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Howard Proposes Tighter Gun Control Laws And Gun Buy-Back Program In Response To Port Arthur Shootings

On the fourth sitting day of the 38th Parliament, the new Prime Minister, John Howard, signalled his coalition government’s intention to strengthen gun control laws.

HowardThe policy was a response to the Port Arthur shootings of April 28, 1996.

In a ministerial statement to the House of Representatives, Howard said: “The government is strongly of the view that we need effective, uniform legislation. We need to achieve a total prohibition on the ownership, possession, sale and importation of all automatic and semi-automatic weapons.”

Howard also proposed a six-month gun amnesty “during which people will be invited to surrender their guns and full and proper compensation will be paid”. He said the cost of the compensation would be borne by the entire community.

Howard acknowledged the political difficulties he would face, especially with rural communities which supported his coalition partner, the National Party. He said: “In a sense it is always a sombre moment in a country where you ask the people who have done the right thing to put up with inconvenience because a limited number of people have done the wrong thing. But that is the nature of a democratic society. As somebody who is a fervent opponent of regulation, I always feel uncomfortable in responding to a problem with new laws. I think that this is an occasion when, if we did not, we would not be matching the national concern or the national need.”

The new ALP Opposition Leader Kim Beazley responded to Howard’s statement and offered support to the proposals.

Hansard transcript of Ministerial Statement by Prime Minister John Howard and response from Opposition Leader Kim Beazley.

Mr HOWARD (Prime Minister)(5.38 p.m.) —by leave—Before I deal with the issue that is the subject of my statement, I would like to join with others of my colleagues in congratulating the honourable member for Richmond (Mr Anthony) on his maiden speech. He comes from a great Australian family and a great political family. Amidst the inevitable trauma and sadness of last week, which all of us felt, one of the nice moments was when my wife and I, Tim and Judy Fischer and Malcolm and Tamie Fraser had the opportunity to have dinner with Doug and Margot Anthony. I worked with Doug Anthony as a ministerial colleague for 7½ years. He was a terrific bloke to work with.

You could not have two finer people as your parents. If you follow in Doug’s footsteps you will be a great representative for the National Party and you will be a terrific representative of the people of Richmond. I am delighted to have you as a colleague and I know that you will do your electors immense pride in the years ahead.

Mr Speaker, the purpose of my speaking tonight is to briefly outline decisions that have been taken by the government in relation to a proposal to be put to the police ministers meeting in Canberra on Friday to significantly strengthen laws relating to gun control in Australia. Everyone is aware of the circumstances which have finally brought to a head a drive in the community for strong and effective gun control laws.

As I have said in other places and on other occasions in the parliament, it would be wrong to simply see a response to what happened in Tasmania last week as being found in tougher gun control laws. The causes of that dreadful event lie deeper than simply the inadequacy of our gun control laws. They go to aspects of the kind of society we are. They go to issues concerning violence on the screen and in videos. They also, in the view of many of my colleagues on this side of the House—they are views that I share—raise legitimate questions about contemporary attitudes towards the treatment of mental health problems.

I want to make it clear to the House that, whilst I do not form any summary judgments, if we are as a community to seriously examine the causes and provide a range of responses, then we have to go beyond issues of gun control legislation. We have to go to an examination of some of those other matters. I can assure the House that, in a sensible, measured way, the government will be doing precisely that.

As to the question of gun control laws, the government is strongly of the view that we need effective, uniform legislation. We need to achieve a total prohibition on the ownership, possession, sale and importation of all automatic and semi-automatic weapons. That will be the essence of the proposal that will be put by the Commonwealth government at the meeting on Friday. We need an effective registration system and we will be pushing very strongly for that.

This decision, if it is supported by all of the states, will inevitably cause inconvenience and present some difficulties for tens of thousands of law-abiding people throughout this country. I think particularly of Australia’s rural community, a community that, more than many others, always matches the national need and rises to the occasion in times of national difficulty. I want to say to those many tens of thousands of people who may not find the government’s position a palatable one that it is only being done because of an overwhelming view on the part of the government that there is a broader national interest in having a very extensive prohibition.

