous. The Committee urges all Australians to accept that strong measures are needed to deal with the present incidence of gun fatalities and injuries in this country. With this in mind, the following recommendations are made:

Recommendation 54. All Governments should take appropriate action to minimise death and injury arising from the accidental or intentional use of firearms by:

Recommendation 54.1. The enactment of uniform legislation throughout Australia to regulate the acquisition and possession of firearms.

Recommendation 54.2. The introduction, through the Australian Police Ministers Council, of uniform guidelines for all Australian police forces in the enforcement of firearms legislation.

Recommendation 54.3. The development of a national gun control strategy aimed at

The Committee recommends the following specific strategies:

Recommendation 55. The Federal Government should undertake the following action:

Recommendation 55.1. Military weapons: sales of surplus military weapons should be prohibited to prevent their use in Australia. The importation of military-style weapons for use other than by law enforcement officers or defence force personnel should be prohibited. The Federal Government should provide a generic statement to specify what firearms are importable.

Recommendation 55.2. Mail order firearms: if the Federal Government has the constitutional power, the sale of mail order firearms should be prohibited. If it does not have such powers, and in the absence of uniform State and Territory licensing laws, the mail order sales of firearms should be restricted by using, for example, legislation relating to dangerous goods.

Recommendation 55.3. Rifle clubs established under the Defence Act should be brought under the ambit of State and Territory licensing and registration requirements.

Recommendation.56. The Federal Government should use its corporations power under the Constitution, as well as its powers to regulate trade and commerce, and imports, in furtherance of a national gun control strategy.

Recommendation 57. The State and Territory Governments should undertake the following action:

Recommendation 57.1. Prohibition of all automatic long arms and certain types of ammunition.

Recommendation 57.2. Restriction of semi-automatic long arms to individuals with a specific need.

Recommendation 57.3. Restriction of sales of ammunition by licensed gun shops only, to licensed individuals only, for personal use of a specific firearm.

Recommendation 57.4. Registration: all firearms should be registered in a computerised national firearms registry.

Recommendation 57.5. Licensing: ownership or possession of a firearm to be restricted to those possessing a valid licence. The prerequisites for obtaining a shooter's licence should be those in existing legislation, together with the following:

Recommendation 57.6. Security: mandatory measures to be introduced for the safe-keeping of all weapons in an inoperable condition in secure storage, both by individuals and businesses, with appropriate penalties for non-compliance.

Recommendation 57.7. Seizure: in the event of a licensed owner giving reason to believe that he/she is no longer a fit and proper person, for example, by using the weapon in a threatening way, there should be provision for mandatory seizure of all firearms in his/her possession.

Recommendation 57.8. Restrictions on private sales: all sales of firearms, including second-hand sales, to be made through licensed gun dealers, and any change of registered owner should be notified through the proposed registration mechanisms referred to in (57.4) above.

Recommendation 57.9. Amnesties: a permanent amnesty for the surrender of unauthorised firearms should be implemented, with conditions similar to those provided in the temporary amnesties which have been introduced from time to time in various jurisdictions.

Mandatory sentencing for offences committed with firearms
The Committee is mindful of the aphorism "firearms don't kill, people do". Whilst the Committee maintains that firearms are inherently dangerous and thus require strict controls, it also feels strongly that those who misuse firearms, with malice or negligence, should especially pay a price.

Among the issues which the Committee considered is the necessity for mandatory minimum sentences for individuals convicted of offences committed with a firearm. Under existing State and Territory laws, crimes of violence committed with firearms already carry severe penalties. In most jurisdictions, the Crown already has the right of appeal against sentences perceived to be unduly lenient. And the Committee can envisage situations where justice might not be served by mandatory sentencing. Consider, for example, a situation wherein a woman, after having suffered years of repeated abuse at the hands of her spouse, finally responds by shooting him to death. Circumstances such as these, assuming they result in conviction, might not warrant the custodial sentence which would be required under mandatory sentencing laws.

The Committee feels that the criminal misuse of firearms requires the firmest and most unambiguous denunciation. At the same time, it is problematic whether mandatory sentences for offences committed with firearms would carry any additional deterrent effect. They could as well induce an armed offender to eliminate witnesses entirely.

Australian evidence on this question is limited. Professor Richard Harding of the University of Western Australia has advised the Committee of his impression that armed robbers might be deterred from using firearms by such mandatory penalties. Loftin et al. (1989) observed a distinct pattern of reductions in gun homicide in six United States cities following the introduction of mandatory sentencing laws for violent crimes committed with guns. Given the much greater prevalence of firearms and homicides in the United States, however, these findings are not necessarily generalisable to Australia.

The Committee urges sentencing authorities to regard firearm crime as particularly grave.

