Firearms regulation

Overview

There are gaps in how the Firearms Registry administers the firearms licencing and registration scheme for existing licence holders, according to a report released today by the Auditor-General for New South Wales, Margaret Crawford. These gaps reduce the Registry’s effectiveness in regulating firearms use and ownership. 

While the Firearms Registry has systems to promptly update details in the firearms register for changes in firearm ownership and for criminal or anti-social behaviour of licence holders, some key information, including addresses, is not accurate or up-to date. 'This exposes a critical gap in the Registry’s data on the location of licence holders and their firearms,' Ms Crawford said. 

The Firearms Registry may also be making unsound or inconsistent administrative decisions due to a lack of clear internal policies and guidance. These decisions include licence suspensions or revocations, assessing reasons for the acquisition of firearms, and initiating enforcement actions for breaches by licence holders. Ms Crawford noted that 'these gaps mean the Registry cannot be confident it conducts aspects of its licencing activities effectively.'

The report’s recommendations aim to improve the integrity of the data in the register and ensure that the Firearms Registry is making sound and consistent decisions in regulating firearms use and ownership.

Executive summary

Firearms used by the general public in NSW are regulated through the Firearms Act 1996 (NSW) (the Act) and the Firearms Regulation 2017 (NSW) (Regulation). In October 2018, there were over 237,500 firearm licence holders and just over one million registered firearms in NSW.

The Act and Regulation reflect the National Firearms Agreement reached by all Australian jurisdictions in 1996 and confirmed in 2017. This Agreement sets out the minimum requirements for regulating firearms. The Act recognises that possessing and using firearms are privileges conditional on the overriding need to ensure public safety.

The NSW Police Force (NSW Police), which includes the Firearms Registry (the Registry), is responsible for administering the Act and Regulation, and for operating the NSW firearms licensing and registration scheme. Relevant third parties such as approved clubs, firearms dealers and shooting ranges also carry some administrative and oversight responsibilities under the Act and Regulation.

The role of the Registry includes administering the following requirements under the Act and Regulation that are relevant to this audit:

  • licence conditions
  • licence suspensions and revocations
  • initiating seizure of firearms
  • assessing permits to acquire firearms
  • administering the good reason test
  • maintaining the register of firearms
  • approving alternative safe storage arrangements.

The Registry's other activities identified in this report support its regulatory responsibilities under the NSW Government framework for better regulation.

This audit assessed how well the Registry administers the requirements of the Act and Regulation for existing firearms licence holders. To effectively administer these requirements, the Registry should have:

  • a reliable database that supports the firearms licensing and registration scheme
  • appropriate risk-based policies and procedures for the Registry’s operation that are consistent with the Act and Regulation.

We did not assess the Registry’s processes in assessing and issuing firearms licences to new applicants or renewing licences of existing licence holders. We also did not examine the administrative actions conducted by police officers who are not part of the Registry.

See Section 1 for details on the role of the Registry. See Appendix six for details of the audit.

Conclusion
There are gaps in how the Registry administers important requirements for existing licence holders which reduce the Registry’s ability to take an effective risk-based approach to regulating firearm ownership.
The Registry has some good processes to monitor and apply changes to the register.
The Registry is promptly advised of the sale of firearms or potential criminal or anti-social behaviour activity of licence holders and it promptly updates relevant information in the register.
Information in the register is not accurate or up-to-date.
Licence holders do not always advise the Registry of their address changes within the time required. The Registry does not have processes to efficiently identify these changes if not advised. This exposes a critical gap in the Registry's data on the location of some firearms. While the Registry has implemented a number of programs for checking the accuracy of data in the register, some of these programs have either ceased or been severely curtailed. For example, the Registry was conducting various checks on the accuracy of the data relating to the description of firearms in the register and correcting errors. These checks ceased after July 2017, with only around 50 per cent of the register checked.

