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Firearms and Other Acts Amendment Bill 2021

The area I would like to focus on today is the substantive part of the bill, which relates to amendments to the Firearms Act. There are around 230 000 firearms licence holders in Victoria, so a substantial number of people in Victoria hold firearms licences. They hold them for the purposes of work in agriculture and primary production, they hold them for the purposes of professional hunting and pest control activities and they also hold them—the vast majority hold them—for recreational shooting and hunting activities.

Recreational shooting and hunting in Victoria are great outdoor activities. They are enjoyed, as I said, by hundreds of thousands of Victorians, whether it is clay target shooting, which is more art than science; whether it is target shooting on a rifle range, which is more science than art; or whether it is hunting. They are great outdoor activities. They are activities which are enjoyed often in a social setting. They bring people together, and they are a great leveller. In terms of hunting and in terms of recreational shooting, anyone can participate. Whether they are men or women, whether they are young or old, disabled or able bodied, they can all participate. And in terms of competition—clay target shooting, rifle shooting—competition is a great leveller as well, because you can have a young lightly built teenager competing against an older, very experienced person, a big solid person, and they can compete and they can win. Male and female can compete against each other in a competitive way and either can win. So it is a great leveller in terms of competition.

It is also a great leveller in bringing people together. The people who participate in recreational shooting come from all walks of life. I have had the pleasure of shooting with people who work as tradesmen, who work as labourers, people who are in primary production, farmers—

The Attorney-General—people who work in the legal profession, people who work in business. I have even been shooting with a Supreme Court judge. So people from all walks of life participate in recreational shooting in its various forms, and they are overwhelmingly law-abiding people. Overwhelmingly in their use of firearms they are law-abiding people, and overwhelmingly in their general lives they are law-abiding people.

It is very interesting to reflect on the level of criminal activity reported in Victoria. In 2019–20 the Crime Statistics Agency reported that there were some 408 000 offences reported across the full spectrum in this state in that year, yet according to the Victoria Police annual report, in relation to the Firearms Act there were all of 80 offences recorded in that same year. So out of 408 000 offences, only 80 of them related to the Firearms Act—less than two-hundredths of 1 per cent—which reflects, as I said, that overwhelmingly people who hold firearms licences in this state are law-abiding people, are good people. And all of them are actively involved with peak bodies. By virtue of the genuine reason requirements in the Firearms Act everyone who holds a firearms licence in a recreational context is also a member of one of the membership bodies, one of the peak bodies, whether it is Field and Game Australia, the Sporting Shooters Association of Australia or the Australian Deer Association, all of which I have had the pleasure of being associated with and all of which are very professional in their outlook and are very committed to the responsible use of firearms in this state. Likewise, the Shooting Industry Foundation of Australia supports and works with the professional side of the industry in terms of firearm wholesalers and dealers.

Now I would like to turn to part 5 of the bill, which is the amendments to the Firearms Act. There are a number of amendments which are made to the act, which I will go through in passing now. We have a number of matters that we will raise in committee when the bill reaches committee. The first amendment that the bill makes is in clause 9 of part 5, which seeks to insert new section 3C into the Firearms Act.

The purpose of new section 3C is to provide a basis to allow the Chief Commissioner of Police, where a decision has been made, to reclassify a firearm—under the Firearms Act firearms are categorised based on their type, in some cases based on their appearance—into one of a number of different categories. A and B are the lowest; C, D and E are higher categories; and H for handguns is a separate category again. From time to time the chief commissioner may elect to reclassify a firearm—raise its classification from a lower level to a higher level—and the purpose of inserting proposed section 3C into the act will be to allow the chief commissioner, where he determines to reclassify a firearm, to allow a person who held a firearm under an existing licence to continue to hold that firearm under that licence, notwithstanding the fact that the firearm has been classified to a higher level. That grandfathered capacity to hold the firearm under the existing licence will exist until the firearm is disposed of or the person’s licence expires et cetera. We think that is a reasonable provision that recognises that people who have held particular firearms under particular licences reasonably should be able to have the capacity to retain those under the existing licence, notwithstanding reclassification for new licence-holders.