People will argue that you can draw the line between one particular style of weapon and another. I do not parade expertise in this area, but I have some understanding of the depth of community feeling on this issue and a desire, as I find it amongst my fellow Australians, to grab this very tragic moment to bring about a profound cultural shift in the attitude of this community towards the possession and the use of destructive weapons. Perhaps if we do that, as a community, we can avoid some of the trauma experienced almost as a daily fact of life in the United States. I would hate to contemplate the future of this country if we went willy-nilly down the American path when it comes to gun violence.

I think we do have an opportunity at this moment to do something to turn that around. It will involve difficulty. Part of the government’s proposals is to have a six-month amnesty period during which people will be invited to surrender their guns and full and proper compensation will be paid. That will involve a cost, and ultimately that cost will have to, as it properly should, be borne by the entire community and not just by the people who are being encouraged to surrender their weapons.

The Attorney-General (Mr Williams), as the responsible minister, will be releasing the document in the course of the next day or so. I will ensure that the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Beazley) gets a copy of the document as soon as it has been finally settled, and I want to take this opportunity of thanking the Leader of the Opposition for the very constructive and positive way in which he has responded so far. I make no judgments about the future. He, as the leader of the alternative government, has his political rights, as I had my political rights as the former leader of the alternative government.

This issue, above most issues that I have encountered in my years in politics, has demanded, as best we can provide in this place, a bipartisan response. The decisions that the government has taken will not be universally popular—I accept that—and there will be people who will argue that they represent unacceptable infringements of individual rights.

It is not an issue that is new; it has been around for quite some years. Those who might argue that in some way what the government is doing is a knee-jerk reaction have forgotten the extensive public debate that occurred after the Hoddle Street and Strathfield massacres. I ask those who argue, and who will be told over the days and weeks ahead that what you need is further discussion and debate and deliberation, to see that discussion for what it is. It is inevitably a code for doing nothing in the hope that the immediate anger in the aftermath of last weekend will in time subside and that nothing will change.

In a sense it is always a sombre moment in a country where you ask the people who have done the right thing to put up with inconvenience because a limited number of people have done the wrong thing. But that is the nature of a democratic society. As somebody who is a fervent opponent of regulation, I always feel uncomfortable in responding to a problem with new laws. I think that this is an occasion when, if we did not, we would not be matching the national concern or the national need.

I should say to the House that I have had the opportunity over the weekend of having some very positive and helpful discussions with leaders of some of the farming bodies, and their attitude does not surprise me. As I said a moment ago, they usually respond in a very positive fashion to national issues. Their reaction has been one of understanding the dilemma that the government faces.

In essence, our proposal involves a total prohibition on automatic and semi-automatic weapons; a strengthening of the import regime; the seeking of an effective system of national registration; a tightening of the criteria under which people can be given licences, which I think picks up a point that was made by the opposition; and the commitment of funds for an education campaign; a six-month amnesty period, and after that a descending order of penalties including, potentially, a mandatory gaol sentence for the possession of the more high-powered destructive weapons, including those that were used in the Port Arthur massacre and which have been used on other occasions.

It gives me no pleasure to make this statement because it does involve an infringement of individual liberty by the state, which is never something I like. But there is a broader national and human interest involved, and I hope it is an approach that will win the support of all members of the House of Representatives and the Senate. I hope that the state governments—they will all be represented at the meeting on Friday—will find themselves able to respond. This is not an issue where I have sought some kind of aggregation of power to the Commonwealth. If it can be achieved through cooperation by the states, that is infinitely to be preferred, and that is what I will seek.

It does involve an acceptance by the whole community and ultimately, if it becomes necessary because of the cost involved in compensation, the government will be seeking a contribution from all members of the community to cover the cost of that compensation because all members of the community will benefit. I commend the statement to the House.

