Should Australia be contributing to the gun toll in the USA?
It’s a timely question for the Defence Export Control Office in the Department of Defence in Canberra, says Adjunct Associate Professor Philip Alpers, of GunPolicy.org at the Sydney School of Public Health, University of Sydney.
Philip Alpers writes:
If Canberra follows precedent, around 10,000 surplus Australian police firearms will soon be for sale in pawn shops and gun shops across the United States.
To save cash, police forces in South Australia and Victoria have signed contracts with US arms dealers to export thousands of surplus Smith & Wesson .357-calibre police revolvers for re-sale on the US civilian gun market.
Every deal like this has to be approved by a dedicated federal arms export licensing section in Canberra. But on past performance this shouldn’t be a problem for the arms dealers.
When US gun maker Smith & Wesson won two recent tenders to re-equip 14,500 frontline police in South Australia and Victoria with modern semi-automatic pistols, the company also bargained a back-end bonanza for themselves — buying back their old revolvers. It’s common practice in the arms trade to offer military and law enforcement clients a ‘new for old’ gun swap.
A trade-in like this might save Australian police millions of dollars off the purchase price of brand new pistols – but then Smith & Wesson gets to sell Australia’s sturdy old police revolvers on the streets of New York, Los Angeles and anywhere in between.
Most easily concealable handguns such as these, sold from US pawn shops, and with decades of lethality left in them, might never be misused. But some will surely be used in domestic violence, suicide and armed crime. And that’s a risk to public health.
These venerable .357 S&W revolvers, rarely fired, well maintained, each one with Australian police markings and decades of history in law enforcement — and perhaps the added cachet of coming from a country where such weapons are largely prohibited in private hands — should fetch a good price among the 62,119 licensed gun dealers in the United States.
It’s a bit strange, really. Australia leads the world with gun buybacks and destruction programmes — and of course when our law enforcement officers and Customs seize illegal guns, they always destroy them — yet here we have police and federal government licensing the export of several tonnes of concealable handguns to the only developed nation which suffers Third World rates of gun death and injury.
Australian police routinely ask US authorities to trace American-made guns seized in local crime. How will they feel when the traces go the other way – when they’re asked how an Australian police revolver came to be found at a homicide scene in Chicago?
Australia is almost alone in doing this
Most of the governments we admire already prohibit this behaviour. At the United Nations, Australia takes a leadership role in several campaigns to curb global gun running. Encouraging the export of thousands of used handguns to the United States seems to be a Canberra blind spot.
Countries in which the declared government policy[i] is to destroy surplus state-owned small arms rather than to re-sell them on the secondary arms market include:
United States,[ii] United Kingdom, New Zealand, Canada, Japan, India, China, Germany, Netherlands, Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, Latvia, Croatia, Georgia, Moldova, South Africa, Burundi, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Eritrea, Guyana, Mexico, Costa Rica, Brazil, Antigua & Barbuda, Trinidad & Tobago.
All participating states of the OSCE (56 Northern Hemisphere developed nations) have also agreed that “the preferred method for the disposal of small arms is destruction… Any small arms identified as surplus to a national requirement should, by preference, be destroyed.”[iii]
Countries which have not yet declared such a policy include: Australia, Namibia, Uganda.
The federal agency charged with licensing or denying all exports of arms and ammunition is the Defence Export Control Office, Department of Defence, Canberra. In recent years, Australian policy has been to stringently control, choke off and prohibit firearms and ammunition exports to its neighbours in the Pacific, and to carefully calculate the risk of arms misuse or human rights violations in countries further afield. Many of these suffer per capita gun injury and death rates far lower than those of the United States.
It’s been going on for years
1997-2000: In a deal worth $10.5 million, NSW Police bought 13,000 Glock pistols. Under public pressure in the aftermath of Port Arthur, the NSW government then agreed to destroy the old revolvers they replaced.
1998-2002: Queensland Police bought 8,600 Glock pistols, then in return for a million-dollar saving, and with permission from Canberra, traded 3,674 of its old Ruger and S&W revolvers onto the foreign secondary arms market.
Commenting later on the Queensland deal, Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty said:
When the AFP went from Smith & Wessons to Glocks we actually destroyed the Smith & Wessons. Other agencies, for purely economical reasons, did trading deals with the firearms suppliers so there is no guarantee where those weapons ended up.
2007-2011: South Australia Police first thoroughly trialled, then signed a contract to buy enough new Smith & Wesson M&P (military and police) .40 calibre semi-automatic pistols to arm its 4,000-officer frontline force. The fate of thousands of S&W .357 calibre revolvers now surplus to requirements at SAPOL has yet to be made public.
2007-2011: After a long debate, in April 2010 Victoria Police signed a $7 million deal with Smith & Wesson to deliver 10,500 new S&W M&P .40 calibre semi-automatic pistols for deployment to all front-line officers by the first quarter of 2012. The fate of 7,513 surplus Victoria Police S&W .38 calibre revolvers has yet to be made public.
Victoria is the last of eight Australian jurisdictions to re-arm with semi-auto pistols.
Time to reconsider
Australia’s long-standing policies and world leadership in the reduction of armed violence by way of export control deserve to be applauded by all but despots, tribal fighters and criminals.
Yet Canberra’s assessment of potential risk seems almost colonial – commendable concern for developing nations, but less for outwardly wealthier communities whose residents face a higher day-to-day risk of gun violence.
