Guns and politics: the manipulation of political will

Cartoon: Charm

Steve Dixon, a Queensland Senate candidate for Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, may have put it clumsily, but he was right — in politics, money wins the day in Australia.

Dixon’s pitch to the powerful US National Rifle Association (NRA), recorded as part of Al Jazeera’s three-year undercover sting operation, was: “We can change the voting system in our country, the way people operate, if we have got the money to do it.”

Dixon, along with Hanson’s chief of staff, James Ashby, went to the US to lobby the cashed-up NRA to donate to their party. Specifically, they wanted cash to weaken Australia’s gun laws.

Dixon is filmed as saying: “We have the momentum, we’ve got Senator Pauline Hanson; she'd be the most recognised person, not only in politics, but as a person [sic] in our country.

“So, the ingredients are there. We just don’t have the petrol to put in the engine.”

The “petrol”, we now know, was One Nation’s request for a $20 million donation. With more One Nation MPs, they argued, they would be in a better position to help the Australian gun lobby weaken gun laws that were standardised in 1996, after the Port Arthur massacre in Tasmania.

NRA lobbyist Brandi Graham suggested that it would help the NRA if Australia’s gun laws were weakened “because the biggest argument we always get from folks is, ‘Well, look at Australia’.”

While Al Jazeera’s sting also flushed out Hanson’s lie about never seeking or accepting foreign donations, importantly, it has refocused attention on the gun lobby's international connections and influence on pro-gun parties in Australia.

It comes just weeks after an Australian terrorist used two semi-automatic weapons, two shotguns and a lever-action firearm in his terrorist killing spree through two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.

University of Sydney social policy expert Philip Alpers believes the lack of such attacks in Australia is down to its gun law, which makes it harder to acquire semi-automatic weapons.

New Zealand is now moving to reform its gun laws.

Pro-gun parties gain in NSW

While the final NSW election results are still to be announced, it looks likely that the pro-gun Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party (SFF) will gain at least one more seat on top of the two it already has in the Legislative Council, along with one for One Nation and, possibly, the Liberal Democrats.

Along with the NSW Nationals, part of the governing Coalition that was recently re-elected, these small right-wing parties share pro-gun views, putting them in a powerful position to weaken gun policy in NSW, the state with the biggest proliferation of guns.

While the SFF claims it does not support a relaxation in the National Firearms Agreement (NFA), its support for “individual freedoms” and criticism of the “undue” regulation of firearms throw that into doubt.

The NSW Nationals did not present a specific gun policy for the state elections on its website (although its federal counterpart is open about the need for gun “reform”). It did, however, give its second preferences to the pro-gun Liberal Democrats — a vocal critic of the NFA laws.

David Leyonhjelm, who is poised to take a seat in the Legislative Council for the Liberal Democrats, resigned from the Liberal Party in protest at the NFA introduced by then-Coalition prime minister John Howard in 1996.

Leyonhjelm has been a member of the NSW Shooters Party and the Outdoor Recreation Party, prior to being elected as a federal NSW Liberal Democrats senator.

In 2015, Leyonhjelm negotiated a deal with the federal Coalition government under Tony Abbott to include a 12-month sunset clause on the temporary ban on importing the Adler lever (semi-automatic) action shotgun, in return for supporting new anti-immigration laws.

The ban on the Adler had been enacted in the wake of the 2014 Martin Place hostage crisis in Sydney.

Due to public pressure, the Malcolm Turnbull Coalition government reimposed the ban before the sunset clause ended.

In federal parliament, Leyonhjelm has voted with neo-Nazi Senator Fraser Anning and ex-Liberal, now Australian Conservatives MP Cory Bernardi.

He supports fully legalising semi-automatic weapons and arming citizens to protect themselves.

Leyonhjelm also supports removing “impediments” to children using guns.

This is an important tactic by the pro-gun lobby. The NRA's advice to the One Nation lobbyists was to find a way of drawing in “the moms” — the sector most opposed to normalising the everyday use of guns.

For the gun lobby, a rise in the everyday use of guns means a rise in their profit margins and those of their supporters, the weapons’ manufacturers.

Gun lobby’s targets

Newly-released reports by The Australia Institute (TAI) show that while the proportions are smaller, Australia’s gun lobby is of a comparable size to the NRA in the United States.

TAI states: “Australia’s gun lobby is large, well-resourced and tightly knit.

“Most Australians would be more familiar with the NRA than with the domestic gun lobby but — relative to population — Australia’s gun lobby has similar membership levels, and may even spend more on political advertising and political donations, than the NRA.”

But while public opinion is against weakening gun laws, the pro-gun lobby has been focusing on pro-gun crossbenchers who have the balance of power at a state and territory level to either prevent more scrutiny, or eat away at the existing laws.

The peak pro-gun body, the Shooting Industry Foundation of Australia (SIFA), spends roughly the same amount of money per capita on political campaigning as the NRA does in the US.