Mr BEAZLEY (Leader of the Opposition)(5.50 p.m.) —by leave—We, of course, support the remarks made by the Prime Minister (Mr Howard). He informs us that they are going to be followed up by a presentation of a more extensive paper in the next little while, in time for us to make some comment to him and the Attorney-General (Mr Williams) before they see the police ministers and state attorneys-general a bit later in the week.

The points that he makes essentially reiterate statements he has made before in the House as to what particular alterations he will be seeking in the regimes that apply to the ownership, handling and licensing of firearms. As I said, we do support those.

He made the point during his remarks that this is not a matter that has not been debated before, that in fact there is a very considerable public record now of approaches to a national regime in relation to the ownership and licensing of firearms. This is a matter which has been several times before the police ministers. It has not been simply in the form of a good idea; it has been in the form of quite detailed proposals as to who might have a licence, what a national register would consist of and what types of weapons would be licensed under which particular type of licensing regime.

There is now an extensive amount of paperwork inside the state and Commonwealth bureaucracies. I have before me the working paper of the Ministerial Council on the Administration of Justice. My colleague the shadow minister for immigration, previously the Minister for Justice, was operating on this when he also tried to brace the states on these matters. This will no doubt bear some relationship to the type of paper which Mr Williams subsequently puts down.

When you actually sit down and look at the various criteria for who might obtain a licence, you will find that there is a very comprehensive list indeed. There is a `genuine reason’ criteria associated with it, cooling off periods, and all sorts of things related to ownership of weapons. These will have a very substantial impact, I believe, and when followed up—it does seem to me, from what has been said so far, that it will be followed up—they will be very much for the good of our society.

Matters of storage need to be looked at in this regard, too. Quite clearly, the question of whether or not a licensed person has access to guns is one thing. If somebody else is aware of the location of those weapons, that becomes another thing. The defence forces certainly take very seriously the requirements that they have for the protection of their armouries. The police take that very seriously as well. Obviously, there ought to be some obligation on citizens likewise to be aware of the potential impact the ownership of their weapons can have on the possibility that other people might get access to them.

There is going to be a great deal for the police ministers to consider. Implementation is going to be a very difficult task once consideration has been achieved and unanimity is gained amongst the various police ministers to ensure that the laws are enforced. As the Prime Minister rightly says, there are a large number of very law abiding people—in fact, 99.99 per cent of gun owners—who will in one way or another be affected by this legislation. They will not be at all happy about the situation in which they find them selves and not all of them will be fully aware of why they ought to be in that situation. There is obviously going to be a very substantial task to educate those people who feel they are affected in that way and mutually reinforce society’s concern as far as these issues are concerned.

People will make the reasonable point that there are characteristics of mass killings other than the possession of weapons. Those factors will go to the mental state of the person in possession of the weapons and the way in which that person gained access to the weapons. Part of the answer to that lies in licensing, but there are other matters as well that go to picking up those concerns.

The Prime Minister mentioned the requirement to look at mental health concerns in relation to this. There is a requirement for some structure in that. The police ministers conference is probably not the right place to consider it. There needs to be some extraction of this issue from other mental health issues and, where a problem has been identified and an individual or a group in the community associated with that, some highly specific attention needs to be given to ensuring that people who have exhibited a certain category of behaviour do not have readily available access to weapons. Mental health concerns may not necessarily be of a general nature; they may be related to specific circumstances in which individuals find themselves—for example, family situations—which have the potential to get out of control. They might be people who have exhibited no problems in society at all to that point.

I think these issues require separate consideration, not simply broader consideration of mental health issues. Perhaps the Prime Minister might like to give a bit of attention over the next few weeks to establishing some form of coordinated activity amongst the states or agencies concerned to give specific focus to those concerns. For those who are inconvenienced by this legislation, we owe them—more specifically, we owe society—no less than to look at that.