One has to ask: What is it that makes shipping thousands of handguns to the streets of America less of a public health and human rights risk than sending the same weapons to say, Bosnia, Palestine, Vanuatu, Uganda or Myanmar – all of which have lower per capita gun homicide rates that the United States?[iv]
[i] Firearm export controls in each UN Member State are documented by GunPolicy.org, a project of the Sydney School of Public Health, at www.gunpolicy.org. In the left hand column, search ‘Facts by Country,’ then in the chosen Country Page, open the category: Gun Regulation / Collection, Amnesty and Destruction Programmes / Destruction and Disposal Policy.
[ii] The United States imposes the most rigorous firearm export controls of any UN Member State. Ironically, once imported to the US, ex-Australian police handguns are unlikely to be granted US State Department approval for re-export, on the grounds that they could well be used in armed violence and human rights abuses.
[iii] OSCE Document on Small Arms and Light Weapons FSC.DOC/1/00. Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Vienna, 24 November 2000
[iv] To compare international rates of gun death and injury, select a primary country at www.gunpolicy.org / Gun Death and Injury / Rate of Gun Homicide per 100,000 People, then click on the Compare button.
The USA is a failed state, so anything that they do to ensure that their streets remain violent should not surprise us. Bit sad to see that not only are we complicit in this, but we are also heading inexorably down the US path of social destruction.
This is really silly.
A few thousand pistols into the millions of US pistols is a drop in the ocean.
This is a particularly silly article.
The issue of the regulation of guns in the USA is a matter for the USA – the number of guns and the legal/illegal availability of guns in the USA will not be affected by sourcing 2nd hand guns from Australia.
I’m firmly in the camp that believes that guns should be strongly regulated with an aim of making guns very difficult to access, and find the USA’s mindset with respect to guns incomprehensible. However, legally and publicly exporting 2nd hand guns to the USA is entirely above board. There is no moral argument here at all no matter how much you wring your hands about the fact guns that might kill people passed through this country.
If the USA was a country where guns were being used by the government or corporations to oppress civilians you might have a case, but this is not the case – we can’t protect the citizens of the USA from guns if they themselves do not wish to be so protected. Free availability of guns in the USA has been democratically reinforced repeatedly over many decades regardless of constitutional issues.
Your examples hinting at a ‘colonial’ (read ‘racist’) aspect of this mentioning ‘Bosnia, Palestine, Vanuatu, Uganda or Myanmar’ is a complete nonsense as well. Bosnia perhaps aside (and presumably it was thrown in to balance out the absurdity of the other entries listed), these countries have serious governance issues – what regulation or control may be applied in Myanmar or Uganda or Vanuatu might well be easily compromised by corruption and/or organised crime and/or the thugs in government – the same cannot be said of the USA. The US government does have regulations and procedures in place with respect to arms importation and distribution, and while you may not agree with them, those regulations and procedures are derived from democratic principles and are enforced in a fairly transparent and non-corrupt way.
How interesting – I had just the opposite reaction to Jackol. I’m anti-gun-control (at least by Australian standards), so Philip Alpers and I probably don’t agree on very much, but I think he’s absolutely right about this. These are our guns, paid for by Australian taxpayers, and it’s our choice whether we have them destroyed or have them re-sold to go on killing people. It’s not a matter of protecting Americans against their will, it’s about deciding that we shouldn’t be making it easier for them to hurt one another.
Jackol – you fail to recognise the focus of this piece entirely. Despite your efforts to drag the discussion into the go-nowhere abyss of the US gun debate, this article highlights shortfalls in Australian small arm policy; namely the inconsistencies in its surplus disposal policy compared to its otherwise responsible regional and international approach to small arm proliferation.
Er, no, I recognise the focus of the piece. I just don’t acknowledge it has any validity.
You talk of ‘inconsistencies’ implying irresponsibility. It is not being irresponsible to ship 2nd hand firearms to the USA. It is not being inconsistent, as I argued above, to ship firearms to the USA but not to Myanmar.
The article even acknowledges the firearms were manufactured in the USA originally. So the article’s suggestion is that it is irresponsible and immoral of Australia to return firearms to the country of manufacture as it might result in injury or death in that country. This is a completely preposterous argument, and is stretching the envelope even of those desperately trying to find things to be outraged by.
You mention ‘policy … approach to small arm proliferation’ – are you, or the article, seriously suggesting that there will be any more or less firearms on the streets of the USA based on this transfer of firearms from Australia? If Smith and Wesson weren’t recycling these firearms, they would simply be making more. In the USA, for the US market. Honestly.
Sell them , they are not the sharpest tool, so will miss most times. We were allowed to use club guns at the Pistol Club on a L -Plates and at 200 metres , you would have to aim about 3 metres above the target to allow gravity and steady hand to hit it. Having seen armed security guards hitting the metal frame around the Large Target ? Shoppers beware.
As a retired International Hand gun seller ( Sold my 2 hand guns to USA buyers ) , they have been selling guns online for years. Mine went through a local gun dealer about 8 years ago . Gun shops in the USA are shopping centre style with trolleys to push around . Go have a look on u-tube and see what sort of weapons are available to shoppers to buy. You would not tail-gate anybody in the USA. The NRA are way too big and powerful to regulate. Its too late for the USA , I feel that