Recommendation 58. The use of a firearm in the commission of a crime should be regarded as an aggravating circumstance by sentencing authorities.

Corporal punishment: spanking
The utility of spanking as a tool of parental discipline is a subject of considerable controversy; whether spanking should be prohibited by law, even more so. One function of the criminal law is to state forcefully that certain forms of behaviour are intolerable. Whether it should be used to lead public opinion or to follow it is a question of more than philosophical interest.

When parents, with the best of intentions, strike their children, they do so to teach a lesson. Unfortunately, they teach unintended lessons as well. As children tend only to be hit by those who love them, they learn at a very early age to associate love with violence. Since spanking is used to demonstrate correct behaviour, children learn that hitting other persons is right. Since the use of physical punishment by parents usually occurs in circumstances of some frustration, the child is implicitly taught that frustration justifies the use of physical force.

Mrs Joan Waters, who is the Director, Anglican Kindergarten Council (Victoria), stated in a submission entitled "Early Influences on Attitudes to Violence":

When we review the research, beating is the most frequent form of child abuse. Children are beaten with almost anything that comes to hand - sticks, straps, chair legs ... and of course, hands, fists and feet. These attacks are simply the extension of the ordinary violence that starts as a smack on the hand in many Australian families. While abuse, once it is recognised and labelled, is not approved by the community, the disciplinary style that led up to it often is.

Parents who strike their children are giving those children lessons in the use of violence. Moreover, the distinction between simple discipline and child abuse is often more a matter of degree than a qualitative difference. Australians should repudiate the use of physical force against children, and substitute non-violent means of social control.

The Committee notes that in Sweden, parents are prohibited by law from spanking their children. This does not imply that police officers are stationed in every home, or that children routinely inform upon their parents. The law is intended not to punish large numbers of parents for trivial offences, but rather to affirm the principle that physical punishment is simply unacceptable. The principles of inviolability of a child and of non-violence are enshrined in Swedish law, the Parenthood Code.

Professor Kim Oates, Professor of Paediatrics at the University of Sydney, advised the Committee:

My own view is that there would be considerable benefit if Australia introduced this sort of legislation. It should be made clear that the intent of legislation, which made it unlawful for parents to use physical punishment or other humiliating treatment to their children, would not be to punish parents, but to signal very clearly to society that violence is not the way to resolve conflicts. This would include conflicts between parents and children. Although such legislation would be likely to provoke considerable public reaction, I believe we should be looking at legislation which may take a generation to change attitudes. Such legislation should of course be accompanied by imaginative public education as occurred when the Swedish law was introduced in July 1979 (see also Newell 1989).

The Committee notes that Sweden is not alone in prohibiting the physical punishment of children. Other Scandinavian countries followed during the 1980s: Finland (1984), Denmark (1986), and Norway (1987). In 1985 a Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe recommended "Governments of member states should review their legislation on the power to punish children in order to limit or indeed prohibit corporal punishment, even if a violation of such a prohibition does not necessarily entail a criminal penalty" (Council of Europe R8514 1985, see EPOCH 11989). The Austrian Parliament voted unanimously in March 1989 to protect its children from all physical punishment.

The Royal Australasian College of Physicians noted in a submission to the Committee that the original intention of this legislation was for a generation of children to grow up knowing that physical punishment of children was unacceptable, the hope being that within a generation there would be some changes in child-rearing attitudes. However, the College stated that since the beginning of the legislation "there has been an early and marked reduction in the incidence of physical abuse. It appears that when guidance is given from the top, societies can be taught that physical violence towards children is unacceptable".

The Committee notes that there has been a dramatic change in Swedish attitudes to hitting children in recent years. Opinion polls showed that the proportion of Swedes believing that "corporal punishment is sometimes necessary" halved from 53 per cent in 1965 to 26 per cent in 1981. And the proportion believing that " parents should manage without physical punishment" doubled from 35 to 71 per cent.

The Committee is aware that educational endeavours are already being made by Australian health and welfare authorities to encourage alternatives to the use of corporal punishment by parents, and the Committee supports these efforts.

Recommendation 59. The Committee strongly condemns the use of physical violence in disciplining children. The long-term aim should be to abolish such practices. In the interim, this objective is best achieved by education, as already referred to in the context of parent education.

To assist parents in developing more constructive means of discipline, the Swedish Department of justice has published a book entitled Can You Bring Up Children Successfully Without Smacking and Spanking? The Committee strongly urges Australian education and community welfare authorities to do the same.

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Originally published:
Violence: directions for Australia / National Committee on Violence.
ISBN 0 642 14975 5
Canberra: Australian institute of Criminology, 1990; pp 173-184

URL: http://www.aic.gov.au/publications/vda/vda-sec23.html; Last modified: 15 June 2005

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