The Smart Response To Gun Crime Is Not Mandatory Sentences


Australia has a proud legacy of acting in a pragmatic and evidence-based manner around gun laws.

After the tragic Port Arthur massacre, John Howard’s significant gun laws helped prevent a repetition of the tragedy. Indeed, so effective are our sensible laws, they are held up as a model for the US to follow after recent mass shootings.

The furore around the importation and subsequent six-month suspension of the Turkish-made Adler lever action shotgun has been consistent with Australia’s commitment to strong, evidence-based gun regulations. It is crucial that the suspension is converted into a permanent ban.

While chairing the recent Senate Inquiry into illicit firearms, I heard harrowing stories from people whose lives have been destroyed by gun violence.

One woman who contacted my office spoke compellingly about being caught up at Port Arthur and seeing her daughter shot before her eyes. As well as the irremediable loss of her child, she has experienced long-term, debilitating injuries from just one bullet she copped in her shoulder, a bullet that had been aimed at her head.

The Australian Greens are absolutely committed to tackling gun violence in Australia.

It may seem paradoxical then that we are also steadfastly opposed to the Abbott Government’s recent push for mandatory five-year sentences for gun trafficking.

But, populist as it may be, merely introducing fixed penalties for trafficking is not the way to address gun crime in Australia. There is absolutely no evidence that mandatory minimum sentences reduce crime or make us safer. There is much evidence, however, that they can result in serious injustice and unintended consequences.

Mandatory sentencing takes away one of the most important responsibilities of a court – to consider the facts and decide the most effective and appropriate penalty, in the circumstances. We’ve already seen countless attempts by this government to strip the courts of their power to do their job, most evident in the recently proposed citizenship laws.

It is not only the Greens who are expressing concern about these proposed changes to penalties for gun trafficking.

The Australian Human Rights Commission, as well as many other legal groups, is alarmed at the government’s determination to remove the court’s power to impose a penalty that fits the crime.

Indeed, the Attorney-General’s own Department has confirmed that it is not aware of any cases where the current sentences for trafficking of firearms or firearm parts have been insufficient.

In this case, the government is trying to fix a system that they themselves have noted is not broken. What is really at play then?

Image: Flickr / iris

What we’re actually seeing here is a government that has lost its support and is trying to claw its way back through cheap populism and superficially attractive “quick fixes”. It is a damning indictment on the Abbott Government that they are willing to try to boost their support by eroding our fundamental human rights.

The inquiry into illicit firearms by the Senate’s Legal and Constitutional Committee considered the 250,000 illicit firearms police estimate are on our streets.

During the course of the inquiry it became clear that many of those guns are actually stolen from legitimate sources or taken from the ‘grey market’, and this includes the gun used in the Sydney Siege.

The grey market comprises guns that were never handed in during the guns buyback in 1996 after the Port Arthur Massacre. So, although illegally imported firearms are a concern, and we need to do more to combat them, they are not the number one priority.

If the government is really serious about tackling gun trafficking there are rational approaches they can take, many of which were outlined in the Committee’s report.

Australia has a well-earned reputation as being a leader on gun regulation. This is because we have implemented sensible policy to give rights to those who need guns and restrict those who don’t.

Let’s not allow good policy to be eroded by cheap populism that promotes short-term political interest at a long-term cost to the national interest.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.