Hits and misses in our gun control laws

Hits and misses in our gun control laws

Shooting sprees in the US this month have renewed calls for the country to learn from Australia's National Firearms Agreement (NFA), which is often considered the "gold standard" of regulation.

People are rightly fearful of what can happen when the wrong people gain access to firearms.

There are certainly few things more frightening than shooting sprees in public places.

These events are random, senseless and unpredictable.

There is residual fear of being shot by an unknown assailant. It could happen at any time and in any place. These incidents happen without warning and without provocation.

The perpetrator's objective is taking human life, killing people with whom the killer has no personal acquaintance and against whom they have no specific grievance.

If citizens are fearful of participating in public gatherings because no-one can assure their safety from extreme malevolence, then our shared political, economic and social life is brought to a standstill.

The NFA, which was swiftly introduced after the 1996 Port Arthur massacre, marked an important turning point for community safety in Australian history. Most commentators believed Australia "got it right".

Private owners were licensed, personal firearms were registered, and thousands of firearms, including those now banned, were relinquished and destroyed.

A shooting spree in a public place was now much less likely and, with the imposition of tight restrictions on the private ownership of semi-automatic centrefire rifles - the type of firearm that had been used to kill so many people in Tasmania - a shooting spree was much less likely to result in substantial casualties.

But Australia also "got things wrong". There were miscalculations and mistakes that have become more apparent with the passage of time.

Not everyone was convinced the NFA had made people safer and, without regard to fear within the community, pledged themselves to amending the NFA.

Some of the proposed amendments reflected individual self-interest and overlooked the terrible events at Port Arthur and the need to avoid a repeat.

Others were based on important principles and the existence of evidence showing the NFA was deficient and defective.

In the shadow of the Christchurch massacre, and being mindful of resurgent right-wing political extremism, we should consider the reality of community fears of lax firearm regulation, the reasonable expectation that people are protected from harm, and the entitlement of citizens to conduct their business and enjoy their recreation free from unnecessary government interference.

These are vitally important issues that deserve much deeper consideration than the slogans that are usually trotted out by those who advocate or oppose any change to the NFA.

Professor Tom Frame is a UNSW Canberra academic and director of the Howard Library at Old Parliament House