The SA Firearms Branch: a registry basket-case

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If you want to know how bad a firearms registry can be, look at South Australia.

In his most recent Annual Report to SA Parliament, Acting Police Ombudsman, Michael Grant, devoted more than two pages to a deplorable culture within the SA Firearms Branch which seems to be tolerated all the way up the chain, to the Chief Commissioner.

His report reveals incompetence, arrogance and contempt for licenced shooters who have done nothing wrong.

His report relates to the same registry which tried to put a stop to the .338 Lapau, lobbied its minister for a blanket ban on all lever actions – rifles and shotguns, and decided to change the rules on whether shooters should get second PTAs (click here to read the story by Sporting Shooter Magazine).

It is a must read.

It also backs our growing view that we need to have a serious look at the qualifications and experience of those responsible for firearms policy and the management of our registries.

Mr Grant is to be commended for bringing this to light. Click here to download his report (firearms start on page 18)

Over-zealous enforcement of the Firearms Act.

I have received a number of complaints concerning the operations of the Firearms Branch of the SA Police in my tenure as the Acting Police Ombudsman relating to the way in which the Firearms Branch enforces the Act and deals with the public who hold firearms licences and who own firearms.

The oft-cited mantra is that firearms ownership is a privilege, not a right. However, the same mantra might apply equally to the driving of a motor vehicle on a public road. I make the observation that the ownership of firearms is a “right” by virtue of the Firearms Act if one is the holder of a valid firearms licence. That right may be removed by administrative action, but such administrative action should not be in any way capricious and should be validly and lawfully exercised.

The complaints I have received in the main have related to the delays which occur in dealing with the Firearms Branch, and the perceived lack of any sense of dealing with matters in a timely fashion. The complaints included what appeared to be an ingrained habit of the Branch in either ignoring correspondence completely, or purporting to answer only after several letters have been sent on the same topic and several months have passed. At one stage I was informed by the Firearms Branch, following a complaint, of a reorganisation which would supposedly lead to better customer service. This does not appear to me to have occurred.

It is also apparent to me that the culture at the Firearms Branch is one of “zero tolerance” when it comes to any infringement of the Firearms Act, however minor or inconsequential. It seems to me, that in cases of inadvertent minor offending by a member of the public with no history of previous offending, the use of a “caution” would be a better option than a prosecution for a criminal offence.

Case 1

The complainant, the holder of a firearms licence and the owner of firearms was visited by police from the Firearms Branch, ostensibly for the purpose of a “random” audit.

However, the real reason for the visit was the belief on the part of a supervisor within the Firearms Branch that the complainant had made some kind of threat against the RSPCA.

That belief was without any foundation in fact. The officers attending made a vague reference to someone thinking that the complainant could pose a threat, and said that they would seize the complainant’s firearms for “safe keeping.” They also issued a “caution” to the complainant, on the basis that 3 of the firearms seized were not properly secured.

When the police who issued the caution reported what they had done to their supervisor at the Firearms Branch they were ordered to return and inform the complainant that he would be reported for a breach of the Firearms Act in that his firearms were not properly secured. As a part of that process of reporting the complainant for a criminal offence, they took a “swab” from him to obtain a sample of his DNA.

It was discovered later that the complainant’s method of storing his firearms (in a stone cellar secured by a solid wooden door with handguns locked in a steel safe) had been deemed sufficient some years earlier by members of the Firearms Branch. The charges laid against the complainant were ultimately discontinued and his firearms returned, but not until a year later.

As regards the DNA “swab” taken from the complainant, a disturbing sequence of events followed. About a month after the initial swab was taken, the supervisor at the Firearms Branch learned that the warning required by law to be delivered to the complainant prior to the taking of the swab had not been delivered by the reporting officers. It was feared by the supervisor that this would make the taking (and continued retention) of the swab possibly unlawful. He decided that another swab should be obtained. Firearms Branch staff were then directed to obtain another sample. Those staff then went to the complainant’s home and ordered him to attend at a police station so that another sample could be taken.

Not surprisingly, the complainant declined to attend as he questioned the legality of the police conduct to that time. The police responded by applying for a warrant which would permit them to take the complainant to a police station and obtain a DNA sample. By accident, the police applying for the warrant applied for the wrong type of warrant. A warrant of apprehension to appear before a court was issued instead. The complainant was arrested on that warrant and placed in police cells. When he protested, he was finally released after six hours in custody.