There is an increased risk of the Registry making unsound or inconsistent administrative decisions.
The Registry lacks appropriate policies and guidance for important administrative decisions and sanctions. These include making decisions about licence suspensions and revocations, assessing good reasons for acquiring firearms, and initiating some enforcement actions. There is also limited review of these critical decisions.
Regulatory context
The Commissioner of Police’s response to this report (Appendix one) indicates he disagrees with some of our findings and recommendations based on his view that the firearms licensing and registration scheme is a ‘co-regulatory model’. The conclusion and recommendations of this report are based on the provisions in the Act which indicate that the Commissioner, and through him the NSW Police Force (including the Firearms Registry), is the responsible regulator. We acknowledge that other stakeholders have obligations to undertake certain actions in accordance with the Act and Regulation. This is further discussed below. 

1. Key findings

Address details in the register are not up-to-date

Keeping the register up-to-date with address changes for licence holders and firearms storage locations is critical to public and police safety. We found that address details in the register may be out-of-date for up to five years. Over the three years to October 2018, an average of around seven per cent (or 200) per month of licence renewal notices were returned to the Registry due to incorrect addresses.

The Registry is not proactive in ensuring that address details in the register are up to date if licence holders fail to notify it of address changes when required. The Registry finds out about address changes from other sources, which it may receive well after the change has occurred. This includes when licence holders apply for a permit to acquire a firearm; when police attend events or conduct safe storage inspections; or when licence renewal notices are returned to the Registry due to incorrect addresses.

The Registry is responsive in updating data as it relates to potential criminal or antisocial behaviour, and for changes in firearm ownership

The Registry ensures that it updates the register when it receives information about potential criminal or antisocial activity of licence holders. The Registry processes information logged into NSW Police’s Computerised Operational Policing System (COPS) on the next working day. This may lead to suspending or revoking licences. The Registry also promptly records changes of firearm ownership, with buyers, sellers and firearms dealers separately required to notify the Registry within seven days of sale transactions.

The Registry's processes do not ensure sound and consistent decisions for licence suspensions or revocations

The Registry does not have adequate policies, guidance or supervision to support staff to make sound and consistent decisions when responding to breaches of the Act or Regulation by licence holders. The Registry must promptly suspend or revoke a firearms licence, and have any firearms in possession seized, if a licence holder commits a serious breach of licence conditions. The Act and Regulation include a wide range of discretions for the Registry to decide whether to suspend or revoke existing licences.

Junior staff make these decisions. While these officers can seek advice, they are not required to refer their decisions to a supervisor for review. We found that licence holders have sought an internal review for 13.7 per cent of the 2,739 revocation decisions made over the three years from January 2016. The internal review of these cases overturned 27 per cent of revocation decisions, with most not due to additional information provided in the review. This would indicate inconsistent or unsound decision making. Moreover, an additional and greater risk to public and police safety is that due to the limited supervision, staff may make unsound decisions not to suspend or revoke licences, but these will not be tested by an appeal. The Registry does not have a policy to quality review these decisions.

The Registry's processes do not ensure all data is accurate when added to the register

In addition to finding that address details are not up-to-date, we also found that the Registry does not validate all data that is added to the register and data cleansing programs have been discontinued.

The register is based on outdated technology and is heavily reliant on manual data entry, which can be prone to errors. There are some controls to ensure that data is accurate before being added to the register. These include names being checked against identity records, and staff manually checking data from scanned or other source documents. However, the Registry does not validate critical data before it is stored in the database. This includes address changes when licence holders update their details.

The outdated technology also means that the Registry cannot tailor staff access, and their ability to change records, to their role in the Registry. The Registry is not conducting the number of staff computer use and access audits required by NSW Police Force policies to mitigate this risk.

