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Thursday, 17 August 2000
Page: 16601

Senator TCHEN (2:05 PM) —My question continues the good news story about the Howard government's achievements, following on from the question from Senator West. My question is to the Minister for Justice and Customs. The Howard government has taken a strong stand on gun control. Would the minister inform the Senate about changes to hand gun importation?

Senator VANSTONE (Minister for Justice and Customs) —I thank Senator Tchen for the question. Stricter controls have been introduced on the importation of hand guns into Australia, effective from midnight tonight. It was clear that something needed to be done to reduce the diversion of hand guns to the black market. The sorts of people who buy a hand gun on the black market are just thugs and crims. They are people who want to threaten the lives of ordinary citizens and of men and women in law enforcement. Decent law-abiding shooters—for example, the sporting shooters and the target shooters—want decent guns, and they buy them through proper dealers. They are licensed and they use registered guns. These people will be unaffected by these changes.

From midnight tonight, Customs will store all hand guns imported into Australia until the firearm has been sold to an authorised end user. Ten hand guns will be allowed, one of each item, for the purposes of testing and demonstration to prospective customers. That should be of value to the dealers. At the same time, we have taken the opportunity to allow five category C weapons to be held by dealers for the purposes of demonstration and display. There are good commercial and safety reasons for people handling a gun before they decide to purchase it.

The Australian Institute of Criminology's research confirms an alarming increase in the use of hand guns in firearm related homicides. In 1995-96 hand guns accounted for only 13 per cent of firearm related homicides. In 1998-99 that figure had jumped to 42 per cent. The overall number of firearm related homicides had, in fact, decreased from 111 to 64, but the number of hand gun homicides had in fact doubled. Commonwealth, state and territory governments have been increasingly concerned at the number of hand guns legally imported into Australia but seeming to end up in the hands of criminals. Allowing dealers to accumulate large stockpiles of hand guns is a critical issue that had to be addressed. The stockpiles were vulnerable to theft, mismanagement and, in a very small number of cases, fraud. These new controls will address that problem. The Australian Police Ministers Council recently discussed this matter and agreed to the urgent development of strategies to handle it. Meanwhile, the Commonwealth is acting now to better control the manner in which hand guns are released into the community. The Commonwealth and states have a working group which has been in place for, I think, two months. It has not issued a final report. That report will indicate further things that need to be done by the states, but the Commonwealth was not prepared to wait until that working group had completed its report and thought that it needed to act now to stop further importations. Although these regulations come into force tonight, competitors coming to Australia to take part in the Olympics and the Paralympics will not be affected, nor will competitors in future sporting events.

I take the opportunity to put on record my thanks to now Mr Quirke, former Senator Quirke, for his counsel in relation to this matter. These controls will be a major contributor to making Australia a much safer community.