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Gun laws are the sacred cow of the Australian experience, but just because we don’t have the problems that the US does, we’d be foolish to assume that all is well.
Late in September, Queensland’s LNP quietly released its policy on firearms. Filled with bland proposals like engaging in consultation with stakeholders and increasing penalties for gun crime, it seems unlikely fodder for a political spat. Yet its promise to respect “the right of primary producers and landholders to apply for Category H weapons licences and be fairly assessed” caused quite a stir with Labor government Police Minister Mark Ryan. Minister Ryan responded that the LNP were dangerously weakening Queensland’s gun laws and enabling “automatic renewal” of primary producers’ licences without those producers having to show a “genuine reason” for ownership. Is he right?
Under current laws, a person who applies for a firearm licence must be able to demonstrate a “genuine reason” for having that licence. For the past two decades, Queensland legislation has recognised an “occupational requirement” as a genuine reason for firearm possession. It has never been disputed that primary production fits this criterion, and both major parties accept that farmers need guns as a tool of their trade.
Queensland Police Service, who administer firearm laws, note that a Category H licence (which means a licence for a handgun) can be issued for the genuine reasons of sports or target shooting, primary production, or other occupational reasons. Schedule 2 of the Weapons Regulation 2016 (QLD) allows for a specific condition to be applied to a Category H licence, authorising the licensee to possess and use registered Category H weapons for primary production activities on rural land that is owned, managed or used by the licensee or the licensee’s employer.
The LNP policy document does not contain any reference to changing or removing the requirement for licence applicants (whether for new licences or renewals) to demonstrate a genuine reason. It is possible that Minister Ryan has misunderstood current legislation, in which an occupation (such as being a primary producer) can be recognised, in and of itself, as providing a “genuine reason”. Or perhaps the wording about a farmer’s right to “apply…and be fairly assessed” has somehow been conflated with a “right to bear arms”.
The law has not changed…but something has.
Queensland farmers have for some time been raising concerns that primary producers who already hold Category H licences are – when it comes time for their licence renewal – having their renewal applications rejected despite there being no change in their circumstances since they were first issued with that licence.
It might be tempting to link this with recent revisions to the National Firearms Agreement. Since 1996, all states and territories have subscribed to that agreement, which sets out minimum principles for the management of firearms. In 2002, jurisdictions also adopted the National Handgun Agreement. Recently, both agreements have been rolled into one document and revised. However, agreements past and present have had relatively little to say about farmers. Neither LNP policy or Minister Ryan suggests that this is why licence renewals are being refused. And, perhaps most crucially, the licence renewal issue emerged well before the revised NFA was agreed to at COAG in February this year.
The Labor party has gone on record saying they have made no changes to policy in this area. The laws around Category H firearm ownership have not changed.
Guns are (pardon the pun) an easy target. Our gun laws are a sacred cow, and it is politically simple to paint anything to do with firearms as a vested interest. The term “gun lobby” is especially powerful, because it instantly evokes visceral comparisons with the NRA and the gun violence-plagued US.
The only explanation that has been given is that Queensland Police have had “some clarity around particular definitions” following Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal (QCAT) decisions. This does not answer why primary producers’ Category H licence renewals were refused, to cause those matters to go before QCAT to begin with.
So we’re back to square one.
Regardless of what might be happening with farmers’ licences, and the reasons behind it, the announcements of last few days boil down to the confusing spectacle of the LNP promising to keep a law that already exists and apply it the same way it was applied under both Labor and LNP government over the past two decades, and Labor saying they have not changed that law or how it is applied but vehemently disagreeing with the LNP for promising to do this.
The sheer strangeness of this situation begs the question: what is really going on?
On the LNP side of the fence, it is easy to see their support for primary producers’ ongoing access to Category H firearms as an attempt to hold off the threat of One Nation in seats like Lockyer and Condamine. Equally, as Labor claim, this may be part of a deal to soften relations with the relatively “gun friendly” One Nation. Or, it may be an attempt to reassert the “N” in LNP, reminding city-based MPs that they still have a broader constituency to consider. Whichever way, it is not hard to find possible motives that vaguely ring true.
But how do we best explain Labor’s stance? In seats such as Townsville, Mundingburra, and Thuringowa, gun issues seem to matter. Yet after years of making no particular noise on the subject one way or another, Labor now seems to have chosen a deliberately combative approach on guns. Its term in government has been marked by a series of odd run-ins not only with primary producers, but with the firearms-owning community in general.
An easy interpretation is that this is a tactic to try to win back inner-city votes that Labor has lost to the Greens. Although the Greens stand a chance of unseating Jackie Trad at the looming state election, between Adani and the West Village project it is a far stretch to think Greens-voting South Brisbane-ites are going to be swayed in the slightest by Labor’s new-found stance on farmers’ guns. Moreover, this is not something we are seeing only in Queensland (yes, Bill “anyone who wants to weaken these gun laws…will have to come through me and the Labor Party” Shorten, I’m looking at you).
A more plausible reason for Labor’s position lies with voters’ growing discontent with the political status quo. Minister Ryan gave the game away when he said recently that the issue of gun laws is “…not and should never be about votes”. Translated, this means it absolutely is about votes.
At a time when voters are deserting the major parties in record numbers, trust in government keeps falling, and the belief that politicians have no principles and are only in it for themselves or “vested interests” continues to increase, votes are the hottest currency in town. The advice being doled out by consultants, spin doctors, and ambitious advisors about how to deal with all this is very simple: if you want to regain trust, just pick a few iconic issues and trample on some vested interests to show you stand for something.
Guns are (pardon the pun) an easy target. Our gun laws are a sacred cow, and it is politically simple to paint anything to do with firearms as a vested interest. The term “gun lobby” is especially powerful, because it instantly evokes visceral comparisons with the NRA and the gun violence-plagued US. And if your brand is also striving to re-establish some form of distinct political identity in the face of allegations that all major parties are alike, it helps to find an enemy to virtuously rally against while hectoring your opponent for not doing likewise.
Viewed through this lens, the sudden emergence of gun policy as an unlikely focus for a muddled political discourse makes perfect sense. So, as much as both parties may pretend otherwise, it seems their talk about guns has nothing to do with guns and everything to do with votes. But if the latest polls are to be believed it looks like none of this posturing is swaying Queenslanders who are sick of business as usual. If anything, it might just end up reinforcing the very perceptions that have led to voter dissatisfaction in the first place.