The Registry is aware that data in the register is not accurate and up-to-date

Prior to June 2016, the Registry did not use standard firearms descriptions when creating new firearms records. This meant the register had many variations recorded for the description of the same firearm. This made it difficult to analyse the data and interact with other jurisdictions. In June 2016, the Registry introduced firearm descriptions based on a national standard for all new records added to the register. While the Registry had a program to correct the descriptions of firearms recorded up to then, it stopped this program in July 2017 with only 50 per cent of the previous firearms records corrected.

The Registry has various data integrity reports available to identify potential anomalies in the register. While it regularly produces these reports, it has a backlog in actioning them.

The Registry has ceased its risk-based safe storage inspection program

In October 2015, to supplement the firearms safe storage inspections initiated by local police, the Registry introduced a risk-based safe storage inspection program to better target these inspections. This involved providing police across the state with locations that pose a higher risk due to the type and number of firearms stored as well as inspection history. This program is well designed to achieve its objectives. Since January 2017, the Registry has generated these inspection schedules less frequently, with none since July 2018. The Registry provides information on higher risk locations to local police when requested.

The Registry does not effectively administer important parts of the Act and Regulation

The Act and Regulation contain detailed requirements, as well as broad discretions, that the Registry must administer. While the Registry has many operational procedures to guide how it processes day-to-day transactions, we found shortcomings in processes, guidance and policies in four key areas:

  • retrieving firearms held by deceased estates after a six-month statutory period
  • initiating enforcement action against licence holders for breaches and non-compliances, other than for licence suspensions and revocations
  • pistol clubs’ obligation to confirm members’ safe storage arrangements.

In addition, the Registry is not adequately assessing the validity of the 'good' reason provided by licence holders for acquiring firearms. In November 2018, around 360 licence holders in the three categories we reviewed held 50 or more firearms each. The Registry cannot assure that some of these licence holders are not collectors seeking to avoid taking out a firearm collectors licence, which has more stringent storage and firearm disablement requirements.

The Registry does limited monitoring of its performance

The Registry’s executive can access data on the volume of work processed by the Registry, such as number of licence applications and renewals processed. They can also access some limited performance information, such as time to process licence and firearm permit applications.
This information lacks performance-based indicators that would assist effective management of operations and performance. For example, measuring the trends in number of firearms safe storage inspections undertaken against those that failed could indicate whether compliance is improving.

Regulatory context

The principles that frame our analysis and recommendations in this report are informed by provisions in the Act which provide that the Commissioner of Police, and through him the NSW Police and Firearms Registry, is the responsible regulator, and therefore ultimately responsible for the effective operation of the firearms licensing and registration scheme.

The Commissioner’s response at Appendix one refers to the firearms licensing and registration scheme as a ‘co regulatory model’, and states that this report incorrectly ascribes some responsibilities for implementation of regulation to the NSW Police and Firearms Registry. The Commissioner has rejected our recommendations regarding pistol clubs actively confirming members’ safe storage arrangements (recommendation 8) and implementing strategies for timely reporting of address changes (recommendation 10a) in the context of this interpretation of his role.

We have not found evidence during the course of this audit, that firearms regulation could reasonably be interpreted as being co-regulatory. The NSW Department of Justice’s Regulatory Impact Statement (RIS) for the Firearms Regulation 2017 states: the NSW Police Force administers the regulation of firearms, including licensing, registration and permits, through the NSW Firearms Registry. The RIS does not describe any regulatory responsibilities of third parties or a co-regulatory model.

The Act provides that the Commissioner is responsible for regulating the firearms industry to ensure it complies with the Act and Regulation. For example, sections 84, 85 and 85A of the Act clearly prescribe that in the event of a breach of the Act or Regulation only police officers, or other authorised members of the NSW Police, can commence proceedings for offences or issue penalty notices.

An inherent conflict of interest would arise in the circumstance where firearms dealers, clubs and ranges benefit from the use of firearms and regulate their use. Under the Act, clubs, dealers, ranges and licensees have responsibilities – not regulatory oversight. Clubs and ranges have obligations to undertake certain actions against club members or users in accordance with the Act and Regulation. Under clauses 95 and 98 of the Regulation, if the Commissioner thinks fit, he may revoke his approval for any club or shooting range to operate.