This did not deter the Firearms Branch. Some eight months after his arrest on the wrongfully issued warrant, the complainant was directed to attend at the Elizabeth police station for the purpose of the taking of a further DNA sample. Two weeks after that preparations were in hand to obtain another warrant, this time the correct one, which would have seen the complainant again arrested and taken to a police station for the forcible taking of a DNA sample which had already been taken upon his arrest one year earlier. Before the warrant was applied for police prosecutors discontinued the charges against the complainant, on the basis that there was no reasonable prospect of proving the offence charged. The plan to obtain a further DNA sample was then abandoned.

Commentary

It is not unfair in my view to describe what happened to the complainant in this case as a debacle. The situation regarding the DNA sample is an example of a lack of common sense and a lack of judgment, even ignoring the application to a court for the wrong type of warrant and the subsequent detention in the police cells of the complainant. The DNA sample was in no way connected with proof of the commission of any offence. It was required only for storage within the police database.

The seizure of the firearms from the complainant was based on the flimsiest of evidence which in fact was proved to be without any foundation. The instigation of a criminal prosecution of the complainant for not securing his firearms was a poor decision and was directed by someone who was not present when the firearms were located, and who “second guessed” the decision of the officers at the scene to issue a “caution”. The Firearms Branch on two prior audits of the complainant had raised no objection to the
firearms being stored in precisely the same way. If the view of those within the Firearms Branch had changed since that time, then common sense and fairness demanded that the complainant be “cautioned” and given the opportunity to comply with a different regime.

I wish to make clear that I make no criticism if the police seize firearms first and then ask questions later, even if they are acting upon information which is sketchy at best. In such circumstances the issue of public safety is paramount. However, if all it takes for someone to have their firearms removed is a complaint which may or may not have any basis in fact, then it behoves the police to assess the credibility of the complaint without undue delay. On the facts of this case, the suspicion that the complainant had made threats against someone was without foundation, and could easily have been found to be
so in a short period of time.

Case 2

The complainant complained that he had been reported for a breach of the Firearms Act in that he had possession without an appropriate licence, of a “prescribed” firearm, namely a firearm which had been “cut down” and reduced in length.

The circumstances were that a person known to the complainant’s parents had
attempted to commit suicide. His parents, following that attempt, became aware of the firearm and asked the complainant, whom they knew had a firearms licence, whether he would take possession of the firearm for safety’s sake. The complainant collected the firearm and locked it in his safe. He then contacted the Firearms Branch on the telephone and was told to take the firearm to his local police station. He then attempted unsuccessfully to contact his local police station at Two Wells. He then contacted the police at Elizabeth. Eventually a sergeant from Golden Grove attended at his home and purported to “seize” the firearm from him. A month later a member of the Firearms Branch came to his home and “reported” the complainant for being in possession of a prescribed firearm without a licence -a major indictable serious offence punishable by up to 10 years in prison. As part of the process of “reporting” the complainant a “swab” of his DNA was taken from him.

The complainant complained on the basis that he believed he had been victimised for attempting to help the police in circumstances where he thought he was doing the right thing by securing the firearm after its owner suffered a “mental health” incident.

Commentary

I conducted my own inquiry into the complaint, and for that purpose spoke with the officer concerned and with a senior officer at the Firearms Branch. I was satisfied that the officer dealing with the complainant behaved in a courteous fashion and indeed recommended that no action be taken against the complainant when he submitted his report. However, the complainant was treated as a person who had committed a very serious criminal offence, including the taking from him of a sample of his DNA. In my view ordinary common sense should have applied and it did not. I asked a senior officer within the Firearms Branch whether a hypothetical firearms dealer, to whom the firearm had been surrendered, and who had no licence to deal in prescribed firearms, would have been reported for an offence in similar circumstances. The answer was that the dealer would not have been reported, even though, technically speaking he had committed an offence. It was conceded that there was no difference in principle between the hypothetical dealer and the complainant.

I found no fault with an individual officer. I recommended that Firearms Branch practices and procedures be updated to make it clear that a member of the public, regardless of whether he or she held a firearms licence, should not be treated as an offender when, acting in good faith, he or she informs police of their possession of a firearm they wish to surrender. I recommended that a similar update be made to the SA Police General Orders.

