More guns than adults in some Hunter towns as shooters stockpile almost 100,000 registered firearms

FOR SALE: Thornton gun shop owner Chris Barrett said shooting sports were growing in popularity and he was not surprised at the significant increase in gun ownership in the Hunter. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers
FOR SALE: Thornton gun shop owner Chris Barrett said shooting sports were growing in popularity and he was not surprised at the significant increase in gun ownership in the Hunter. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers

THE Hunter is gun mad - and proud of it - with shooters stockpiling almost 100,000 registered firearms.

A Fairfax Media investigation can reveal that the number of registered firearms in the region has increased by about 30,000 - or a third - in the past five years.

In 2012 there were almost 70,000 registered firearms in the Hunter, compared to 99,502 in July last year. This equates to, on average, an additional 16 guns per day.

In the same time, the number of people with gun licences jumped from 17,400 to 26,500, a 52 per cent increase.

There is also a growing number of Hunter postcodes where guns outnumber adults.

Three rural postcodes covering Merriwa, Aberdeen and Willow Tree all have more guns than adults.

Data obtained from NSW Police under freedom of information laws reveals Merriwa’s postcode has 1655 registered firearms shared by 1609 adults and Aberdeen’s has 684 guns shared by 567 adults.

Gun Control Australia chairwoman Samantha Lee said the region had a “Rambo culture”, she described as “worrying”.

“Gun numbers in the community are accumulating at a rapid rate per licence holder, particularly in areas like the Hunter,” she said.

“There has been a significant rise in gun culture and we’re concerned public safety could be compromised.”

But Thornton gun shop owner and former NSW Firearms Dealers’ Association president Chris Barrett said tough restrictions on firearm licences meant “the Rambo element” had been pushed into “other areas” including pig dogging and archery. 

“Some of these people couldn't get a licence and so were pushed out of shooting sports,” he said.

“People getting involved now have to jump though so many hoops to get a licence they have to be committed to the sport.”

Under the law anyone who wants a licence must demonstrate a “genuine reason” for owning a gun. This is not hard for landholders and farmers.

But many urban shooters demonstrate their “genuine reason” for gun ownership by joining an approved shooting club, as the agreement dictates.

This has led to new members into gun clubs, including those affiliated with the Sporting Shooters' Association of Australia (SSAA).

The Newcastle branch of the SSAA has about 5500 members, one of the largest in NSW.

An SSAA spokesman said just as golfers require a variety of clubs, “serious sports shooters require a variety of firerams”.

“It would appear that in spite of the number of legally owned and registered firearms in our suburbs, those hell bent on removing all firearms from society find it very annoying that licensed, law abiding firearms owners are not a threat to public safety,” he said. 

Mr Barrett said he was not surprised at the increase in registered firearms owners in the Hunter.

The reality is more people are killed by motor vehicles than firearms, vastly more. It’s all about the nut behind the butt. It’s the mental attitude of the person that is the issue.

Chris Barrett

“People who aren’t involved in it don’t understand the depth and breadth of shooting sports,” he said.

“The reality is more people are killed by motor vehicles than firearms, vastly more. It’s all about the nut behind the butt. It’s the mental attitude of the person that is the issue.”

The Greens estimate NSW will have one million registered guns by 2020.

There are more than 100 postcodes with more than 2400 guns and more than 100 individuals who own between 70 and 320 guns.

A person in the Cardiff postcode, 2285, with 310 registered firearms was second in the state in individual gun ownership.

Ms Lee said Australia's tough gun laws, introduced by John Howard, had been significantly watered down by state governments since they were introduced under the National Firearms Agreement in the days after the Port Arthur massacre in 1996.

According to research by Philip Alpers, an associate professor of public health at the University of Sydney, all Australian states have succumbed to pressure from gun owners, or the parties that represent them, to water down some aspects of the agreement.

The report, issued late last year and commissioned by Gun Control Australia, found that NSW was non-compliant in allowing the use of silencers, in allowing non-professional pest control shooters to use high-powered semi-automatic weapons and permitting unlicensed shooters to have firearm training.

Gun Control Australia has been pushing for a limit on the number of firearms per licence holder so there are fewer guns being stored in the one place.

“I think it’s a mixture of forgetting what happened 20 years ago at Port Arthur and the government wanting the gun vote,” Ms Lee said.

“The concern is we’re going to go back to pre-Port Arthur days.”

The Newcastle Herald reported in October that almost 500 guns had been stolen across the Hunter in the past five years and police fear they are flowing to the black market.

In the latest in a string of raids on the region’s gun owners, a cache of weapons – including nine shotguns, six rifles and 200 rounds of ammunition – were stolen from an Upper Hunter property in October.

Upper Hunter farmer Ben Ridge said firearms were a necessity for people living on the land.

Mr Ridge said he wasn’t at all surprised that firearms outnumbered adults in some towns. 

“Wild dogs are a huge problem is some areas, they just decimate livestock and without guns they would be an even bigger problem,” he said.

“But I do think keeping a lot of guns isn’t a great idea either, it can definitely make you a target for thieves which no-one wants.”

CONCERN: Gun Control Australia chairwoman Samantha Lee fears gun laws have been weakened in NSW.

CONCERN: Gun Control Australia chairwoman Samantha Lee fears gun laws have been weakened in NSW.

A quarter of the donations received by the Shooters and Fishers Party in the 2014-15 financial year came from the Hunter, according to funding disclosures.

The Hunter District Hunting Club, based in Cessnock, donated $41,313 to the party. The club did not respond to requests for comment.

Ms Lee said there had been a “significant increase” in recreational shooters, a market that was growing rapidly.

Mr Barrett said shooting was all about “respect, responsibility and discipline”.

“It is a sport dominated primarily by men, but so is cricket and rugby, but just like these sports there are more and more women becoming involved,” he said.

“Regulation of firearms has made people more responsible and accountable for their actions, unfortunately not much else in society does that.

“The problem is not with licensed firearm owners, the problem is with unlicensed firearms and people with intent to do something wrong with them.”