2. Recommendations

To improve integrity of data in the register, NSW Police Force (Firearms Registry) should urgently:

1. address backlogs in identifying and updating incorrect data in the register
2. conduct computer access audits according to NSW Police Force policy.

By July 2019, to ensure consistency of administrative decisions, NSW Police Force (Firearms Registry) should:

3. introduce updated delegations for all administrative functions that delegate functions to specific positions
4. introduce guidance for assessing discretionary reasons when considering a licence suspension or revocation
5. introduce procedures to quality-review decisions about licence suspensions and revocations
6. introduce guidance for assessing whether ‘good’ reasons provided by licence holders for acquiring firearms are satisfactory
7. introduce a policy and procedures for taking enforcement action
8. ensure pistol clubs actively confirm safe storage arrangements.\

By May 2019, to ensure safety of the public and police, NSW Police Force (Firearms Registry) should:

9. restore the Firearms Registry initiated risk-based firearms safe storage inspection program
10. implement strategies for:

a)  timely reporting of address changes
b)  prompt retrieval of firearms from deceased estates after expiry of the six-month statutory period.

1. Introduction

1.1 Firearms regulation in NSW

The Firearms Act 1996 (NSW) (the Act) and the Firearms Regulation 2017 (NSW) (Regulation) form the regulatory framework for firearms in NSW. These legislative instruments reflect the principles of the National Firearms Agreement that all Australian jurisdictions have accepted.

The Act aims to improve public safety by imposing strict controls on the possession and use of firearms, and by promoting the safe and responsible storage and use of firearms.

Objects and principles of the Act include:

  • confirming firearm possession and use as a privilege that is conditional on the overriding need to ensure public safety
  • improving public safety by imposing strict controls on the possession and use of firearms
  • promoting the safe and responsible storage and use of firearms
  • establishing an integrated licensing and registration scheme for all firearms
  • requiring each person who possesses or uses a firearm under the authority of a licence to prove a genuine reason for possessing or using the firearm
  • providing strict requirements in relation to licensing of firearms and the acquisition and supply of firearms
  • ensuring that licence holders store and convey firearms in a safe and secure manner.

In October 2018, there were over 237,500 firearm licence holders and just over one million registered firearms in NSW. See Appendix five for the geographical distribution of registered firearms by police area command and police district.

1.2 The Role of the Firearms Registry (the Registry)

The Registry, with delegated authority from the Commissioner of the NSW Police Force (NSW Police), is responsible for administering the Act and Regulation. It does this through managing the firearms licensing and registration scheme (the scheme). The Registry’s obligations to manage the scheme are extensive and sometimes rely on third parties to assist in its management.

The scheme consists broadly of a three-stage process for applicants to obtain a firearms licence and acquire a firearm. The three stages are:

  • The Registry issues different categories of firearms licences to applicants that meet the defined criteria, including establishing at least one of the eight ‘genuine reasons’ for having a firearms licence. Licence holders in turn can use or possess the type of firearm specific to those categories of firearms licence.
  • The Registry issues licence holders with a permit to acquire the specific type of registered firearm they are licenced to use which they can only purchase from a licenced firearms dealer. A separate permit must be issued for each individual firearm.
  • The Registry ensures that licence holders continuously meet their obligations such as safe storage and updating their information held by the Registry.

The Registry also approves and monitors various third parties that it relies on to assist in issuing, suspending and revoking licences, and the sale of firearms. This includes shooting ranges, hunting clubs and firearms dealers.

The Act prescribes a list of eight genuine reasons for holding a firearms licence. Each genuine reason relates to certain licence categories and types of firearms.

