The Northern Territory is an interesting chunk of Australia. With only a couple of hundred thousand inhabitants, it is over a million square kilometres of northern Australia. Last week it published a Gazette notice under which an acting Police Commissioner purported to ‘reclassify’ a range of straight-pull rifles into classifications not available to sporting shooters, hunters, and many farmers. Many of these rifles were already owned by sporting shooters, hunters and farmers. There is also no known incident of these firearms being criminally misused. Most of the Australian shooting community is head-scratching. What happened?

Straight-pull rifles are old but popular

A straight-pull rifle is one where the bolt or action of the rifle can be operated directly by pulling it back in a straight-line and either releasing it (where a spring pushes it forward again) or pushing it forward manually. You can see from their wiki entry (click) they have existed since the nineteenth century. Straight-pull ain’t new technology.

Why the hate from firearms registries?

Firearms registries in Australia regularly make a move to use their administrative powers to restrict, ban or prohibit ownership of firearms that are legal, but which they impulsively decide they don’t like. For examples, click here to read about the Warwick WFA1, click here for the Wedgetail pistol, click here to read about farmers and pistols, and you can find a dozen other examples online.

The cultural tide of firearms registries in Australia is to progressively try to ban more and more firearms that are lawfully and safely held by licensed shooters. People who doubt this have been on the wrong side of history since 1996, and also missed the ban of lever-action shotguns where none had been used criminally.

What happened in NT?

Beside the trend and culture described above, we have glimpses of the political dimensions in NT.

First, we know the Feds and the State registries all share views on firearms and even sit on each other’s committees to ban firearms (click here). We know the Australian Federal Police spend a lot of time helping the State registries ban firearms (click here).

Second, the new Australian Federal Police Commissioner Reece Kershaw is the recent former NT Police Commissioner. This is the same Reece Kershaw who, as an Assistant Commissioner, was involved in and picked up the pieces from the jailing of his predecessor NT Police Commissioner for corruption. Mr Kershaw can dance politically.

Third, in the short interim period between Kershaw and the new permanent NT Police Commissioner, a local deputy (Michael Murphy) signs a bureaucratically-driven reclassification (euphemism for banning) of straight-pull rifles (click here, page 4). Who is Michael Murphy? The guy who didn’t make the cut for permanent NT Police Commissioner, which was gifted to the highly politically correct Jamie Chalker. Licensed owners of straight-pull rifles subsequently received friendly letters telling them they need to get rid of the rifles.

Fourth, the Gazette notice was published on 6 November 2019 (click here to read, it’s on page 4). On 11 November the new Commissioner commences his role. It’s almost like a lame-duck acting Commissioner signed this notice so there was no current leader to blame. In any event, Sgt Amee Third of the NT registry has put her name to at least one confiscation letter.

The Kershaw Angle

We wonder if this experiment would’ve been tried in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), where Reece Kershaw’s Australian Federal Police have exclusive policing jurisdiction. However, in the ACT there is a lot of scrutiny on the registry, and it is more distant with the operational AFP, making experiments like this more difficult. NT Police, by contrast, is tiny.

If this process to reclassify was kicked-off under Kershaw in NT, and with his approval, then this is essentially his mess.

If the process was already underway from the NT registry, then we note that acting Commissioner (being a Deputy Commissioner under Kershaw) could either have been influenced by Kershaw’s status or the existence of Kershaw’s pre-approval of the process. This also makes it Kershaw’s mess.

In either event, there are two clear angles under which Kershaw kicked off this federal experiment in firearms reclassification before he went on to become AFP Commissioner. What do you think his attitude to firearms will be as AFP Commissioner? We don’t like our odds.

Legal curiousity

It is by no means clear that the NT Police Commissioner has an unlimited power to reclassify firearms. Section 8 of the NT’s Firearms Act provides:

(1)     The Commissioner may, by Gazette notice, declare:
(a)     a firearm or a type of firearm to be a firearm of a particular category of firearm; or
(b)     a firearm or a type of firearm to be a firearm that is exempt from the operation of this Act.

When read in conjunction with the remainder of the Act, including the schedules that define firearm categories (A, B, C, D), we are left wondering…

Does the NT’s Firearms Act actually offer the NT Police Commissioner an unlimited power to declare any firearm to be a different category from what the Act defines? Or is it a provision to give licensees certainty, where the Commissioner can put it beyond doubt that a firearm is a particular category under the act?

Hypothetically, could the Commissioner declare an air rifle to be a category D firearm? We don’t think so. The scope of these powers is a question for the NT Supreme Court, if owners aren’t too intimated to get there.

The sad history in Australia is that State registries are administrative law bullies (often without a shred of real law). They also hate firearms dealers (click here) and talk in the most toxic tones internally.