Clauses 10 to 16 of the bill make an interesting change with respect to proof of identity. Someone applying for a firearms licence or becoming a firearms dealer or doing a number of other things—seeking a number of other permissions or recognitions under the Firearms Act—is required to provide evidence of identity to the chief commissioner. Interestingly, the current act requires that identity documentation be provided consistent with that required by the commonwealth Financial Transaction Reports Act 1988. This is the act which under commonwealth law requires people to have 100 points of identification when opening a bank account. It is something that is well known to all members of the community, that requirement for 100 points of identification, and the Firearms Act currently requires that same standard of identification. Interestingly, the bill before us tonight in a number of clauses of the act seeks to replace that standard with one which states:

… identity of the person in a form approved by the Chief Commissioner …

That is one of the issues we will seek to explore in committee, the reason for the shift from the current well-recognised requirement of the Financial Transaction Reports Act of 100 points to a new requirement—to the satisfaction of or in the form approved by the chief commissioner.

Clause 17 of the bill makes a change with respect to the disposal of firearms by a licensed firearm dealer. The current requirement in section 94 of the Firearms Act is that a dealer cannot dispose of a firearm to a person unless they are reasonably satisfied that the person holds a firearms licence—in short, that they are reasonably satisfied. There are certain exemptions around that, but the basic requirement is the dealer needs to be satisfied before they sell a firearm that the person they are selling it to holds a firearms licence. Interestingly, this bill will change that requirement from the dealer being reasonably satisfied—having a reasonable belief that they hold a licence—to a requirement that they must sight the licence. Now, in practice this is not likely to be a significant change. I would think there would be few circumstances in which a firearms dealer would sell a firearm without requiring the purchaser to produce a licence or evidence of the exemption. But the way the provision is structured does raise some questions around how it interacts with the current provisions of the act, so we will seek to get some clarification on that when the bill goes into committee.

Clauses 18 and 19 of the bill are interesting. They seek to impose new requirements with respect to the hiring and lending of firearms. Now, it is a longstanding practice for and the current Firearms Act provides for licensed firearm dealers to lend and hire firearms to firearm licence holders, and this is something which occurs from time to time. A primary producer may have a need, because of a fire or something, to destroy stock and may need to borrow a firearm for the purpose of doing that.

Someone may be seeking to purchase a new firearm and wanting to trial it at a range or at a ground before they purchase it. It is quite common for firearm dealers to lend or hire firearms to licence-holders. The bill seeks to insert new provisions with respect to restricting the way in which firearms can be loaned or hired by seeking to insert a new provision that the loan of a firearm must not exceed 30 days, and that can then be extended for a further 30 days provided an application is made in writing. Now, the government has not provided justification for this change in requirement. In fact the government, in the briefing with the department, clarified that there is nothing in this provision that would prevent a person having loaned a firearm or borrowed a firearm for 30 days, having had a 30-day extension and then returning the firearm and borrowing it again. So this is really a paper exercise. It adds to the administrative burden for firearms dealers, most of whom are small businesses, and it does not add any value to the firearms framework. So when the bill reaches committee we will be seeking to omit clauses 18 and 19, which are the clauses that impose this new paperwork without providing any tangible reason to do so.

Clause 20 of the bill is also an interesting one, and it relates to a new requirement with respect to firearms dealers sending firearms or parts to other firearms dealers. Basically the bill seeks to create a new requirement that where a firearm is sent by post within Victoria or outside Victoria by a Victorian dealer interstate or by an interstate dealer into Victoria the firearm must not be labelled in a way that identifies it as a firearm and that it must be transmitted in a way that is tracked electronically and also received by the licensed firearm dealer to whom the package is sent. That raises a number of issues as to the practicality of how that is going to work, as to who is going to be responsible for actually receiving a package and what in fact it means for a package not to be labelled in a way that identifies the contents of the package, given that firearms being transmitted, being sent by post or courier service, are going to be long, thin packages, typically from firearms dealer A and addressed to firearms dealer B. So whether that gives rise to the fact that it is identified as a firearm is something that needs to be clarified in the committee stage.

I might add, the issue of the transport of firearms is one that has been quite problematic for the firearms industry in Australia recently, with FedEx-TNT making the decision to withdraw from the carriage of firearms in Australia. This has had a major negative impact on firearms dealers in Australia—dealers seeking to transfer firearms to customers, to transfer firearms to other dealers and to transact with wholesalers. And I have to say, frankly, that decision by FedEx-TNT is something they would not do in their home country, the United States. There is no way known FedEx would withdraw from the transport of firearms in the United States, and it is outrageous that they have taken the decision to do that here in Australia, thereby undermining the operation of, particularly, regional firearms dealers in this country and indeed in this state.