Exhibit 1: Firearms licence genuine reasons and number of licence holders October 2018
Genuine reasons Number of licence holders
Sports/target shooting 115,604
Recreational hunting/vermin control 376,665
Primary production 95,030
Vertebrate pest animal control 3,041
Business or employment 3,523
Animal welfare 42,278
Firearms collection 3,728
 

Note: In many cases, licence holders will have licences with multiple genuine reasons.
Source: NSW Firearms Registry 2018.

The Act also provides for seven main categories of firearm licences; five of which apply to a certain type of firearm and the remaining ones apply to two classes of firearm stakeholders.

Licence categories Prescribed types of firearms Number of firearm licences issued
Category A Long-arms, such as:
  • air rifles
  • non-self-loading rimfire rifles
  • shotgun/rimfire combinations
  • non-pump-action or non-self-loading shotguns.
231,457
Category B Long-arms, such as:
  • muzzle loading firearms (other than pistols)
  • non-self-loading centre-fire rifles
  • shotgun/centre-fire rifle combinations
  • lever action shotguns with a magazine capacity of no more than five rounds.
217,200
Category C Long-arms, such as:
  • self-loading rimfire rifles with a magazine capacity of no more than ten rounds
  • self-loading shotguns with a magazine capacity of no more than five rounds
  • pump action shotguns with a magazine capacity of no more than five rounds.
16,561
Category D Long-arms, such as:
  • self-loading centre-fire rifles
  • self-loading rimfire rifles with a magazine capacity of more than ten rounds
  • self-loading shotguns with a magazine capacity of more than five rounds.
522
Category H Pistols including blank fire pistols and air pistols 16,790
Firearms Dealer All firearms 710
Firearms Collector All firearms 2,890

Source: NSW Firearms Registry 2018.

See Appendix four for more details on licence categories, genuine reasons and corresponding types of firearms.

Approving firearms licence applications

The Registry issues firearms licences to applicants who meet the following specific criteria:

  • being over 18 years of age
  • not being convicted of certain offences listed in the Regulation in the past ten years
  • completed required training courses
  • able to meet firearms safe storage requirements
  • able to exercise continuous and responsible control over firearms, considering any history of suicide or self-harm attempts, or mental health conditions
  • not being subject to an apprehended violence order in the past ten years
  • not being subject to a current interim apprehended violence order, good behaviour bond or firearms prohibition order
  • able to demonstrate at least one of the eight genuine reasons for having a firearms licence
  • able to satisfy further requirements imposed on the nominated genuine reasons, for example: for sport/ target shooting, the applicant must be a current member of an approved shooting club.

Firearm licence holders can use specific types of firearms, but do not need to own firearms. In October 2018, the Registry had issued 486,210 firearms licences among 237,649 firearms licence holders. Note that a firearms licence holder may hold more than one firearms licence category.

Issuing permits to acquire firearms to licence holders

Firearms licence holders can apply for a permit to acquire the specific type of firearm that is authorised for their genuine reason and licence category. The Registry only issues permits to acquire firearms to licence holders who have a ‘good’ reason for acquiring each firearm. The Registry cannot issue these permits until 28 days after the date of application, unless the licence holder already owns a firearm in the same category.

In October 2018, there were 1,000,099 registered firearms in NSW. Individual, business and club licence holders held 881,101 firearms. Dealers, club and theatrical armourers held 99,545 firearms, while collectors held 13,076 firearms.

Maintaining the firearms register

All registered firearms in NSW must be listed in the firearms register (the register) compiled and maintained by the Registry. Details stored in register include:

  • details of the firearm (including its serial number if any)
  • details of the licence holders registered with the firearm (including name, residential/business addresses, premises where the firearm is kept)
  • date of acquiring the firearm and the name of the firearms supplier
  • identifying number of any spare barrel for the firearm.

