The Greens’ decision to expose gun owners in aid of public safety is at odds with stats showing firearm violence decline over the last decade.
In a charmingly illogical “commemoration” of a massacre committed by an unlicensed offender using illegally obtained guns, NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge has published a list of licensed gun owners and how many guns are registered to them, by postcode. Shoebridge argues that releasing this information serves the public interest.
Defining “public interest” is difficult, but it generally refers to something that affects the welfare of the general public, rather than something that is merely of interest to the public. The NSW Ombudsman’s Office suggests:
he public interest is distinguishable from a private interest because it extends beyond the interests of an individual (or possibly even a group of individuals) to the interests of the community as a whole, or at least a particular group, sector or geographical division of the community…there are some circumstances where an individual’s private interests – in privacy and procedural fairness, for example – are regarded as being in the public interest.
This raises two competing claims: one by firearm owners that the list compromises the public interest by providing a “shopping list” for criminals, and one by Shoebridge that the community’s interests are served by knowing how many legal owners and guns are in each postcode.
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So who is right?
The list does not include names or addresses, which greatly reduces the risk of it being used to locate individual gun owners. However, this may not be true to the same extent across all parts of the state. Knowing someone has a certain number of guns in an area with thousands of residents is quite different to knowing that about a community with only a few hundred residents. There is no way of knowing whether negative consequences will emerge, what they may be, or when they may occur.
We need to understand what purpose – aside from generating media attention – widely publicising this information serves. If, for example, more legally owned guns lead to more firearm suicides and homicides, more armed robberies involving a firearm, and more drive-by shootings, then it could arguably serve the public interest for people to know where guns are.
In NSW, there have been steady increases in the number of firearm licences held and the number of guns legally registered.
However, firearm suicides and homicides have fallen over that time:
Armed robbery with a firearm has fallen from 1,117 incidents recorded in 2001, down to 213 incidents recorded in 2015:
There have been ongoing declines in attempted murder with a firearm and unlawful discharge of a firearm. Firearm-related violence overwhelmingly involves unlicensed individuals using unregistered guns.
Since the number of legal gun owners and guns legally owned appear unrelated to the occurrence of firearm violence, what grounds are there for arguing that the public interest is served by knowing about legal ownership by postcode?
One argument concerns theft, with Shoebridge suggesting the more guns that are in private hands, the more likely those guns are to be stolen. Again, the facts say otherwise: there have been long-term declines in firearm theft in NSW, from over 850 in 2001 to around 550 on average, per year – though the figures may end up looking higher than usual for 2016, due to the theft of 140 paintball guns from a business facility (paintball guns are firearms under NSW law).
Stolen firearms are rarely linked with subsequent violent firearm crimes. A large percentage of firearms seized from serious and organised crime groups are not the types of firearms that get stolen . Rather, they are the types of rifles and shotguns that were prohibited in 1996, or handguns which are heavily restricted and seldom stolen from private residences .
The facts show that private gun ownership levels in NSW are not the public safety boogeyman they have been portrayed as. This makes it is difficult to see what legitimate public interest David Shoebridge’s data release serves, although political interests are – as always – another matter. But if the community as a whole is to be genuinely served, it is high time facts and evidence, rather than politicking and emotion-driven campaigns, formed the basis of decisions about firearms.
Australian Institute of Criminology (2015). The ability of Australian law enforcement authorities to eliminate gun-related violence in the community. Submission by the Australian Institute of Criminology to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee Inquiry into the ability of Australian law enforcement authorities to eliminate gun violence in the community. Submission no. 76. Available from: http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Legal_and_Constitutional_Affairs/Illicit_firearms/Submissions
Note: Samara McPhedran does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article. Dr McPhedran has been appointed to a number of firearms advisory panels and committees, most recently as a member of the Queensland Ministerial Advisory Panel on firearms, and previously as a member of the Commonwealth Firearms Advisory Council. She does not receive any financial remuneration for these activities. She holds memberships with, and volunteers for, a range of not-for-profit firearm-related organisations and women’s advocacy groups. She is not a member of any political party. Dr McPhedran has no relevant funding sources to declare.