It keeps its operations “low key” and does not focus on firearms or gun control specifically. Instead, it funds campaigns “supportive of the interests of business”, such as the “Not. Happy. Dan.” campaign in the Victorian state election.

TAI reported that while the number of gunowners and sporting shooters has declined over the past 20 years, the number of firearms had grown from 2.1 guns per owner to 3.9.

According to Alpers, research done by the University of Sydney estimated that in 2016 the total number of guns (both licit and illicit) held by civilians was 3,150,000.

In a TAI discussion paper,  Hunters and Collectors, Gun Use and Ownership in Australia, Bill Brown notes that there has been a “cultural change of keeping more guns” that has been “tremendously profitable for the gun lobby”.

“Using a rough measure of a gun selling for $1000, the gun lobby has sold an additional $1.45 billion worth of guns because of the cultural change since 1997 of keeping more guns,” Brown said.

Alongside the decline in shooting and hunting sports, and a corresponding decline in the number of licensed firearms owners, the number of privately-owned firearms has risen from 2.5 million in 1997 to 3.6 million in 2017.

Gun Control Australia reported prior to the NSW elections that 100 individuals in NSW own private gun arsenals with more than 70 firearms.

Brown believes that fewer people owning more guns has “significant implications” for the gun industry.

TAI documented some of the reasons people give for owning more than one or two guns.

They include the idea that they “are pre-emptively stocking up before anticipated bans or restrictions”; “are preparing for the breakdown of civilisation”; “want guns in each room so they can reach them quickly if there is a home invasion”; or “want different guns to carry with them based on their outfit and purpose for leaving the house (e.g. a different gun for going to the beach vs going to a formal event).”

While the pro-gun, right-wing parties complain about what they believe are overly restrictive firearms rules, TAI says that “no state or territory has ever complied with the National Firearms Agreement.”

According to the NFA, states and territories are supposed to reform their firearm legislation, but not all have to the same extent.

Gun controls loosening

In Point Blank: Political Strategies of Australia’s Gun Lobby, Brown said: “The public will on firearms is being circumvented because firearms interest groups have made a concerted effort to undermine these laws and loosen state-level gun controls”.

He notes that firearms suppliers and their peak bodies and members' associations (shooting and hunting clubs and gun advocates) “have made significant political donations, run campaigns to influence voters and encouraged the election of pro-gun cross benchers”.

Most of these donations have gone to Katter’s Australian Party ($808,760 over 2011-12 and 2018-19) and the Shooters Party ($699,834). The Shooters Party has also transferred $200,000 between its branches since 2011.

The Liberals received $46,565 in donations, primarily from SIFA and Thales, a defence contractor. Thales has also donated to Labor.

The Liberal Democrats received $37,311 from NIOA, Australia’s largest privately-owned supplier of small arms.

TAI believes that as the gun lobby in Australia would face stiff opposition to talk of relaxing gun laws, it has concentrated instead on “pushing the boundaries” of the NFA.

This includes trying to justify legalising a new gun on the basis of “new technology” and using that as the new benchmark for why slightly more powerful or faster guns should be legal.

This is why Leyonhjelm and the Nationals, at a federal level, have been pushing for the lifting of the ban on individuals owning semi-automatic guns, such as the Adler.

Buying political influence

The Al Jazeera exposé was a timely reminder of the lack of transparency of political donations. It highlighted how a relaxation of gun laws in Australia would help the NRA push on with its pro-gun agenda in the US, where semi-automatic guns have been used to destroy many more lives.

The NRA has a material interest in Australia relaxing its gun laws given that guns are mostly imported from the US — meaning that the profits would flow back to NRA members and supporters.

Money does buy influence and, with the right preference flows, it can even help buy a minor party a powerful crossbench MP position.

This is also why TAI is recommending that the Parliamentary Friends of Shooting group be made to publish up-to-date membership lists, so that there is transparency.

It wants political parties to rule out accepting donations from the gun lobby, just as some have done in relation to the tobacco industry.

The TAI report says state and territory governments should consider a cap on the number of firearms a licenced owner can own, and wants the NSW to be forced to abide by the NFA requirement that each gun after the first requires its own justification.

Federal funding for the Australian Bureau of Statistics or the Australian Institute of Criminology to collect and release quarterly firearms data would help shed light on the opaque industry.

These are all practical measures which would help undercut the gun lobby’s lack of transparency and its profiteering from illegal arms dealing (in Australia, this is mostly legally imported firearms which are subsequently diverted or lost to the black market by lawful owners).

We also need to reject politicians’ manipulation of fear with their call for more “law and order” policies. We do not need to give more guns to the police — that only encourages the greater use of guns rather than deploy other, non-combat, tactics.

The public health benefits from such reforms could include a decline in the number of gun accidents, homicides, mass shootings, and the use of guns in domestic violence abuse.

And that would be a good thing for public health in this country.