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For a lesson in swinging a wrecking ball into a parliamentary inquiry, look no further than the proceedings of the senate committee that has finally reported on the ability of law enforcement authorities to eliminate gun-related violence. The strategies are simple but effective: deluge the submissions process with correspondence, push for your own witnesses, reject official data, then discourage committee consensus. Between them, the gun lobby and Liberal Democrats senator David Leyonhjelm could run masterclasses.
“It was established by the Greens in an attempt to put pressure on lawful ownership of firearms,” Leyonhjelm, a shooting activist, told The Saturday Paper on the eve of Thursday’s report release. “If it fails in that, it will be successful in my view.”
Leyonhjelm and another shooters advocate, Victorian Nationals senator Bridget McKenzie, are not voting members of the senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Reference Committee that conducted the inquiry, but they fully exercised their right to participate.
Apart from Penny Wright, the Greens senator who chaired the inquiry and the Liberal deputy chairman Ian Macdonald, Leyonhjelm and McKenzie were the only senators who took part in all three hearings of the inquiry, in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra.
From the start, the gun lobby, led by shooters’ peak bodies and the firearms industry, pretty well hogged the inquiry.
“There was a fair bit of moral pressure from members of the committee to allow every witness from a member of the shooting fraternity to give evidence,” Wright said. “We had quite big panels and it skewed the evidence.”
A lawyer from South Australia, she was at first amazed by the volley of opposition from lawful gun-owners, given the subject was illegal firearms.
She instigated the inquiry after an armed man brought “quiet old Adelaide” to a standstill during a 12-hour CBD siege last June and then, following another shooting incident, two of the state’s judges publicly questioned the easy availability of weapons to criminals.
The inquiry received 427 submissions. Hundreds of hunters and shooters sent individual missives into the inquiry’s inbox, as their peak bodies urged them to impress with sheer weight of numbers. Many were incensed that the inquiry was being held at all. Most were short and bitter.
Sample from a shooter named Patrick Leonce Kealy: “With WWIII looming on our doorstep, you are going to need every one of us.”
Hunting gear supplier Raytrade summarised another thread in the firearms lobby’s arguments: “If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.”
Eventually, it became clear that some gun lobbyists were attempting to turn the inquiry into something else; a first step in ditching the 1996 Howard-era curbs on firearms ownership, which polls show most Australians still overwhelmingly support.
Shooters Union of NSW president Peter Whelan – who is very close to Leyonhjelm – told the inquiry he knows many people who have hung onto their firearms during the 19 years since the Howard government banned them. They are not criminals, he said.
“If anything, they have only committed a crime of not having the correct piece of paper,” he said. “It is rather like the old Soviet Union.”
During the inquiry’s Sydney hearing in October, Leyonhjelm, at the senators’ table, asked his good friend Whelan, as a witness, a question designed to show the harmlessness of some firearms deemed illicit. Whelan had a prop.
“This is a fun gun,” he declared, whipping out a toy weapon and explaining that the little BB pellets provided when he bought it a year
ago are now classed as illegal ammunition. The pellets resembled the small sweets used to decorate birthday cakes, which Whelan had also brought.
Macdonald, one eye on the cameras, said, “Give us a demo. Shoot at the room.”
Whelan shot over the assembled senators’ heads and then declared, “My aim is poor.”
Leyonhjelm said this week he could not remember whether he asked Whelan a question during the hearing. He confirmed, however, that he did not tell his fellow committee members about his political and financial relationship with Whelan.
As an executive member of Leyonhjelm’s Liberal Democratic Party, Whelan helped him get elected to the senate last July. Whelan lent $44,000 to the party’s coffers – $14,000 more than Leyonhjelm himself, Australian Electoral Commission records show.
Wright, as chairman, did not know of the link. According to Leyonhjelm, as it bore no relationship to the terms of reference, it would have been wasting the committee’s time to disclose it.
“You would be a fairly paranoid type of person to conclude that is material,” he said. “You’d probably need therapy if you thought it was a significant factor.”
