Loose Cannon Book Review: Tom Frame ‘Gun Control: What Australia got right (and wrong)’

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This book was written by Tom Frame, a man with an interesting past, a former naval officer, Anglican Bishop to the Defence Force, member of the Australian War Memorial Council, theological college principal and cattle farmer.  He is a graduate of the University of NSW with an Honours degree and a doctorate in history. He became professor of History at UNSW Canberra in 2014 and was appointed Director of the Public Leadership Research Group in 2017 with responsibility for the establishment of the Howard Library. He is the author of more than 45 books, including three volume of critical essays on the Howard Government.

I must confess that I almost gave up on the book down early in the piece over a statement by Frame that talk about gun control is misleading, because all that the Government is doing is managing its use, and in so doing the Commonwealth never exercised control over ownership, and that firearms ownership and possession is about the use of government regulation rather than control i.e. that it is something of a misnomer to talk about gun control in Australia.

He described the regulations imposed on shooters after 1996 as little more than an effort to manage private ownership in the hope of mitigating a shooting spree ie that the government was just seeking to set agreed limits and control was never its intention.

That argument to me was is a little bit like saying that the National Socialist regime in Germany was not a socialist government because Hitler did not nationalise industry, when the reality was that he did not need to, because he found a more efficient to regulate it.

The intellectual failure here is that he failed to define what he meant by ‘control’ in the book.  The most widely used dictionary in Australia, and the one now preferred by Australian Courts is The Macquarie Dictionary.  It defines control as ‘To exercise restraint or direction over, to command’.  Prohibition is therefore not needed for control to occur. 

By any definition, what John Howard implemented was clearly ‘Gun Control’, and that was certainly the view of a friend of mine who in his early 60’s stood in a sad que with others to surrender firearms.  In his case, the gun surrendered was a semi-automatic Browning 22 LR that his parents had given him on his 18th birthday and that no compensation check could ever compensate him for the loss of.

The book then goes on to discuss the tenor of the time, and he captures the media discussion of the issue, which shut out, or edited out of all sensible discussion by shooters.

It was an attempt to reshape a national outlook toward firearms by Government through use of the media.  I suspect that there had been high level discussion between government and media ownership that effectively led to shooters being shut out of what was alleged to be a public debate, but which was little more than a propaganda beat up.

He reports that there ‘was no evidence Howard tried to score political points in his appearance of being the ‘man of the moment’ I think this is incorrect.  The bi-partisan approach adopted in respect to Firearms removed much of the opportunity from this subject to score direct political points upon the opposition.  What the issue gave him however was an opportunity akin to Hawke’s pilots dispute- an opportunity, early in his Prime Ministership, to demonstrate to the electorate that he was a strong man, who was prepared to take tough decisions.

This would have given him a considerable personal strategic gain, shoring up his Prime Ministership.

Curiously he references Howard personal commitments to individual rights personal freedom and restrained government. Howard commented, at one of the last Liberal Party meetings that I attended, that he had not wanted public debate with shooters groups on firearms laws because he feared that the proposals would be watered down. 

In so doing, he was acting in a manner consistent with, Hitler’s criticism of Westminster Democracy in Mein Kampf- that is to say that it generates an outcome that is a ‘lowest common denominator’, and that a dictated outcome from an all-knowing leader is better. Hardly the act of a Liberal with any respect for individual rights and personal freedom.

By this point of my reading, I was getting rather concerned that the Liberal Party, and antis were getting off rather lightly, and that Frame was being something of an apologist for Howard, despite the fact that the book clearly acknowledged a need for change to the National Firearms Agreement, I could see little evidence of criticism of it.

Then, Frame in part redeemed himself by his comment regarding Phillip Alpers.  At page 63 he correctly identified him as a journalist rather than academic (although some would say he is more a lobbyist / writer). 

Later in the book there is an interesting discussion of Gun Control Australia, which he views as being ‘sustained by a small number of activists’ and being an institutional affiliation existing for media to approach for comment. 

He remarks that GCA denies any formal affiliations, but that its website hosts a link to the Australian Greens website and has co-sponsored several joint events with Green Politicians.

I suspect this is the case, though it may not apply to all members of such groups.  For example, some in the anti-gun community have experienced tragic loss that they are in some way seeking to rationalise and deal with in what they perceive, I believe quite incorrectly, to be a positive way.  Here, I would with genuine, heartfelt, respect for his loss, seek to list the founder of the Alannah and Madeline Foundation.

Frame then provides an interesting analysis of the difference between the Sporting Shooters Assoc (SSAA) & Shooters Fishers & farmers Party (SF&F).

He perceives that the SSAA want to lobby sitting members rather than canvas members because the latter could create a situation where shooters represent a political ghetto of their own making. He states that if the SSAA were to become quasi political like the NRA it would cease to have popular appeal.

However, he neglects here to question if the SSAA has popular appeal.  I would submit that its only appeal is really to its membership.

