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How the sale of Australian police guns threatens public health in the USA

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]


References

[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.

Comments 21

  1. michael crook says:

    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.

  2. wilful says:

    This is really silly.
    A few thousand pistols into the millions of US pistols is a drop in the ocean.

  3. Jackol says:

    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.

  4. Charles Richardson says:

    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.

  5. wilson j says:

    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.

  6. Jackol says:

    “Wilson J”

    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.

  7. Barry 09 says:

    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.

  8. Barry 09 says:

    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 there will be a North / Tea party -South small conflict in years to come. The idiots are still going on about Obama’s Birth Certificate ????? Too many War mongers live there. 3rd World coming soon.

  9. James in USA says:

    Your comments show a serious lack of knowledge about the weight of regulation on a handgun purchase in the US. Way too much time listening to biased media that can’t or won’t get simple details right.

    The Police force will sell the handguns to an Importer who will deal with the US State Dept on loads of paperwork. That importer will sell the guns to a Distributor, like Davidsons. That Distributor can only sell to a licensed shop (called an FFL), be it a pawn shop, a gun shop, or a hardware store.

    Then, for a person to buy that handgun they have to undergo a background check. The actual method differs state to state. Some do instant checks at the point of sale via NICS, some do preliminary checks via the local Sheriff to issue permits, some do more complicated FOID systems. No matter the seller these checks are required. Don’t pass the check, can’t buy the handgun. No legal commercial product in the US, other than Schedule IV drugs, are more heavily regulated.

    The likelihood of these guns getting into criminal hands is almost 0 for the short term. The average time for a legally purchased gun to get into criminal hands – via theft or person to person sale by someone skirting the law – is 14 years. Criminals use a small supply of mostly stolen guns that they sell to each other as needed.

    US Gun Violence takes about 15,000 lives a year. A heartbreaking number, but one that amazing small in per capita comparison with many other countries, like the United Kingdom. US Automobile deaths are about 45,000 a year, three times that of Gun Violence. I am sure you have seen 30,000 used as the number for the US. That number is true, if you count non-violence related deaths like suicide. Just like the 11 kids a day number counts gangbangers up to the age of 21 to get the the number. Most of the violence is fueled by the 50 year old failure called “The War on Drugs” and the huge criminal underworld it has created.

    Why does America have such a love affair with guns? Because we had to fight our way to freedom through two wars with England less that 250 years ago and that fact still rings true in our blood. Freedom includes the right and responsibility to protect oneself from crime and from tyranny. Quotes from our foundering fathers to the nature of “disarmed men are slaves to their government” sum up our feelings well.

  10. virginiayank says:

    Hey Mates. Just a quick observation from the land of the uncivilized. American sportsmen (and women) welcome the return of quality made (in America) firearms. Here in Virginia we have 300,000 FREE CITIZENS who can lawfully carry concealed and our crime rate dropped over 70% during the past decade, with only 0.001% of permits taken back for non-violent offences such as driving while intoxicated. Our constitution assures the right of arms for self defence, hunting or removal of a corrupt govenment, our choice. The odds of police observing a crime are almost nil, and the protection of yourself and family fall upon the individual. If you wish to live differently, stay where you are, as we are most happy with our system.

  11. bhirsh says:

    From Michael Crook – “The USA is a failed state, so anything that they do to ensure that their streets remain violent should not surprise us.”

    What a joke. We are free citizens, you are mere subjects, yet you have the audacity to call the greatest country on the globe a “failed state”?

    When Dewn Undah passed its virtual complete ban on guns, your violent crime rate began to soar. Since 37 of our 50 states have enacted “shall issue” concealed firearms laws, OUR violent crime rate has been going DOWN.

    Until now, I was unaware that De Nile ran through Aussieland.

  12. jpeditor says:

    I’ll bet there is more violence in America attributable to drinking Fosters or using Crocodile Dundee “knives” than there is or will be from firearms LEGALLY SOLD BACK TO DEALERS and then LEGALLY SOLD BACK TO LAW-ABIDING CITIZENS.

    Ohm you are crying, what about those weapons that might later be STOLEN or purchased ILLEGALLY?

    In other words, your idea makes as much sense as stopping drunk driving by banning ALL non-drinking drivers from getting into cars.

    If you like your increase in gun crime un Australia since you BANNED LEGAL OWNERSHIP OF HANDGUNS, please,

    RATTLE YOUR CHAINS, WE CAN’T HEAR YOU!

  13. bhirsh says:

    From virginiayank – ” If you wish to live differently, stay where you are, as we are most happy with our system.”

    Yes. This.

    Am I to presume that you’re a transplanted Aussie, now a U.S. citizen?

  14. luca says:

    Dear Michael Crook: Please explain why the United States is now a failed state. Or is that just an attractive “buzz word” that you most likely picked up from some marxist, anti-U.S. propaganda?

    Familiarize yourself with our firearm purchasing laws before you stick your Aussie foot in your mouth and make an ass of yourself. Oops, too late! FWIW, we Americans who have the legal right to carry concealed weapons, of which I am one, have not been a problem in this country. Instead, all the major crimes that are committed throughout this country seem to be consolidated to the major metropolitan cities which are controlled by like minded socialists such as yourself. Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago, New York, etc., etc……….and all such crimes being committed by equally socialist thugs who have no respect for the law.

    With that being said, it appears that your government chooses to recognize all firearms owners as potential criminals……Not surprising considering the history of the colonization of Australia by European criminals.

  15. ExNuke says:

    You know, I’m quite sure that almost every beer that is sold in your country doesn’t lead to a fight where someone is hospitalized or killed. Sure some minute number of them do so you really ought to rethink your own laws about the sale and consumption of beer. After all, if it saves one life what difference does it make if you take beer away from the vast majority who are responsible?

  16. Kureelpa says:

    One difference that I notice here in the US, is that we don’t have any of those Security Screens, on our doors in our neighborhood, that we have in Oz & I live just one hour by train, from NY Penn in Manhattan. Our doors are just screen, with the center brace. The other thing is that Fedex, UPS or the Post Office can leave valuable parcels on our doorstep all day & they will still be there when we come home from work. I’ve had cameras etc left out there & I’m more worried about things getting wet than I am about them getting stolen.
    Contractors leave machinery for roadworks & tractors for mowing by the side of the road & nobody steals them & last I looked into it – the number of stolen vehicles per annum, in Australia was almost 3 times what it was in NY State. At the time the populations were around 20Million for NY State & 21Million for Australia.
    I am a transplanted Aussie & one of the things that I enjoy hearing from my Australian guests is, ” this is much different than I imagined” & “aren’t the people friendly?” Visitors return too – some to stay longer.
    Michael Crook – don’t write this great country off – unless you’ve lived like a local. Seems to me that you don’t know what you are talking about.

    The greatest reduction in firearm deaths, from the gun buy back in Oz, was in suicides. There are 2.5 Million firearms in Australia & there were 1712 stolen firearms stolen in 2007-2008. It’s all there on the ABS & AIC.

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