Leyonhjelm and fellow senator Bridget McKenzie have both taken advantage of other parliamentary venues to advance shooters’ rights. In February they supported a soiree held by the firearms industry for about 65 politicians and staffers in Parliament House’s Mural Hall, according to the website of the co-host, the Sporting Shooters’ Association of Australia.
Last month, McKenzie set up the Parliamentary Friends of Shooting group. Her media release said it was “to assist members and senators who want to learn more about the sport and have a go themselves”. Leyonhjelm confirmed that he is a member.
Another of Leyonhjelm’s successes at the inquiry was the appearance of American gun lobby darling John Lott by teleconference. Leyonhjelm suggested that Lott be invited as a witness.
Lott is a researcher and Fox News commentator whose central argument in his book More Guns, Less Crime is that more freely available firearms lead to a drop in crime. The statistics he used to back that argument simply do not hold, various academics have claimed.
According to Leyonhjelm, Lott’s critics have themselves been discredited. Leyonhjelm prefers Lott’s analyses to those of the Australian Crime Commission and the Australian Institute of Criminology, which both gave evidence to the inquiry.
The shooters’ lobby was keen to lay most of the blame for the preponderance of illicit arms in Australia on our porous borders, arguing that they were mostly imported.
The crime commission, however, asserted “the illicit firearm market was assessed in 2012 to be predominantly comprised of firearms that had been diverted from the licit market through various means”.
Theft from licensed individuals and firearms dealers was the main method, the commission said. The institute of criminology has described this as the best data available.
Whether the main source of illegal firearms is imports, or once-legal guns that have been stolen, remained one of the main areas of contention into this week, as Wright attempted to negotiate a majority report.
The inquiry revealed a great deal of conflicting data and the sad truth that Australian authorities cannot say exactly how many guns are in the community.
In 2012, there were more than 2.75 million legally registered firearms and it was estimated that there were more than 250,000 long-arms and 10,000 handguns in the illicit market, according to the crime commission.
As chairman, Wright tried get as much consensus as possible about the evidence and facts put to the inquiry, but the Coalition’s two voting members, Industry Minister Ian Macdonald and Liberal Senator Linda Reynolds, would not even agree to join in a call for more data.
Wright had to settle for a majority report written with Labor’s Joe Ludwig, Catryna Bilyk and Jacinta Collins, knowing that the two Liberals would produce their own dissenting version.
After the emphatic lobbying and the strenuous quest for consensus, Wright’s majority report made seven mild recommendations. These included a call for better firearms monitoring, plus improved data collection and information sharing between agencies. Information on guns holdings should be fed into a new national database and an ongoing nationwide amnesty on guns is needed, it said.
Firearms regulation should be made consistent nationwide, while gun club membership information ought to meet a new national security standard, the report said.
On Thursday night, the published report held one surprise. Macdonald, Reynolds, McKenzie and Leyonhjelm had issued a dissenting document together, styled “Report by a Majority of Senators Attending the Inquiry.”
They criticised Wright for her media comments on the size of the illegal gun market and its impact on crime. They rejected the ACC’s figures on the number of firearms in Australia.
Their No. 1 recommendation was that the federal government commission a study into the benefits of hunting. Their second was for Canberra to establish “a formal mechanism for industry and firearm user groups to be consulted on issues relating to firearms regulation”. They also want the firearm industry deregulated.
Wright has learned something about the nature of parliamentary inquiries and democracy itself from this.
“Human nature is such that when someone faces losing something concrete like the right to own or use a gun, they will be motivated to be involved in an inquiry like this,” she said. “Unfortunately, the many people who would be concerned about the prevalence of guns in Australia and their use in crime would not have known about the inquiry, nor the need to protect the status quo.”
Whereas Leyonhjelm, who regularly enjoys shooting targets as well as animals on his farm in NSW’s Central West, sees those who seek firmer gun control as having a screw loose.
“Every time someone uses a gun illegally, instead of targeting the illegal use of guns, there is this massive cry against legal ownership,” he says. “[There] seems to be a neurone missing in many people’s minds that doesn’t allow them to distinguish between lawful and unlawful use.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 11, 2015 as "Gun lobby hijacks reform".
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