Climate of Fear- US Perspective on Australia's Sensible Gun Laws

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Dean Weingarten has put together a three part peice on the gun laws and gun culture that exists in Australia. The three part story comes after the author travelled to the rural Australian town of Quirindi NSW.

Key observations and views from the author.  

“Sensible Gun Laws” Not So “Sensible”

Australia went from a country with middle of the road gun laws, varying considerably from state to state, to one with extremely restrictive gun laws, almost overnight. Uniform national requirements for registration, waiting periods, treating airguns and replicas the same as real guns, were put in place in record time.

No one is allowed to legally own a gun without stating a necessary purpose. Self defense is *not* considered a necessary purpose. Hundreds of thousands of guns were turned in to the government, paid for, and destroyed. No gun is allowed to be legally kept, except locked up and unloaded, with ammunition in a separate place, also locked up. These were touted as “sensible gun laws”.

My seat mate on a train ride thought it a shame her children and grandchildren could not experience the same things she had experienced growing up. The current generation is being taught to fear guns. She did not have hope for change in a positive direction.

I was introduced to Don that had been told I wrote about guns. He began talking about the problems of “sensible gun laws”. He asked that if I wrote about his case, that I explain to readers the result of “sensible gun laws” had been anything but sensible.

He has been at risk in a firearms case concerning “safe storage”, for more than two years. The case did not receive much publicity. More than 50 firearms were seized, most of them high dollar collectible Winchesters. The vast majority were super grade pre-64 model 70 rifles, with some original Colt cap and ball revolvers. The antique black powder revolvers are pricey, but are not required to be registered in Australia.

Most of the guns were in two safes, but the doors were open. A third safe was locked. Donald said he had opened the safes that morning to take out a few rifles with the intent of zeroing them for hunting, changing scopes, and adjusting the sights.

It was the end of irrigation season. After weeks of hard work, he could take some time off. He took five minutes to go down to the pivot pump and shut it off. When he returned, the police were in the yard.

The case started about 8:30 in the morning of March 14, 2015 (fall in Australia). The case is ongoing. A district court ruled the guns should not be destroyed, but should be transferred to a dealer, and the proceeds returned to Donald.

He may not possess firearms, because his license was immediately canceled. Donald Eykamp has paid 18,000 dollars in civil fines. There are no criminal charges before the court.

The police appealed the ruling, claiming that more than a hundred and fifty thousand dollars of highly collectible firearms and high dollar scopes should be destroyed, along with the Colt cap and ball revolvers.

The political problems of firearms and regulation in rural Australia are similar to those in New York. Large metropolitan areas have most of the votes, and few firearm owners. Rural areas have firearms, but not many votes. Australia has no Second Amendment.

Leaving a safe open for a few minutes while you travel to shut off a pump, on your own land, and return, is not much risk on an isolated farm where the only occupant is a prosperous, 72-year-old bachelor farmer.

But “sensible gun laws” are not applied “sensibly”. Crime is virtually never committed with high dollar, high grade pre-64 Winchester rifles topped with the finest European scopes. Original Colt cap and ball revolvers are not much of a problem when gangs are manufacturing submachine guns for their own use.

In Australia, even guns that are antiques, and not required to be registered, are required to be locked up. John Howard said it was “only sensible”. Donald Eykamp has the means to fight the case in court. Not many do.

Rural Australians are paying the price of former Prime Minister John Howard's phobia.

Australia has very strict gun laws. Some would say they are more restrictive than most of the rest of the world.

For example, toy guns that look like a real gun have the same penalties attached, and the same restrictions applied, as real guns. A Red Ryder BB gun is regulated the same as a .375 H&H magnum rifle.

At least one state considers possession of computer code that can be used to print out a plastic replica of a gun, to be the same as possessing a real gun itself. No, I do not mean an actual 3D printed firearm. I mean the instructions to print out a solid plastic toy that looks like a real gun.

I looked at the possibility of taking a rifle or shotgun to Australia. The hunting in Australia is some of the best in the world. The bureaucratic obstacles were too burdensome. You need a letter from your local police chief saying that you are allowed to have a gun. The letter had to be sent to the Australian authorities weeks before your trip, and you have to identify the time you would be there.