I must say I think de-institutionalisation has become a bit faddish. It is a convenient meeting over the years of economic rational ism and perhaps over-strained liberalism, if you like, in approaching these particular problems. The combination of the two has produced a situation where, not just in this area but across the board, there needs to be a bit more careful thought given to it in the light of these events than perhaps we have done over the last couple of decades. The Prime Minister is obviously clearly interested in working through those issues.

We mentioned a few issues this afternoon in question time—the culture of violence in the community and what produces that. Often the focus on censorship laws relates to the question of whether or not there ought to be public access to erotic videos or whatever, and questions of violence slip to one side as that consideration is seen as overwhelming. Generally speaking, in so far as people are influenced by what they see, read or hear, the question of the style of their violence being influenced by what they actually see or read requires some degree of examination for us to be absolutely certain that these sorts of events are not, at least in part, a product of individuals and society having had access to that. These again are matters that go outside the immediate purview of the police ministers and more generally into areas of government activity.

There is also the issue of generally our approach to crime and the Commonwealth responsibility in this area, which is not vast but is nevertheless extant. As the Prime Minister looks at his budget cutting exercises—I have one view about the nature of his problem; the Prime Minister has another view about the nature of his problem, and we will no doubt have many debates on that over the next months—whatever either of our views are I urge him to look very carefully at the budgetary arrangements in the Attorney-General’s area to ensure that, as a Commonwealth legal responsibility, there be some isolation of the contributions that we make to things like the National Crime Authority and to other areas from any budgetary activity.

As somebody who has been a finance minister, I do know this: finance ministers approach their task with enormous enthusiasm and they are generally constrained by prime ministers, and that is absolutely required. There are many more public policy issues associated with a budgetary process than the mere existence of particular targets. Treasurers and finance ministers ought not be constrained by those public policy issues in themselves, but they certainly need to be constrained by other people. That is part of the responsibilities of prime ministers and portfolio ministers—to ensure that public policy issues are not neglected.

Obviously the Attorney-General will need to do that in several areas. One area is the area now specifically isolated by the Prime Minister; that is, the question of compensation in relation to the reacquisition of firearms. No doubt you will need to be looking at private sale issues in this regard to ensure that that is minimised, but you are also going to have to be looking at getting the guns back, and that will cost you some money. You can be reassured that it will cost you nowhere near as much as what those who speculate say it is going to cost you. To be able to do that is an impediment to the action; nevertheless, it will cost you something. That is going to have to feature in your consideration of the budget. Also, I think other areas of Commonwealth responsibility such as the area of crime and the area of mental health are going to have to be contemplated in your budgetary processes too.

So I look forward, on behalf of the opposition, to your success at the end of the week. We have said before that, if you are unable to get the states to a regime that works—and we are aware, as you are aware, of the enormous technical detail that goes beyond simply the statement of principle, important though the statements of principle are, that you have made; as you go into this issue, the devil is tremendously in the detail—your task will be considerably beyond that that is apparent from what has immediately been said by the Prime Minister. But if you are unable to get what you would consider real progress in the detail, in order to be assured in your own mind that the principle has been adopted, we would urge upon you the suggestion made by the Premier of New South Wales: this is an area, at the end of the day, which the Common wealth might find a great deal easier to handle than the states.

At the end of the day, if you take a look at what has been the prohibition to this point, it is the states who have been far more easily influenced by concerns in this regard than has been the Commonwealth over the years, and I put that on a bipartisan basis, at all levels. It may just be that a few of the states, as they get down and look at the detail of this, might quite like it to be your problem rather than theirs. If they arrive at that conclusion, we would not want you to hesitate. We think that is something that would not be a bad thing for you to take on yourself at all.

We look forward, as I said, to seeing the detailed propositions of the Prime Minister. I will be writing to him about a few of our concerns in this regard that I hope he might take into consideration. We will probably find that the things I was going to write to him about are covered in what is a general detailed statement that he will be producing. But, if not, to the extent that it is different I hope he will look at our proposition seriously.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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