Australia hopes amnesty will help curb illegal guns

One of the many guns seized by police following raids against a major crime ring in May. The Australian government hopes the amnesty will lead to a drop in firearms used in crimes, but some experts doubt hardened criminals will turn in their weapons.
One of the many guns seized by police following raids against a major crime ring in May. The Australian government hopes the amnesty will lead to a drop in firearms used in crimes, but some experts doubt hardened criminals will turn in their weapons.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

No penalties for owners who hand in weapons; govt hopes move will counter crime and potential terror hits

The Australian authorities are preparing for an unusual sight from today, as gun owners - it is hoped - start turning up at police stations bearing weapons.

The gun owners will be allowed inside, and will be expected to turn over their weapons as part of a three-month Federal Government amnesty offered to owners of illegal weapons.

Weapons will be handed in for destruction, or could be taken to a firearms dealer to be registered. Owners will not be compensated, but will escape penalties and do not have to provide their identity.

The amnesty was prompted by growing concerns that illegal weapons could be used by drug gangs or terrorists. Australia has an estimated 260,000 illegal guns.

Police in New South Wales said that the amnesty would assist with community safety, and noted that people could also surrender ammunition and parts.

"The amount of firearms (in New South Wales) is quite incredible, but in the main they're held in safe keeping and dealt with by sensible people," Deputy Commissioner for Metropolitan Field Operations Jeff Loy told reporters on Sunday.

The national amnesty is the first in 21 years, following a similar scheme that came in the wake of Australia's worst shooting incident, the Port Arthur massacre, in which a deranged gunman killed 35 people.

The 1996-97 amnesty resulted in about 700,000 guns being destroyed. The figure included 643,726 guns that were outlawed under tighter firearms laws and that were bought back by the government at market value.

  • 260k 

    Estimated number of illegal guns in Australia

One of those leading the call for the latest amnesty was Mr Alpha Cheng, whose father - police accountant Curtis Cheng - was shot dead by a radicalised 15-year-old Muslim, using an illegal gun outside a police headquarters in Sydney in October 2015.

Mr Alpha Cheng, whose family moved to Australia from Hong Kong in 1995, made his plea while appearing on a television panel last year alongside Ms Carolyn Loughton, a Port Arthur survivor whose daughter was killed in the massacre.

"Carolyn and I are living testaments to the terrible tragedies that occur when guns end up in the wrong hands," Mr Cheng wrote in a comment piece for Fairfax Media last year.

The 1996 amnesty, which has been praised by gun control advocates around the world, led to a reduction in firearm-related suicides and murders. According to data collected by the Australian Institute of Criminology, gun-related murder rates roughly halved from more than 0.4 deaths per 100,000 people to about 0.2 deaths between 1996 and 2012.

Federal Justice Minister Michael Keenan said that the latest amnesty was necessary because of the "deteriorating national security environment" and the use of illegal weapons in recent terrorist attacks. He said those who keep an unregistered firearm could face up to 14 years in jail.

There are about 2.9 million legally registered firearms owned by civilians in Australia, used mainly for hunting and sport shooting.

But analysts noted that high-risk criminals were unlikely to hand in their weapons.

Dr Samara McPhedran, from the Violence Research and Prevention Programme at Griffith University, said there was no harm in holding an amnesty, but doubted it would have a significant impact on gun violence.

She said the government would be better off focusing on the causes of violence, for instance, by addressing underlying social and cultural factors that lead to drug gangs and organised crime.

"We have to be realistic about what amnesties can deliver," she told ABC News.

"A politely worded request to please hand in your illicitly obtained firearm really isn't likely to have any impact on criminals and criminal behaviour."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 01, 2017, with the headline 'Australia hopes amnesty will help curb illegal guns'. Print Edition | Subscribe