Firearms suppliers and recreational shooters are taking aim at Australia’s strict gun controls as the countdown begins to a general election, with independent voters who could swing the balance of power in their sites.
Positioned against them are advocates for even tighter restrictions who say gun laws are facing their greatest threat since they were enacted in 1996 after 35 people died in the country’s worst ever mass shooting incident.
The Shooting Industry Foundation of Australia (SIFA), which represents major firearms wholesalers, is giving money to politicians and small factions to lobby for changes in the National Firearms Agreement (NFA), including for the importation and licensing of more powerful weapons.
Backed by groups like the Sporting Shooters Association of Australia (SSAA), the organization insists it is only trying to foster more debate.
“We want governments to be held accountable for the decisions they make,” SIFA spokeswoman Laura Patterson said in a media interview. “We’re looking to enter a new era of engagement. We want people to understand who we are and why we’re doing what we’re doing.”
Gun Control Australia (GCA), an independent lobby group, says it is already clear what the group is doing: it wants to water down laws that have drastically reduced the incidence of mass shootings, though there is dispute over the law’s broad achievements in reducing gun-related violence.
Adopted by federal, state and territory governments after gunman Martin Bryant opened fire indiscriminately at the Tasmanian tourist spot of Port Arthur over two decades ago, the NFA banned the use of automatic and semi-automatic weapons. One million guns were handed in and destroyed nationwide during a subsequent amnesty.
There have since been only two mass shootings in Australia, claiming a combined 12 lives. Gun-related crime has halved since 1996, but a study last month by researchers at two Tokyo universities found that the NFA had not greatly reduced the incidence of murders involving guns and their use in suicides.
Another study reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2016 found that gun-related murders and suicides were already declining before the NFA started. There was a sharper drop afterward, the study showed.
More than three million guns are in private hands, which is more than before the massacre, however this is because of multiple purchases by existing owners. Gun ownership per capita has dropped by 23% since 1996.
SIFA supports the amnesty because it weeds out illegal firearms, but it is still pushing for a more accurate national registry. There are about 260,000 illegal or unlicensed firearms, including 10,000 semi-automatic handguns, believed to be in circulation.
The industry group says that it is only lobbying politicians for technical improvements in the register, including for greater consistency between state rules. However, there is little doubt it is also trying to get some weapons re-categorized, which opponents argue would weaken the NFA.
Politicians backed by the SIFA pushed for a lever-action shotgun to be taken off a Queensland register during that state’s election in 2017.
The Liberal Party said during a campaign for the Tasmanian election in May this year that sport shooters would get more access to high-powered guns and be able to use silencers. It withdrew the pledges following an outcry.
SIFA’s strategy for Queensland, where it actively campaigned against major parties in the hope of getting a minority government, is the blueprint it will probably adopt for the federal election, likely to be called in May next year.
Independents and smaller factions currently hold the balance of power in both the upper and lower houses of federal parliament, and with support for major parties clearly in decline, there is a chance this might continue.
Much of the sponsorship money channeled into the Queensland election by firearms and shooting groups is believed to have gone to One Nation and Katter’s Australian Party; the KAP has one seat in the federal lower House of Representatives, and One Nation has two seats in the Senate.
Since 2010, Queensland branches of the SSAA have also given nearly US$320,000 to the KAP, the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party and other cross-bench political factions, including the Liberal Democratic Party.
KAP’s national leader, Bob Katter, is the father-in-law of Robert Nioa, a SIFA director whose company supplies small weapons and ammunition.
Nioa has personally donated US$144,000 to the KAP since 2016. The KAP wants rules relaxed for hand-guns and lever-action shotguns; One Nation has said it will not support “further stringent measures or regulations” on the armaments.
A study commissioned by GCA last year found that state authorities had never fully implemented the NFA in its original 1996 form, or a subsequent 2002 resolution that restricted smaller firearms.
“Each state and territory has significantly weakened its gun laws. Years of political pressure from the gun lobby has persuaded politicians to trade tough guns laws for political gain,” the GCA said in accompanying remarks.
Rural politicians openly court the firearms lobby to protect their votes in farming belts, where guns have been used for decades to control vermin. There are also more than 180,000 sports shooters in the SSAA alone.
“The courtship of the gun lobby by political parties is definitely a growing theme,” Sam Lee of the GCA told The Guardian. “Industry groups, manufacturers, there’s an emerging NRA-style [US National Rifle Association] approach to organizing which is all about finding new markets and stopping any strengthening of existing laws.”