The shooting at a Texas primary school which resulted in the death of 19 children demonstrates the power of the US firearms lobby. The same forces are at work in Australia, reports Callum Foote.
Americans are bleeding again, crying again, and resolving to do nothing – again.
No matter how many children are slaughtered in their classrooms, it’s more likely now that there will be a social media campaign to discredit the victims than any concerted action to address gun control.
Over 200 mass shootings have been reported in the United States in 2022, according to the Gun Violence Archive, a non-profit research group with more than 45,000 people killed from gun-related injuries, including suicides, in the United States in 2020, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Slaughters at schools have become so common that the debate no longer lands on first causes – the availability of guns – but on notions such as restricting the number of gateways to a school (making the arriving kids an easy target for shooters, you would think).
Port Arthur and the Australian way
When a gunman massacred 35 people at Port Arthur in 1996, Australian society changed forever.
This sickening tragedy galvanised the political class into action. New prime minister John Howard led an overhaul of gun laws in co-operation with the states, spending $304 million on a gun buyback. There was an amnesty for the surrender of illegal firearms, nationwide registration, a 28-day cooling off period following a gun purchase, and a ban on certain types of firearms.
Port Arthur changed everything. Only a few years earlier, Australians had seemed inured to the need to change. NSW premier Barrie Unsworth tried to make an issue of gun control at the 1988 state election, after two massacres in Melbourne the previous year, but was defeated. In Australia, the chances of being murdered by a gun in Australia plunged to 0.15 per 100,000 people in 2014 from 0.54 per 100,000 people in 1996 after Howard’s gun ban, a decline of 72 percent, figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show.
According to University of Sydney Associate Professor Philip Alpers, a specialist in firearm injury prevention, Australians now own more than 3.5 million registered firearms, an average of four for each licensed gun owner, however the proportion of Australians who hold a gun licence has fallen by 48 percent since 1997.
No mass shootings here
There have been no mass shooting since 1996.
While US anti-gun advocates have to contend with the powerful National Rifle Association (NRA), in Australia the peak body which represents the same industry is the Shooting Industry Foundation of Australia (SIFA) and the Sports Shooters Association of Australia (SSAA).
In response to the Texas tragedy, Tim Quinn, president of Gun Control Australia, says that “the powerful US gun lobby continues to fight tooth and nail against sensible gun laws that would prevent a tragedy like this occurring again. “Make no mistake,” Quinn says “these forces are also at work here in Australia, trying to undermine the laws that keep our community safe”.
SIFA aims to build up the policy capability of the gun lobby and have recently opposed legislation in WA which sought to keep guns out of the hands of violent criminals and celebrated the overturning of the ban on the Adler B230 shotgun, a rapid-fire device, in NSW.
Gun lobby in breach of corporations laws
The last published financial reports produced by the association were from 2019, perhaps in breach of ASIC’s annual reporting standards. These accounts show that in FY2019 SIFA’s income sat stead at just over a million dollars, primarily from member contributions.
From this, SIFA spent $343,585 on campaigns, down from $600,000 the year before, and $210,000 on consultants. We won’t find out how much they spent heading into the 2022 election until political donations data is published next February. It is likely to have risen.
The Association is owned and operated by the four largest firearms distributors in Australia Beretta Australia, Nioa Nominees, and Raytrade.
The three directors of SIFA include chair Luca Scribani-Rossi, 1984 Olympic medallist skeet shooter and founder of Beretta Australia, Jeff Gordon Director of Winchester Australia, a subsidiary of New York-listed giant Olin Corporation and Robert Nioa of Nioa Nominees.
Robert Nioa is the managing director of Nioa Australia, the country’s biggest small-arms dealer and importer of the controversial Adler A110 lever-action shotgun. Nioa does not file accounts with the corporate regulator but a sign of its growth comes from the Austender website, which shows various Nioa companies have sold firearms and ammunition, war weapons, vehicles and other military equipment worth $1.2 billion to the Commonwealth government since 2012.
Big government contracts keep arms maker in clover
Nioa was the beneficiary of windfall contracts worth $883 million in 2018 for Artillery Ammunition.
Partner company to Nioa, Rheinmetall also won a massive defence contract in 2018 worth $5.2 billion. This was after meeting Barnaby Joyce at Nioa’s headquarters.
Nioa, also the son-in-law of federal member for Kennedy Bob Katter, has donated $160,000 to Katter’s Australian Party (KAP), and gave $20,000 to the Liberal Democrats in 2016.
Nioa also revealed plans for a $50 million gun factory which would complement the $60 million joint venture Rheinmetall NIOA Munitions (RNM) plant in Maryborough, Queensland, which will soon start producing 155mm artillery shells for the ADF and export orders.
SIFA isn’t the only gun peak body operating in Australia. There are also the Sporting Shooters Association of Australia and the Shooters Union which together donated $230,000 to KAP between 2020 and 2021. The Sporting Shooters Association is affiliated with the US National Rifle Association.
The SSAA runs its own political lobbying department – SSAA Legislative Action which is “is dedicated to ensuring Australians are able to exercise their freedoms and calling out those who threaten those freedoms”.
SSAA Victoria has an annual turnover of $6.7 million last year with little transparency on the finances of other state branches and SSAA National available. Alpers estimated that the organisation has a $20 million turnover in 2015.
Katter: guns for school kids
Katter proposed arming every Australian school child in April this year.
Australia’s gun control laws, alongside those in Canada and the UK, have been effective in reducing gun deaths particularly compared with those in the US.
Canada introduced gun control laws in 1989 after 14 female engineering students were killed in their Montreal classroom, and again in 2020, shortly after a gunman shot and killed 13 people in Portapique, Nova Scotia.
Canada’s rate of firearm homicides is 0.5 per 100,000 people, versus the US rate of 4.12, the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) said in a 2021 analysis.
Dunblane and UK reform
A gunman killed 16 children and their teacher in Dunblane, Scotland, in 1996, prompting a public campaign that led to Britain adopting some of the strictest gun controls in the world. Within two years, new laws effectively banned civilians from owning handguns.
The United Kingdom’s rate of gun homicides is 0.04 per 100,000 people, the IHME calculates.
“It’s clear that those who already own guns have bought more, while those who don’t own guns are becoming more numerous. Polling confirms this, with the proportion of Australian households with a firearm falling by 75 percent in recent decades,” Ayer says.
SIFA CEO James Walsh has been sought for comment.
The home page on SIFA’s website says, “Research has shown that legal shooting activities have positive health, social and cultural benefits”. In its press releases calling for deregulation, praising the NSW decision to junk the Adler ban and so forth, there is no mention of Texas or the virulent debate over gun reform in the US.
Callum Foote is a journalist and Revolving Doors editor for Michael West Media. He has studied the impact of undue corporate influence over Australian policy decisions and the impact this has on popular interests.