Licence holders must apply to have the acquired firearm registered in their names. The Registry may refuse registration of any firearm until the licence holder has it inspected by a police officer. The Registry must also cancel any firearm registration where the licence holder:

  • no longer holds the appropriate firearms licence or permit
  • has supplied false or misleading information on application
  • is convicted of offences specified in the Act or Regulation
  • requests a cancellation. 

The Registry must maintain the register in a form that integrates with the National Exchange of Police Information Scheme. This is to enable the information contained within the register to be accessible by the firearms authorities of other Australian jurisdictions.

Approving third parties

The Registry also approves organisations, persons or activities related to firearms, such as:

  • firearms dealers
  • firearms safety and training course providers, and their instructors
  • firearms collectors, hunting and shooting clubs
  • shooting ranges
  • security firms and security guards.

From time to time, the Registry and police officers may perform inspections and checks on these third parties to ensure that they comply with their legal obligations and satisfy any approval conditions.

Managing the scheme using the register

The Registry uses the register as its primary source of data and information when administering the Act and the Regulation. The Registry regularly receives additional information regarding status changes of licence holders from the licence holders themselves and other third parties. See Section 1.3 for further details. The Registry must update the register to reflect those changes in an accurate and timely manner. The Registry and police officers make operational and administrative decisions based on data in the register.

Taking enforcement action

Under its delegation from the Commissioner, the Registry may suspend a firearms licence if it is satisfied that there may be grounds for revoking the licence. Where the Registry has reasonable cause to believe that a licence holder has committed or has threatened to commit a domestic violence offence, the Registry must suspend the firearms licence. The Registry informs the licence holder of the reason for the suspension, who is requested to provide any reasons why the Registry should not revoke the licence.

If the Commissioner believes that a licence holder poses a risk to public safety and that it is contrary to the public interest to allow the person to continue to be a licence holder, the Commissioner may suspend the firearms licence without providing the reasons for suspension. The licence holder can provide any reasons why the Commissioner should not revoke the licence. The Commissioner has not delegated this decision to the Registry.

The Registry may make a firearms prohibition order against any person who it thinks is not fit, in the public interest, to have possession of firearms. The Registry may revoke a firearms prohibition order at any time for any or no stated reason.

The Registry immediately revokes a firearms licence if the licence holder becomes subject to a firearms prohibition order or an apprehended violence order. The Registry has discretion to revoke a licence for various other reasons. See Appendix two for the full list of reasons used by the Registry to support the suspension and revocation decisions it makes.

When the Registry suspends or revokes a firearms licence, that licence holder must surrender their licence and all firearms in their possession to police.

An authorised officer may issue penalty notices for any relevant offence against the Act or Regulation. Prosecution of other breaches of the Act or Regulation may be subject to court proceedings.

1.3 Notifications from firearms licence holders and third parties

Firearms licence holders

The Act and Regulation impose various self-reporting or compliance obligations on firearms licence holders. Some of the key obligations require the licence holder to:

  • notify the Registry of any status changes including change of names, addresses and genuine reasons
  • take all reasonable precautions to ensure safe-keeping of firearms
  • advise the Registry of any acquisition, supply, loss or theft of firearms.

See Appendix three for a more detailed list of obligations imposed on licence holders.

Third parties

Certain third parties report to the Registry in relation to the status of firearms licence holders. Examples of these reports include:

  • firearms club officials disclosing information about their club members in good faith
  • firearms clubs providing annual return on club memberships and their members’ participation records
  • firearms dealers notifying the Registry of all transactions and movements of firearms
  • health professionals advising the Registry that a licence holder may pose a threat to the public safety (and their own safety) if in possession of a firearm.

1.4 About the audit

This audit assessed how well the Registry administers the requirements of the Act and Regulation for existing firearms licence holders. In making this assessment, we considered the following lines of inquiry:

  1. Does the Registry’s database (the register) support the firearms licensing and registration scheme by having readily accessible, accurate and up-to-date information regarding the status of firearms licence holders and their registered firearms?
  2. Does the Registry have, and comply with, appropriate risk-based policies and procedures for identifying and acting consistently on status changes of existing firearms licence holders?

