BOOK REVIEW: Over our dead bodies, Port Arthur and Australia’s fight for gun control by Simon Chapman

Pluto Press, Annandale, 1998, 218 pp, $24.95.

Reviewed by Don Barton, Solicitor

“How to” on gun reform misses the mark

THE AUTHOR (AN ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR IN Public Health and Community Medicine, who majored in sociology and submitted a doctoral thesis on the semiotics of tobacco advertising) has written this book to celebrate efforts at firearm law reform following Port Arthur and to provide a “how to” for persons interested in promoting reform. The subtext is heavily directed at promoting the arguments for certain reforms.

Legal practitioners interested in any sort of balanced and analytical approach to the question of law reform will be disappointed by this book. Despite public concern at police use of firearms, for example, Chapman seems unaware that uniform United States legislation is in one way much “tougher” than Australian legislation. The Lautenberg amendments to the Treasury, Postal Service, And General Appropriations Act, 1997 (comparable to ss. 11 and 23 of the NSW Firearms Act) do not discriminate between private individuals and employees of the state in prohibiting possession of firearms to persons with a domestic violence record, whereas in NSW certain state employees are immune to ss.11 and 23 Act in the course of their employment; see s.6.

Chapman demonstrates a lack of understanding of the technology he is so keen to regulate. For example, his reference to the Crescent Head homicides contains a gross error of fact in describing the firearm used and betrays his ignorance of the concepts which form a significant part of Mr Howard’s template legislation, the distinction between category A and category B firearms (Part 2 Division 2).

The author’s discussion regarding the 848,000 semi-automatics now illegally held is innately authoritarian. The confiscation of 640,000 semi-automatics (the cover design of the book features a vignette of a mountain of such firearms) has had no measurable impact on armed robbery homicide or suicide. Given the significant resources required to trace just one model semi automatic during the Back Packer murder inquiry, it is clear that a comprehensive attempt to trace most of the 840,000 illegally held firearms would be an exercise in defiance of diminishing returns, bringing other police work to a halt.

His attitude to the fact that law reform has resulted in a gross increase in the number of semi-automatics on the black market demonstrates his lack of analysis; the Port Arthur offender (who had no licence and being under an order of the protective commissioner had no prospect of getting a licence) purchased his rifles at greatly inflated prices on the same market.

Advertising experts, it seems, are not useful on law reform. “How to” ignore the exacerbation of problems might be nearer the mark.