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12 Comments.

  1. Wow! That’s a real eye opener! I knew it was bad but not to the point of grave injustices. We all have the right to be presumed innocent until our guilt is proven beyond a reasonable doubt. There needs to be a greater level of oversight in these situations. A recommendation for serious charges should go immediately to investigators. Certainly this DNA swabbing should never happen. That’s disgusting and those blokes should be well within their rights to sue for harassment and deprivation of liberty! There’s no way tge jackass who instigated these actions should escape prosecution him or herself.

  2. wheres the lawyers??

  3. This is like keystone cops. I don’t see why a legal firearms owner is treated like a member of a bikie gang, as we are not the enemey. It seems to me that the police have a completely wrong mindset when it comes to legal firearms owners. Why are some peoples guns and storage inspected “at random” when I have never been inspected? It seems to me the “random” inspection is wielded like a punishment to a legal firearms owner to intimidate and make life difficult as you would for a criminal.

  4. And I’m certain that this is just the “TIP” of the iceberg, regardless of which state.

  5. Here is one to ponder police officers in an accident on a country road. Driver is first to come along before ambulance and tow truck etc .Driver is known to police in accident. Unable to move driver offers to lock there revolvers in his glove box until other officers arrive onsite . Police agree as tow trucks CFA spectators etc arriving . Police arrive take posession of guns . Should the driver be prosecuted or congratulated ?
    Thankfully common sense ruled and the police were greatfull for his assistance .And no swab……

  6. Where is the NSW based Ombudsman. I can count the amount of times I’ve been throughly and still to this day, screwed over by the NSW FR.

  7. And they wonder why people hate em’

  8. And criminals steal guns and get 60 days jail… unreal

  9. There would be no need for surprise inspections of firearms storage at all if there was a requirement to have the correct storage in place before being granted a Permit to Acquire for the first firearm. The confirmation that the correct storage being is in place could be done by local police or a JP inspecting on behalf of both parties and submitting a police Statutory Declaration which has the required detail (including photographs) entered thereon to satisfy the legislative requirements. Currently it is not clear in SA as whether police are after prosecutions or compliance. I think the spirit of SA Firearms Legislation should be aimed at compliance rather than prosecutions. There are cases where police have visited at 11.30 at night to check storage – hardly at “any reasonable hour”.
    A recent District Court case here has seen the Judge spell out what “any reasonable hour” means. It means “reasonable to both parties, not just to the police” – This means to me that the police should advise the firearms owner that they wish to visit to inspect the manner in which the firearms are stored and then agree on a mutually acceptable time to do this rather than turn up unannounced.

  10. Im pretty sure none of the other registries are significanlty different, I know for a fact nsw misplaces forms and lies about it to prolong certain unwanted applications.

  11. Yes a very interesting article this one and I totally agree with everything stated by the Ombudsman. I’m a shooter and a firearms collector and I wear the same uniform as that worn by the officers mentioned in his report and it doesn’t surprise me one little bit. The issue is management and in particular very poor management by very poor quality Commissioned Officers pushing their own agendas, working on their resumes and trying to climb the Police corporate ladder at the expense of the licensed shooters and firearms owners.

  12. Moved from QLD with 2 rifles and applied for SA firearm licence. Have owned various rifles for 50 years and had a stint as professional shooter with no incidents. Rifle in question is a .22 rimfire I used for target shooting and want to give to my grandson whom I care for. I’ve no doubt shooting the real deal while supervised on a range is far more beneficial than playing the rubbish on the xbox. Other is a .243 from my pro shooter days. Paid the $220 and completed the test and was advised to put rifles in storage in case my Qld licence expired prior to getting the SA licence. Told to expect a 4 to 6 week delay after test results submitted. It’s almost 6 months later and $480 in storage fees and the firearms branch phone is continually ‘line busy’ or off the hook. Ironically the gunshop owner whinged long and loud about the 15 minutes of paperwork involved although the storage service is advertised on his website. Money for nothing I’d say. Nothing more than a rort. Wonder why law abiding citizens are tempted to do the wrong thing. Stick the bloody rifles where the sun don’t shine SA. I just want a license so I can sell them to pay for the storage and head back to QLD where legitimate gun owners aren’t treated with such contempt.

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