Psychology, Psychiatry, Firearms Suicide and Mental Health - Part 1 The Loose Cannon
When the 1996 laws came about following the tragedy at Port Arthur, most shooters were angry at the loss to most shooters of semi-automatic firearms. To me this had been on the cards since the Strathfield massacre, and I could see that the biggest problem would be a human rights issue centred upon the consequence of ‘firearms ownership being a privilege and not a right’ and how we would be treated down the track.
Suicide is not a pretty topic. But it, and mass violence, which in many instances is intended to achieve ‘suicide by cop’, is the only area where an arguable case can be mounted that Firearms Laws appear to have had some effect.
I say ‘appear’ because like everyone who lives in the Country, I know of accidents along straight stretches of country road that I have had my doubts about, whereas a death by firearm is less ambiguous.
Interestingly, it is clear from the instructive case of AML v Commissioner of Police NSW. (2013) NSWADT 5 (10 January 2013) that not every attempt at suicide will justify loss of a firearms licence.
‘Not every suicide attempt will justify the revocation of the person’s firearms licence. The Tribunal must assess the likelihood of attempted suicide or self-harm again, and if that happens, the likelihood that a Firearm will be used.
The Tribunal did not accept the Commissioners submission that before the reasonable cause test or the public interest test can be satisfied a person needs to enjoy a lengthy period of stability following treatment’.
A lot will depend upon the facts and the nature of psychological or psychiatric evidence available.
The above approach is consistent with the National Firearms Agreement resolution covering mental health and shooting, which provided:
- mental or physical fitness - reliable evidence of a mental or physical condition which would render the applicant unsuitable for owning, possessing or using a firearm.
- That in regard to the latter point, a balance needs to be struck between the rights of the individual to privacy and fair treatment, and the responsibility of authorities, on behalf of the community, to prevent danger to the individual and the wider community.
This requires that the mental condition that the shooter suffers from render the applicant unsuitable for owning a firearm. Not all mental conditions do this.
One area where I do not believe that NSW Police have complied with the National Firearms Agreement is in terms of balancing the rights of the individual versus responsibility of the authorities.
If you, or a mate of yours find themselves in this position, do not be too quick to jump to the conclusion that the case is not winnable. You may loose the decision at first instance, but be prepared to keep appealing, and ensure you have good quality evidence. More on that later.
We all know that if we are mentally ill, and do not advise the Registry, we are no longer a ‘fit and proper person’ to hold a firearms licence, however, the system has created a Catch 22.
Because there is a perception that you may not be treated fairly by the Registry, many will decline to seek help, after all, mental illness is a diagnosis based against a set of criteria set out in a diagnostic manual, and if you have not been diagnosed you can lawfully present yourself as not being mentally ill.
I recall during the last drought talking to a Psychiatrist who practiced in SW NSW who was at the time treating a firearms owning client of mine. He had little positive to say about the gun laws. He believed they were discouraging farmers from coming in and receiving treatment that would quickly alleviate their sense of hopelessness and the risk of self-harm.
This is consistent with my observations as a legal practitioner in this area.
What I have a philosophical problem with is the ‘privilege and not a right’ issue. Why is driving a vehicle not treated the same way? Many drivers suffer from medical or psychiatric conditions that can cause accidents or injury, yet the test applied by the Motor Registries is far more lenient.
Why? One is just as dead if one is killed by a nut with a gun at Port Arthur, as one would be if a severe bus crash occurred as a result of a bus driver having missed an insulin shot or had a heart attack at the wheel.
My biggest problem with the Registries handling of mental health, is that they are fond of using past behaviour as a predictor of future behaviour when it suits them, but are less keen to use it when it does not.
For example, I have often see Registry staff speculate upon what shall happen if a person stops taking their medication, when the person has been totally compliant in treatment and there is no evidence that they would cease taking medication, and indeed, past evidence indicates that they would do so.
Surely, in this situation the inference to be drawn should be, that an individual has acted responsibly and sought treatment of his own accord in the past, and follows to the letter the treatment regime provided by his Doctor’s. This behaviour should lead to the inference being drawn that they shall comply with treatment in the future.
Adoption of such a path by Registry would encourage shooters who are perhaps going through a rough spot, to seek help early, and surrender their firearms and licence for a period of time, with knowledge that they are not going to have to go to a lot of expense and trouble in order to get their licence back once they return to good health.
This problem has I believe been worsened by the approach of the Royal Australian & New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, which discourages its members from writing reports on behalf of shooters.
Simon Munslow is a solicitor located on the ACT/ NSW border. He has a lifelong interest in shooting, having acquired his first firearm at the age of nine, and has had an active interest in firearms law since writing a thesis on the topic over thirty years ago at University
Simon Munslow practices extensively in Firearms Law matters throughout Australia.
He is a regular contributor to the Australian Sporting Shooter magazine’s website on Firearms law matters, has published articles on firearms reviews and firearms law, and occasionally is asked to comment in the broader media on firearms matters.
He either appears in person, or ‘stage manages’ the conduct of matters that he arranges to be handled by local lawyers who often are not familiar with firearms law and procedure.
This article is written for general information only and does not constitute advice.
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