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Australia: National Firearms Amnesty to Commence

(June 27, 2017) On June 16, 2017, the Australian Minister for Justice, Michael Keenan, announced the details of a National Firearms Amnesty that will commence on July 1, 2017, and run for three months until September 30, 2017. (Press Release, Michael Keenan, National Firearms Amnesty Starts on July 1 (June 16, 2017), Minister for Justice website.) During the amnesty period, “anyone with unwanted and unregistered firearms or firearm-related items can legally dispose of or register them at approved drop-off points in each state and territory.” (Id.) The Minister noted that “[o]utside of the amnesty period, anyone caught with an unregistered firearm could face a fine of up to $280,000 [about US$211,300], up to 14 years in jail, and a criminal record.” (Id.)

This is the first nationwide amnesty since a one-year national amnesty and buy-back program was run starting on October 1, 1996. Since that time, individual states and territories have had various firearms amnesties. For example, the government of South Australia established an amnesty that was to run from December 1, 2015, to September 30, 2017, and this will now join the National Firearms Amnesty from July 1. (Firearms Amnesty, SOUTH AUSTRALIA POLICE (last visited June 22, 2017).)

The 1996-1997 national buy-back program was held pursuant to the National Firearms Agreement that was reached between the federal and state and territory governments following the Port Arthur massacre of April 28, 1996, in which 35 people were killed by a lone gunman. During the period of that amnesty, “[m]ore than 640,000 prohibited firearms were surrendered nationwide as part of the buyback program. In addition, it was reported that about 60,000 nonprohibited firearms were voluntarily surrendered without compensation.” (Kelly Buchanan, Firearms-Control Legislation and Policy: Australia, LAW LIBRARY OF CONGRESS (Feb. 2013).) The National Firearms Agreement also resulted in substantial changes being made to the gun control laws of each state and territory. (Id.)

The upcoming amnesty has arisen amid concerns about the number of illegal firearms in the country, particularly in light of events such as the Lindt Cafe siege in Sydney in December 2014 that involved a gunman carrying a weapon that was subsequently found to likely have been a “grey market” weapon. This term refers to unregistered weapons that were not surrendered as part of the 1996-1997 buy-back program. (State Coroner of New South Wales, Inquest into the Deaths Arising from the Lindt Cafe Siege: Findings and Recommendations 128-29 (May 2017).) In discussing the new amnesty, Keenan stated:

[c]learly the fact [is] we’ve got a deteriorating national security environment, we’ve got an environment where there has been five terrorists attacks on our soil and sadly in the vast majority of those cases it has been an illegal firearm that’s been used. Clearly that makes this top of mind and why we want to make sure we can clear as many illegal firearms from the community as possible. (Matthew Doran, Government Establishes New National Gun Amnesty to Rid Community of Illegal Firearms, ABC NEWS (June 16, 2017).)

A website created for the amnesty also refers to the Lindt Cafe siege, stating:

Unregistered firearms also carry risks for your community. Although unregistered firearms are not usually held by people with criminal intent, unaccounted for firearms do make their way into the hands of people who use them for criminal purposes. Unregistered firearms that end up in the hands of criminals are very difficult to recover, meaning they can pose a greater threat than registered firearms that are lost or stolen. For example, the shotgun used by Man Haron Monis during the Lindt Café Siege was unregistered, and impossible to trace. (About the Amnesty, National Firearms Amnesty 2017 website (last visited June 22, 2017).)

The website also states that “[t]he Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission estimates there are more than 260,000 firearms in Australia’s illicit firearms market. The use and movement of illicit market firearms is a national problem; the amnesty is one of several initiatives being used to address firearm-related crimes and threats.” (Id.)