by Emily Gallagher,
Emily Gallagher is a PhD Candidate at The Australian National University’s School of History
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In April 1931, nine-year-old Jack Foster of Oatley Bay, a suburb in Sydney’s south, was pretending to be a condemned prisoner of war when his friend accidently shot him with a pea rifle. According to later accounts, Jack had been standing about eight yards from the two-man firing party when the bullet hit him in the chest. He was killed instantly.

Six years later, 12-year-old Guy Keatch was fatally shot in the stomach by one of his playmates in Queanbeyan, a town near Canberra. They had been playing bushrangers¾though later accounts reported cowboys and Indians¾when Guy had stepped out from behind an apple tree and was hit by a bullet from another boy’s gun. Later investigations revealed that the 15-year-old shooter had been firing his pea rifle indiscriminately. The disturbed Coroner, Rex Boardman, concluded that the Government should “pass a law imposing a heavy penalty on any person under 18 found using or possessing firearms.”

This was not the first time that such a suggestion had been made in New South Wales (NSW). The Government had considered similar restrictions at least as early as 1905 after several children were accidently killed with firearms. These unfortunate “accidents and fatalities”, observed one minister in 1905, “are occurring daily, if not hourly, throughout the state” and “it is time we had some reasonable legislation.” The reasonable legislation was the Gun License Act 1920 which required all gun owners to hold licenses and restricted gun ownership and use for persons under 18. Unsurprisingly, the legislation proved impractical and highly unpopular and was repealed in 1927.

In the 1930s, the debate continued and Boardman was one among a chorus of voices who were again demanding more stringent control of guns in NSW. Several firearm-related accidents involving young people in the early years of the decade, as well as an increase in gun-related crime, reopened conversation about how the Government was acting to protect public safety.  

Although it was not until the 1996 National Firearms Agreement that Australian state governments unanimously agreed to place tight control on semi-automatic and fully automatic weapons, and restrict and monitor the availability of all other firearms, NSW did amend and enforce restrictions on guns earlier in the century. In fact, long before the Port Arthur massacre of 1996, Australian’s were considering how they might better limit unnecessary gun ownership. At the heart of the conversation were a series of tragic, sometimes fatal, accidents in Australian backyards.

A young boy, believed to be Ben Shearer, aiming a (toy?) gun, approx. 1919 (State Library of South Australia, PRG-1619-2-7)

During the 1930s, a number of children were killed or injured while playing with guns. Pea rifles, muzzle-loading weapons named after the small ball that they discharged, were often responsible. In 1935, three-year-old Barbara Power of Goondah, died on her way to the Yass District Hospital after shooting herself in the head with her uncle’s pea rifle. The same year, Beverly Wood was shot in the side by her younger brother while they were playing in a family friend’s house near Ballarat. She was admitted to hospital in a critical condition. As Terry King has observed: such incidents were actually “a fairly typical and all-to-common firearm accident¾children fiddling with a loaded weapon and unintentionally discharging it.”

Public concern about the number of gun-related accidents among children did not go unnoticed by the Government. Inspired by successful gun legislation in South Australia and the repelled Gun License Act 1920, Colonial Secretary Frank Chaffey proposed a Firearms Bill in the NSW Legislative Assembly in March 1930. The bill was fiercely debated by the Assembly and the Senate before it was eventually withdrawn.

Six years later, Chaffey again proposed the bill, with only minor amendments. Similar concerns were raised regarding the inconvenience of the proposed changes to law-abiding citizens and the necessity of the legislation, however, the bill was eventually passed. “Generally speaking”, noted the Honorary Marsden Manfred in 1936, “there is a real call for the licensing and control of firearms.” Though he admitted that the legislation might cause some inconvenience to the public, it was “relatively small, in view of the advantages to be conferred upon the community as a whole in having a proper and systematic licensing and control of firearms held by all persons in the State”.

The new legislative scheme, which included the introduction of the Firearms Act 1936, and several amendments to existing legislation including the Pistol License Act 1927 and Police Offences Act 1901, resulted in two main changes to the State’s gun laws. The first prohibited the use of firearms, including pea and air guns, by children under the age of 14 without the supervision of a responsible adult. By extension, it introduced a penalty for any persons selling or lending any type of firearm to a child under the age limit.

The second change involved an alteration to the Pistol License Act of 1927. Previously, licenses had only been required for pistols with a barrel less than nine inches. Licenses were now required for any concealable gun, regardless of the length of the barrel, and children under the age of 18 were not eligible for licenses. Firearms dealers were also required to keep record of the distribution and sale of pistols. The changes came into force on 1 January 1937 and a number of children and adults were soon charged and convicted under the legislation.  

Firearms Act No. 30, 1936

While these statutes introduced several important changes to guns laws in New South Wales, they did not seriously restrict the distribution or ownership of non-concealable firearms. Calls for legislation by government officials, coroners, concerned parents, police officers and the public more broadly, did not make any recommendations that would seriously restrict the availability of rifles or shot guns for adults. In a letter to the editor of the Daily Herald in 1936, one staunch critic to the bill considered the “only redeeming feature in the Government’s proposal is the abolition of the use of air guns to children.”

Today, Australians remember the Port Arthur massacre of 1996 as the event that first provoked the country’s current commitment to its gun laws. However, this focus, only continually revived in the wake of gun-related tragedies in the United States, risks obscuring a longer history of Australian firearm reform. Not least, New South Wales’ debate over the Firearms Act 1936.

In fact, many of the concerns that were raised in the 1930s still have currency today. Gun legislation still fails to prevent accidental child shootings in Australia. Only last month, 12-year-old Tom Ings was visiting a friend’s house in Young, New South Wales, when a .22 calibre rifle was discharged into his jaw and shoulder. The injury was believed to be self-inflicted and was the fourth accidental shooting in Australia in September 2017. As Australia continues to talk about, reflect and criticise its firearms laws, it is important to remember that even after many decades of debate and reform, things are not perfect here either.

Citation: Emily Gallagher. The little people of NSW’s Firearms Act 1936. Australian Policy and History. November 2017.

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The little people of NSW’s Firearms Act 1936. Australian Policy and History