He remarks on the ‘mixed messages’ the SSAA gives out about its political involvement, and about the difficulties faced by an organisation maintaining consistency when its volunteer National Executive changes a great deal.

I would submit that if the SSAA wished to remain a-political, it could do so, but do greater service to its membership by outsourcing all ‘political’ activities to a single lobby group acting on behalf of all shooters.  This could be funded on a percentage of turnover basis, in much the same way as SIFA, the industry representative body, operates.

At the moment the political dabbling of the SSAA is at best ineffective, and at worst farcical, that actually does a disservice to many members by leading them to believe that the organisation is effectively professionally representing them at this level when they are not.

Frame says if shooters wish to join a broad political campaign they can do so and influence legislators that way.  I dispute this, as I have found pro shooter support in most political parties is too dilute to achieve much.

I agree with him however that SF&F has become too right wing for some. However, that is a matter caused by the politics of their membership, as it is policies are, like most parties, membership driven.

At p75 he states ‘over the past 20 years all States and Territories have amended their legislation to ensure efficiency and effectiveness’ left me aghast. When and how?  I would have thought any rational examination of the efficiency and effectiveness of the legislation let alone its implementation would conclude it meets neither of those goals, and indeed, to my knowledge no state has conducted a public review dealing with efficiency and effectiveness because it is too much of a poisoned chalice. 

However, I agree with him that part of the problem is in achieving national standards, given the NFA’s rigidities and impracticalities, and the difficult nature of Federal / State relationships.

Following is an excellent summary of Milperra (1984), Hoddle Street (1987) Queen Street (1987) and Strathfield (1991) massacres. The writer gains considerable points with me by his unwillingness to name perpetrators.

It is my belief that we could considerably reduce the frequency and extent of such events by the media declining to name perpetrators, body counts, motives and emotive details, and by them treating the matters in a similar way to the way in which they commendably handle suicide reporting.

If I were an examiner, treating the subject of the book as thesis topic, and marking the book against the question, I would give it a clear fail, because the book has failed to answer the question- it does not indicate what the writer feels Australia got right or wrong in the National Firearms Agreement.

Had the book been titled, ‘Australia’s gun laws: a summary of the politics behind how we got the laws that we did’ I would rate it highly, but would be unable to give it an ‘A’ because of some of the flawed analysis commented upon above.

The book focusses upon divisiveness, and the impact on shooters, who are also normal citizens of I believe above average character, and perhaps one of the reasons for the lack of judgement is that Frame, as a former Army Padre, suffers from the Padre’s curse, (or blessing), that is to say, a desire to leave judgement of man to the almighty.

He probably also feels that there is little to be achieved by personal attack on the politicians involved, as all that does is cause political parties that they represented to become more entrenched.

I had hoped that the book would have contained a magic formula that would resolve the problem with the NFA and firearms regulation generally.  In a way It does, but in a round-about, manner.

His conclusion reading:

‘A healthy and effective political system must balance the obligations and prerogatives of government with the responsibilities and privileges of the people.  The NFA is simply a balancing act. Avoiding random shooting sprees and preventing violent crime involves a partnership between state and citizens. Both have a part to play.  If the burden of stopping another massacre rest only with government and regulation a repeat is certainly possible if not unavoidable.  It is too easy for citizens to refer every social order question to the state and refuse the duty to find an answer themselves. And if governments offer misconceived solutions and convey them through legislation there is every possibility that individuals will ignore the government and disregard the law.  Indifference to state authority and contempt for the law are key markers that a society is declining.  There is, then a need for the whole community to be informed and imaginative so that facts rather than fears shape the conversation even as the unintended consequences of a policy are duly considered’…’the debate in its current form cannot be allowed to continue. Its persistence is draining whatever goodwill remains in both government and the community. The nation deserves firearms laws it can respect’.

In other words, Australia has, via the approach adopted, caused a wound to the National psyche that is not healing- shooters remain isolated and angry.  They are main stream normal citizens, and deserve to be engaged in a democratic process.   The existing NFA failed to deliver this.  It is the reason why, when I met with John Barillaro last year-I told him that the ‘NFA had unleashed a cancer that was eating his party alive’.

Given the above reservations, I consider this book to be a worthy addition to my extensive firearms law and policy library.

Simon Munslow

National Firearms Lawyer
P: (02) 6299 9690
M: 0427 280 962
E: solicitor@bigpond.com
W: firearmslawyer.com.au

Simon Munslow is a lawyer who has a lifelong interest in shooting, having acquired his first firearm at the age of nine, and has had an active interest in firearms law since writing a thesis on the topic over thirty years ago at University.
Simon Munslow practices extensively in Firearms Law matters throughout Australia.

He is a regular contributor to the Australian Sporting Shooter magazine’s website on Firearms law matters, has published articles on firearms reviews and firearms law, and occasionally is asked to comment in the broader media on firearms matters.

This article is written for general information only and does not constitute advice. 
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