The next section of the bill comes to the issue of firearm prohibition orders (FPOs). Firearm prohibition orders were first put in place by this Parliament in 2018, and despite the name ‘firearm prohibition order’ these orders are in fact something that can be applied to any person, whether they are a firearms licence holder or whether they have never had anything to do with firearms. They are orders which can be imposed by senior police which prohibit a person from having any contact or involvement with firearms. They prohibit a person from going to any premises where firearms may be stored; they also invoke prohibitions on coming into contact with certain people; and they provide Victoria Police with the right to stop and search without cause any person who is the subject of a firearm prohibition order and any people who may be with the person who is the subject of a firearm prohibition order, including the vehicle, vessel or aircraft that such a person may be in.

These are very powerful orders. The intention when they were created in 2018 was that they would be used only on the worst of the worst, and as I said, notwithstanding the name, they do not necessarily have anything to do with firearms. They can be imposed on people who are believed to be involved in organised crime or outlaw motorcycle gangs, whether they have had any involvement with firearms or whether they have ever had a firearms licence or not. They are very powerful orders, and when that legislation was created in 2018 it was with the understanding that they would be applied very carefully and that they would be applied by police officers at a senior level. At that point the coalition parties sought to restrict the application of FPOs to officers of the rank of assistant commissioner and above. The bill, now act, provided for them to be issued by superintendents and above. Because of the gravity of them and the severity of them, it was our view they should be applied only at the rank of assistant commissioner and above.

We know from the Victoria Police annual report last year that in 2019–20 some 231 firearm prohibition orders were issued, and at 30 June last year 381 were in place. In that same financial year some 286 searches were carried out pursuant to firearm prohibition orders on people and associates of people to whom those orders had been issued. In the briefing that was provided for this bill on 21 September, an update was provided indicating there are now some 1111 firearm prohibition orders in place—so there has been a substantial increase between 30 June last year and September of this year in the issuing of those orders.

Now, notwithstanding some commentary around the way in which those orders apply and the criteria for those orders applying, this bill does not seek to change those criteria. What it does do is seek to impose a new requirement that arises from a recommendation of the Legal and Social Issues Committee of the Legislative Council with respect to obliging someone who is subject to a firearm prohibition order to notify a change of address—curiously—within 24 hours of making that change of address. I have looked at other legislation, and I have yet to find another piece of legislation which requires a change of address to be notified within 24 hours. And that gives rise to a number of questions around when exactly you have changed your address in order to determine whether 24 hours had elapsed before giving notification. That is something I will seek to get some clarification on from the minister when this bill goes into committee.

The other provision with respect to FPOs that is changed is the level of delegation required to issue them. As I indicated, when the provision was first put in place it provided for superintendents and above to issue FPOs. The bill now seeks to extend that delegation to some officers of the rank of inspector and above working in certain areas of Victoria Police, and the impact of that is something that we will also seek to explore with the minister in committee.

The other changes the bill makes are, in clause 23, to the disclosure of handgun target shooting activity. People who hold handguns are required to participate in organised club shoots on a certain number of occasions in a year, and those clubs are required to advise Victoria Police—the chief commissioner—of who has participated in those shoots. The bill makes a curious change to the requirement to notify the chief commissioner, and the reason for that is something else that we will seek clarification of in the committee stage.

The final change the bill makes with respect to firearms is in relation to the storage of firearms. Schedule 4 of the Firearms Act 1996 sets out the requirements for storage of firearms based on their category. Categories A and B, the lowest level of firearm, basically currently require that the firearm be stored in a steel or hardwood container. It is an intention of the bill to change that requirement from a steel or hardwood container, which is ‘not easily penetrable’—the wording in the current act—to one which specifies that it must be steel storage of a thickness of at least 1.6 millimetres that complies with Australian standard 1594, which is a standard for steel, and then replicates largely the existing provisions of the act. My understanding is that is something which was considered by the firearms consultative committee, which is made up of the peak bodies in the shooting sector, and no opposition to it was raised. But the detail of why the government has elected to go with a 1.6 millimetre thickness rather than 1.5, for example, or 1.8, and how that sits with existing storage safes which are commercially available is also something that we will seek to explore in committee.

The coalition does not oppose this bill. The changes it makes to the Firearms Act are largely administrative. We do note, though, that there are a number which will increase regulatory burden without any obvious discernible benefit—the example of the provisions with loaning and hiring firearms, which we will not support. Also the provisions with respect to the sending of firearms add regulatory burden and add red tape but do not add a lot of value to firearm licensing.

So, with those words, the coalition will not oppose this bill, but we look forward to exploring a number of these issues with the minister in committee.

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