Samantha Lee | National Times | April 18, 2012
Remembering the Port Arthur massacre ... as the law now stands, a licensed gun owner may legally purchase a military-style, semi-automatic pistol with a magazine capacity of 10 rounds.
April is an eerie time of year. Sixteen years ago this month, Martin Bryant opened fire at historic Port Arthur in Tasmania, killing 35 people and wounding 18 others.
This month also marks the anniversaries of the Columbine massacre of April 20, 1999 in the US, where 13 people were killed and at least 21 injured, the Virginia Tech massacre of April 16, 2007, where 32 people died and 25 were injured, and now Oakland's Oikos University massacre, which happened two weeks ago, in which seven were killed and three injured.
Timing is not the only factor these atrocities have in common; the other is the use of semi-automatic firearms.
A semi-automatic gun, also known as a self-loading firearm, is used in most of these types of massacres because of the weapon's automatic reloading capability. Each time the trigger is pulled, ammunition is automatically loaded into the chamber. A person can fire up to 20 shots without needing to stop and reload.
There are two main types of semi-automatics: longarms (also known as rifles and shotguns) and handguns (also known as pistols).
After Port Arthur, Australia banned semi-automatic longarms, but did not extend the ban to semi-automatic pistols. Why?
The explanations that various analysts have provided include that Bryant used semi-automatic longarms, not handguns; that in 1996 the law on handguns was near to uniform across Australia; and that it would have made it extremely difficult to obtain the National Agreement on Firearms if pistols were included.
Whatever the reasons for putting to one side the issue of handguns, this ongoing legal anomaly has become a major public concern for Australia, requiring immediate attention.
In 2002, in response to the Monash shooting in Melbourne, the then prime minister, John Howard, banned some types of handguns, but left many more legally available.
As the law now stands, a licensed gun owner may legally purchase a military-style, semi-automatic pistol with a magazine capacity of 10 rounds, along with an unlimited supply of ammunition.
A child as young as 12 in most states, or under 12 in Western Australia and the Northern Territory, may use a high-powered, military style pistol under adult supervision. Handguns are mostly used for target shooting within gun clubs.
Sporting shooters prefer semi-automatic handguns because they are lightweight, they have high firepower and a large calibre and they are compact - unfortunately, these are the very same reasons why those who commit drive-by shootings prefer them.
According to the Australian Institute of Criminology, handguns have become the weapon of choice for use in firearm-related crime. Although firearm-related crime is still relatively low in Australia, the use of handguns to commit such crime has been steadily increasing, especially since the banning of semi-automatic longarms.
In the last 12 months, Sydney has had to contend with a spate of handgun crime.
In January, the head of the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, Don Weatherburn, said the spate of shootings was the "worst he has seen in a decade".
The number of drive-by shooting incidents had risen from 73 in 2010 to 88 last year, a rate of around seven drive-by shootings each month.
On Monday night in Sydney, there were no fewer than five shootings, police reported, as crime gangs use mostly handguns to settle scores and fight for control of the drug trade.
The Minister for Home Affairs, Jason Clare, and others have begun to make comparisons with the Cabramatta heroin-related crime wave of the 1990s.
Clare wrote yesterday that he has given the green light for a firearms intelligence and targeting team recommended by Customs.
But as obvious as this statement may seem, it still needs saying: drive-by shootings only occur because a person has gained access to a firearm.
How did they gain access to a gun? All guns start out legal before they become illegal. Both the Australian Institute of Criminology and the Australian Crime Commission have reported firearm theft as the major source for guns moving into the illegal market. Another source is the leakage of firearms from rogue retailers.
Despite the recent discovery of firearm parts being mailed to a Sydney post office, gun theft from the legal gun market still remains the major source for guns moving into the illegal market. Why take the risk of illegally importing firearms when you can get what you want right here?
In five years, 7723 firearms have been reported stolen across Australia. The majority were taken from private residential premises (77 per cent in 2008-09). Most were registered and most have never been recovered.
It is a simple premise: the more guns available in the legal market, the more guns available for the illegal market. Since the Port Arthur massacre, Australia has imported more than 100,000 handguns, most of them semi-automatic.
Banning the importation and ownership of semi-automatics will not suddenly stop drive-by shootings, but it will eventually make it more difficult to obtain high-powered firearms used to commit such crime, and it will reduce the likelihood of another massacre.
One day in the future, the month of April could commemorate an anniversary of an entirely different kind - the banning of all semi-automatic firearms in Australia.
Who will be the politician brave enough to make it happen?
Samantha Lee is co-chairwoman of the National Coalition for Gun Control and was awarded a Churchill Fellowship to research the use of handguns in crime.