Australia's tough gun laws have been significantly watered down by state governments since they were introduced under the National Firearms Agreement in the days after the Port Arthur Massacre in 1996, a new study has found.
According to the research by Philip Alpers, an associate professor of public health at the University of Sydney, all Australian states have succumbed to pressure from gun owners or the parties that represent them to water down some aspects of the agreement.
Most notably, he said, most states now allowed children to fire guns, while in NSW and QLD the ban on high-powered semi-automatic weapons of the sought used in the Port Arthur massacre - and commonly in US mass shootings - had been diluted.
Further, the mandatory cooling off period, which dictated that before a person could buy a gun they had to wait 28 days from their application for a license or permit, had been relaxed in most states, Professor Alpers said.
Most jurisdictions now simply forced people to wait 28 days before they purchased their first gun, but did not enforce the waiting period for subsequent purchases.
"That has been weakened in most states, including NSW," Professor Alpers said. He said this went against the spirit of the agreement, which sought to slow people seeking to amass large arsenals.
He said it was not well understood that, in Australia today, it was possible for people to own hundreds of guns, as in the United States, and that all the evidence suggested gun purchasing patterns in Australia were imitating those in the US, where the number of households where a gun was present was shrinking, even as the total number of guns in society increased.
Despite all this, Professor Alpers said the "three pillars" of the gun controls remained strong and Australians were well protected by them. Firstly, he said, anyone seeking to own a gun must be licensed, secondly, each weapon must be registered, and thirdly, gun ownership remained a conditional privilege rather than a right.
"Observers on all sides note that, in important areas, state and territory legislation has been blocked or revised to dilute the effect of the NFA," Professor Alpers wrote in the report, which was commissioned by the lobby group Gun Control Australia.
Samantha Lee, chairwoman of the group, said the report was evidence that Australia's gun laws were at risk. "It shows that the gun lobby has been able to get into the pockets of politicians and water down the laws," she said.
She said it also showed that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who said on Tuesday that Australia's laws remained the toughest in the world, was out of touch with changes across the states.
The report, which will be released on Thursday, confirmed the findings of three earlier studies into how well the National Firearms Agreement was operating.
It noted that NSW was non-compliant in allowing the use of silencers, in allowing non-professional pest control shooters to use high-powered semi-automatic weapons and permitting unlicensed shooters to have firearm training.
It also considered membership of a hunting club to be a "genuine reason" for firearm possession, and allowed children over 12 to shoot under supervision, and was one of those states that did not enforce the 28-day cooling off period for people buying second or subsequent firearms, all in contravention of the NFA.
Victoria broke the agreement by similarly not enforcing the cooling-off period, by allowing handgun license holders to purchase a handgun within six months of acquiring their license, and by not limiting the amount of ammunition that might be purchased.
- This story first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald.