Shotgun Politics: Malcolm Turnbull’s ‘Gun Week’ Was Worse Than You Think

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Whether any deal with David Leyonhjelm ever comes to fruition or not, Malcolm Turnbull has demonstrated he’s not capable of leading a sensible discussion on gun laws, writes Max Chalmers.

Overshadowed by the (admittedly beautiful) spectacle of Tony Abbott’s attempted political drive-by – an intervention that turned into a self-inflicted wounding – Malcolm Turnbull has escaped some well deserved heat over his claims on gun violence this week.

With Labor sensing an opening, Turnbull was grilled on the alleged ‘guns for votes’ deal with David Leyonhjelm, a line of inquiry that soon led Turnbull and Abbott to tangle over who promised what to the gun totting Liberal Democrat.

Whether the Prime Minister ever intended to allow the Adler A110 to be imported or not, the defence he offered in Parliament revealed a leader more than happy to run the unsubstantiated arguments of gun advocates. Those in favour of gun control should be not only concerned that Turnbull tried to do this in the first place, but particularly disturbed by the manner in which he did it.

In Wednesday’s Question Time, Shorten pushed Turnbull, asking why any self-respecting Liberal would want to alter Howard’s gun laws.

A defiant PM responded that his government would never do that and then lashed Shorten for refusing to back mandatory minimum sentences for gun smugglers (for anyone who watched the third and final U.S. Presidential debate, the transcript of this parliamentary back-and-forward has much the same feel as Donald Trump’s preschool yard ‘no you’re the puppet’ retort).

“As this duplicitous opposition leader knows, who stands up, dripping with sanctimony about guns: he is the leader that has twice opposed mandatory sentences for people who smuggle guns,” Turnbull retorted.

new matilda, bill shorten
Leader of the Opposition, Bill Shorten, pictured in parliament in October 2015.

“The guns that kill, the guns that terrorists use, are smuggled guns — illegal guns. We know that and so do the families of their victims.”

It was strong stuff. It was also, as Donald Trump would say, wrong.

It’s hard to emphasize just how dishonest Turnbull was being here. After accusing Shorten of heading up “Smugglers Cove”, he asserted that “over 90 per cent” of gun crime is committed “with illegal weapons. They come into this country illegally”.

Turnbull’s argument is one familiar in the US, where the gun lobby works hard to convince voters that if the President takes their weapons the Bad Guys will still keep theirs. This, they warn, would leave flag-saluting, law-abiding Americans unarmed and therefore unable to repel the home invasions and assaults visited upon them by the aforementioned Bad Guys.

The talking point divorces the problem of gun violence from gun supply. Let the guns flood in through legal channels and cut the ‘illegal’ guns out of the system, it says.

The problem is that both in the U.S. and in Australia the distinction between ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ guns is not so cut and dry.

Turnbull is almost certainly correct when he says the overwhelming majority of gun crime in Australia is committed with “illegal weapons” (note, though, that this does not include all gun related deaths, like suicides and accidental killings). What Turnbull doesn’t say is that the best evidence indicates many of these ‘illegal’ weapons were originally purchased legally and that very few are smuggled across the border.

It’s worth pausing to linger on the consequences of that for a moment. It is false to distinguish between guns that are legally imported and distributed in the country and those that are illegally procured or used in crime. In many cases, we’re talking about the exact same gun. As a result, there’s every reason to think that more guns coming into the country – legally or illegally – means more guns in the hands of those with bad intent.

In short, allowing in more lever-action shotguns in order to help your union busting laws pass is likely to be dangerous.

The advantage of the PM’s tactic was clear. By trying to blame gun crime on ‘smugglers’ he was able to attack Shorten for taking (a rational and principled) stand against mandatory minimums while building a defence for any deal with Leyonhjelm that might be done, now or in the future, and playing to the gun-loving minority in his own Coalition.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. (IMAGE: Veni, Flickr).
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. (IMAGE: Veni, Flickr).

Among that group is Nationals Senator Bridget McKenzie. After a Senate inquiry in 2015, McKenzie made the claim that Turnbull also aired this week, stating that guns used in crime are illegally imported.

But ABC’s fact checking unit found that claim to be “baseless”.

There’s a lot we don’t know about where the guns used in crime originate from. What we do know, however, strongly suggests that the pool of ‘illicit’ firearms in Australia mostly didn’t enter the country via smugglers.

In a 2012 study for the Australian Institute of Criminology, researcher Samantha Bricknell found that illegally acquired handguns – a favoured option for criminals – had generally not been acquired via illegal manufacture in Australia or illegal importation. Instead, they were likely to come from private sales, friends and family, and “the street”.

Around 70 per cent of the guns examined in this study could not have their origins traced, but for those that did, Bricknell cautiously summarised that “diversion and theft from legal owners may be primary avenues.”

Turnbull might favour the image of a gangster scuttling down to the wharf at midnight, as the black harbour waves lap and a tall figure in a trench coat – a paid-off union thug, no doubt! – emerges from the shadows to guide the mobster to his crate of freshly shipped Glocks. Cool story. But not a very common one.

In fact, a very significant proportion of weapons now classed as ‘illegal’ are guns that were not handed back during the 1996 and 2003 national reforms. They remain in the so-called grey market and can bleed into illicit holding. They were once legally bought. Now they’re ‘illegal guns’.

Others found their way into the wrong hands as a result of legislative failures when Australia’s laws were tightened in the 90s. Bricknell notes this happened to “thousands” of guns thanks to a loophole in Queensland that allowed you to retire your weapon by deactivating it. The problem was that, as it turned out, it’s not necessarily hard to reactivate such a gun.

In summarising a 2012 study by the Australian Crime Commission, then Minister for Justice Jason Clare noted 44 per cent of illegal guns were those not surrendered or destroyed after Port Arthur. The amount that came via illegal importation? Just 0.5 per cent.

Customs, the Crime Commission, and the Australian Federal Police all told the 2015 Senate inquiry that only a small number of guns were being illegally imported.

While slightly at odds with NSW, that puts them on the same page as the University of Sydney’s Adjunct Associate Professor Philip Alpers, who runs GunPolicy.org.

“Although rumours of large-scale gun smuggling to Australia are common, almost all such stories are evidence-free,” he wrote in The Conversation earlier this year. “Apart from an enterprising criminal band that ran a post office to import Glock pistols, no interdiction agency can point to a sizeable batch of guns smuggled to Australia since the 1980s.”

Liberal Democrats Senator David Leyonhjelm, during an August 2016 appearance on ABC's Insider's program.
Liberal Democrats Senator David Leyonhjelm, during an August 2016 appearance on ABC’s Insider’s program.

As the ABC’s fact check noted, even McKenzie and Leyonhjelm’s seperate inquiry report admitted: “One of the difficulties encountered by this inquiry has been the inability of the committee to ascertain, with any degree of certainty, where the majority of the illicit guns originate and the size of the illegal gun market.”

That’s really the best those on Turnbull’s side of this argument can do: focus attention towards what we don’t know. Even if you accept that there is enough evidence to come to a confident conclusion, you still can’t justify Turnbull’s Parliamentary taunts.

It’s hardly a revelation that Turnbull has drifted from the ‘socially progressive neoliberal’ image he once crafted to a more cynical conservative stance: his government’s environmental and LGBTI policies smashed any illusions long ago. But there’s still something jarring about watching the Prime Minister work himself into such a conservative line on gun control, an issue that has widespread, deep-running support in Australia.

This is what Malcolm Turnbull is left fighting for – a flimsy defence of gun imports.

The worst thing is that Australia is overdue for a conversation on guns. The number of firearms in the country is now at the same level as during the Port Arthur massacre thanks to a sharp increase in legal imports in recent years, according to Alpers.

Gun laws remain strong but the country will have to decide whether the current growth in arms imports is appropriate or not.

Malcolm Turnbull has proved it’s a discussion he can’t be trusted to lead.

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Max Chalmers

Max Chalmers is a former New Matilda journalist and editorial staff member. His main areas of interest are asylum seekers, higher education and politics.

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