Appearance Law Inconsistencies

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By Neil Jenkins from the National Shooting Council

Unqualified and inexperienced: putting the wrong people in charge of managing our gun laws

We recently asked our nations firearm registries what qualifications and experience they have in one of their key tasks – classifying and reclassifying firearms. The responses show that our registries are not only under-qualified to do their jobs, but some seem to be openly disinterested in being seen to be competent.

In this article, we:
• Tell you the questions we put to the registries regarding what qualifications and experience they have; and
• Summarise and show you their responses;

You’ll be disappointed at what they said.

Appearance laws

One of the biggest risks with our gun laws is the inclusion in the National Firearms Agreement (NFA) of the ability of our registries to reclassify any firearm to a more restrictive categories where it “substantially duplicates those rifles in design, function or appearance”. The NFA provides no qualification or guidance to how the law should be applied.

This makes it inevitable that the laws will be applied inconsistently among states and territories, and across firearm types.

What reclassification means for you

The reclassification laws mean that any registry could change the category of the firearms you own, making it illegal for you to keep them.

It means category A or B hunting or target rifles can be reclassified to Category D or E, because of, among other things, how they look.

A number of firearms have already been reclassified, with some states banning what other states allow.

Who makes the decisions?

You would think that governments which allowed these laws to be put in place, would ensure that decisions like this are made by people who have relevant qualifications and experience.

This is especially important where decisions could have serious economic consequences, such as seizing property and affecting the viability of those in the supply chain.

A few weeks ago, the NSC wrote to every firearms registry in Australia to find out who has or does not have the qualifications and experience they need.

Specifically, we asked each of them “what qualifications and experience do you believe are appropriate for the proper classification and reclassification of firearms”.

We then asked them:

• whether relevant staff had those qualifications and experience;
• held relevant firearm licences (and for what categories); and
• if they engage with the shooting community prior to advice on classification and reclassification being prepared.

The responses we received

The questions we asked were straight forward and designed to allow the registries to tell us what qualifications and experience they thought was appropriate to do their jobs.

Here is what we received:

• Tasmania: The best response – see below. To its credit, the Tasmanian registry pointed to the significant experience of at least one of its staff involved in classification and reclassification, including his experience as an armourer and shooter. He has a very impressive CV.

They didn’t say what qualifications or experience they believed was appropriate, but the response is supported by their website which also provides some information on process which will be of interest to those understanding how it works.

The only real problem we have with their response is that it did not sit all that well with the decisions we have seen come out of Tasmania, which suggests the advice provided may have been overridden by senior officer. However, we can only judge their response which addressed a major part of what we asked, and we think is worth 6 out of 10.

Unfortunately, that’s where the good news stops.

• ACT: The Australian Federal Police told us to go and research court decisions. Really?

The response makes it clear that the AFP not only does not have or know what qualifications and experience are needed, but is not interested in being seen competent to do its job.

See Below to read their response. The fact a response was received is scored a “1”, which, in the absence of any useful contribution, scores a 1 out of 10.

• Victoria: The Victorian response (below to see a text version of it) provided no useful information, other than to point to a committee. The Victorian website has some information on process and a history of what has been reclassified which is useful, although does not respond to the question we asked.

The conclusion we reached is that the Victorian registry (also) lacks the qualifications and experience to do its job and has no interest in demonstrating that it is competent to do so. However, in a mirror image to Tasmania, the Victorian registry has been known to avoid reclassification of a firearm that was reclassified in Tasmania. While that is a positive, this exercise is about scoring them on what they stated. So on that basis, they score a 1 out of 10 for responding and another point for the information on its website – 2 out of 10.

• Queensland: Queensland’s response was short, but a bit more interesting than the others.

It states that relevant officers are “deemed” to have the necessary expertise by the fact they are appointed to the positions they hold. If the same logic were applied to shooters when establishing ‘genuine reason’, then does it follow that being employed in the vermin control “deems” genuine reason for a cat D or E? Sadly, the argument that working for Queensland Police “deems” qualification and experience doesn’t work for us.

The other thing the response says is that firearm licences are not required to do the job and are personal decisions. True, but the point of asking about licences is that they help to establish qualifications and experience – which seems to carry no weight in Queensland Police’s view. That might be a bit tough, so we won’t mark them down because of this.

Their response was better than the ACT’s and had more information than Victoria’s, but the comments regarding ‘deeming’ and firearm licences devalued the response. 2 out of 10.

• Western Australia, Northern Territory, New South Wales and South Australia all failed to respond.

Given that four of their peers did respond, it’s not hard to conclude that the registries of WA, NT, NSW and SA either don’t know or don’t care about demonstrating competence. They scored zeros.

  • Tasmania – 6/10
  • Victoria – 2/10
  • Queensland 2/10
  • ACT – 1/10
  • Western Australia – 0/10
  • Northern Territory – 0/10
  • New South Wales – 0/10
  • South Australia – 0/10 (note that SA does not have appearance laws – not yet anyway)

Conclusion

The absence of clear guidance to control the administration of appearance laws means they are open to abuse – and inconsistencies across the states and territories.

There is no way, for example, that two unqualified people in different states can arrive at the same conclusion about the same gun independently of each other (which we have already seen happen). The other issue of concern to us is that our politicians have delegated decisions that could have significant detrimental impacts on shooters, importers and gun shops to bureaucrats who are not subject to public scrutiny.

We suggest that governments remove reclassification from the statute books, because it only serves to blur the boundaries on what categories firearms belong to. If that is not possible, then the government needs to ensure strong safeguards are put in place to prevent abuse, uncertainty and frustration.

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