Then, the authority to have your firearm will only extend to the state where you enter Australia. Each different state would have to be dealt with separately, as you moved from state to state. As I intend to visit most Australian states, this became untenable.

Prior to traveling, I carefully searched the inside of my luggage for stray ammunition or components . I found an empty 9mm case. It would probably not have been a problem.

Having become accustomed to the relative ease with which firearms can be transported in most of the United States, the difficulty of traveling with firearms to Australia was vexing. I avoided it by not taking any firearms with me. Others avoid it by paying a professional hunting outfit to handle the local legal difficulties for them.

The arrival at Sydney, after a 14 hour flight from Los Angeles, was uneventful. As I went through customs, the officer asked me what business I would be conducting in Australia. I said that I was a writer. He asked what I wrote about. I said guns.

I mentioned the upcoming amnesty.

He said “You don't have any guns in your luggage, do you?” I said, no, I had written about Australian gun laws, and they are very strict. 

Australian Gun Culture, Climate of Fear

One of my hosts in Australia gave me a lead for a story. They knew someone with an extensive gun collection. Directions were given; the collector had been called and was waiting. A local who was known to the collector would drive me there and make introductions.

The directions were complex, typical rural directions: follow this road; go up this hill; make a right, then go a ways and make a left. Look for the long drive with such and such a fence..

My driver understood them perfectly, and we arrived at the correct place. The collector had a nice display, similar to many I have seen in the United States. There were deer rifles, shotguns, and a .22. There was a reloading bench and empty cases.

I asked if I could take pictures. No problem, said the collector. Knowing a bit about Donald Eykamp's case, I was not so certain.

The collector was adamant. His set-up had been approved by the police. There was nothing to worry about. Donald Eycamp's case was a rare exception. 

We talked about guns, and legislation, and hunting. The collector was a strong supporter of the existing system. He saw no practical use for pistols. He had never been interested in them. It was clear he was an accomplished marksman.

The next day, Donald and I were performing some chores for the Eykamp farm. A part was needed for a critical piece of machinery. As we drove to get it, I expressed misgivings about publishing an article about the collector. It seemed far too risky. Why put an innocent man at risk for what was a plain Jane story of gun ownership?

A couple of hours later, we arrived back at the farm. A phone was in the hands of one of the Eykamps. I was called over. Had I published the story? No.

The Collector and his wife had thought it over. No, please do not publish the story, they pleaded. Her voice was frightened. Please do not publish any pictures, any names, or any thing that might identify where I had been and who I had talked to. It was simply too risky. Having come to the same conclusion, I attempted to reassure them. I suspect they are anxiously wondering if this Yank can be trusted.

Later, I visited a local gun store. This one, the first Australian gun store I visited, reminded me of gun stores I have seen in large urban centers. The name was non-descript, and had nothing relating to guns about it. No signage indicated anything to do with guns. The shop was part of another building, with parking in the back. Once parked you approached a formidable door with a buzzer and an intercom. To enter, you buzzed the shop, and stated your name and purpose. I had a local customer with me for an introduction, so we entered without a problem.

This is in rural Australia, which has a crime rate similar to Vermont; which is to say, almost none. The owner was clear: he did not wish to be photographed.

Australians on the Internet tell me there is no problem having guns in Australia. The local police are not bad blokes, and inspections are not common. But when they have time to think of potential consequences, the fear becomes apparent. Many of these gun owners are prosperous. They have a tremendous amount to lose, not just in money, but in reputation, and in lifelong heirlooms and treasured hunting guns.

I wasn't too surprised the collector and his wife had second thoughts about featuring him in a story made public to half the world. It was not safe. 

The “crimes” committed by legal gun owners in Australia are so rare as to be nearly undetectable. But the purpose of the gun law in Australia is not to reduce crime. It is to reduce the number of gun owners. The number of legal Australian guns has increased, once people became used to the byzantine twists and requirements of the strict Australian laws put in place since 1996. Those who want a disarmed Australia say that is proof the gun laws are not strong enough.

Australian gun owners have good reason to fear strict enforcement of their laws. It is far too easy to violate them, even with all the common sense and good intentions that can be garnered in rural Australia.

The articles in their entiriety can be found here. Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3

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