This audit specifically focused on existing firearms licence holders who hold firearms licences with at least one of the following three genuine reasons. These accounted for around 92 per cent of genuine reasons provided by all licence holders (October 2018).

  • Sport/target shooting – 18 per cent
  • Recreational hunting/vermin control – 59 per cent
  • Primary production – 15 per cent.

Licence holders in these categories own around 860,000 or 86 per cent of all registered firearms.

The Registry uses the same administrative processes for the other firearms licence holders who hold firearms licences with the other five genuine reasons, including:

  • vertebrate pest animal control
  • rural occupation
  • animal welfare
  • business or employment
  • firearms collection.

Accordingly, the findings and recommendations of this audit can be reasonably applied to the Registry’s administration for all existing firearms licence holders.

We did not assess the Registry’s processes in assessing and issuing firearms licences to new applicants or renewing licences of existing licence holders. We also did not examine the administrative actions conducted by police officers who are not part of the Registry. However, we did look at what policies and procedures the Registry provide to police officers for carrying out and reporting on those administrative actions.

We did not assess the efficiency of Registry operations, as a separate review reported on this in 2013. Nonetheless, we comment on some of these issues where they affect our findings or to provide context.

2. Reliability of the register

To effectively administer the requirements of the Act and Regulation, the register that supports the firearms licensing and registration scheme should have readily accessible, accurate and up-to-date information regarding the status of licence holders and registered firearms.

2.1 Licence holder status changes

During the five-year period of a typical firearms licence, details about the licence holder may change. Changes can be to residential and firearms storage addresses, the number and types of firearms held, the genuine reasons, and licence holder’s name. Other key status information can be a licence holder's potential criminal activity or antisocial behaviour, as well as their state of health.

Status changes that can be critical to public and police safety would include possible or actual criminal activity or antisocial behaviour, as well as address changes and changes to firearms held. While licence holders must notify the Registry of status changes within prescribed times, relying only on self-reporting to detect changes presents a risk.

The Registry is responsive in updating data as it relates to potential criminal activity or anti-social behaviour, and for changes in firearm ownership

The Registry has processes that ensure it quickly updates the register with some status changes. These include identifying and acting on information logged into NSW Police’s Computerised Operational Policing System (COPS) which involve potential criminal activity or antisocial behaviour of licence holders. These changes can lead to possible licence suspension or revocation and seizure of any firearms in a licence holder's possession.

The Registry receives daily notifications from COPS if there is an event listed by police officers that matches firearms licence holder details and meets business rules relating to offence type or public interest considerations. Registry officers review each notification to determine whether details of the person associated with the event correctly relate to a current licence holder. The officer then interrogates COPS to assess details of the event, and any other criminal activity of the licence holder. Together with the present status of the licence holder, the officer decides whether they should suspend or revoke the licence. The Registry processes these COPS event notifications, and enters the outcomes of its decisions in the register, on the next working day.

While only the Registry is authorised to revoke a firearms licence, police officers, as well as the Registry may suspend a firearms licence. The COPS report will list any event where a police officer issued a suspension notice and seized firearms. This will enable a prompt adjustment to the register, reflecting the licence holder's changed status.

The Registry also promptly records changes of firearms ownership details, assisted by the fact that firearms can only be bought or sold through firearms dealers. In addition to licence holders needing to notify the Registry within seven days of either sale or purchase of a firearm, firearms dealers must also notify the Registry within seven days of such transactions.

Requiring such transaction details from three sources provides a strong level of assurance that the Registry manages changes to firearm ownership details in a timely manner.

Address details in the register are not up-to-date

Early detection and updating the register with address changes of licence holders and firearms storage locations is critical to public and police safety. We found that the register was not up-to-date regarding address changes.

The Registry lacks a risk-based or proactive approach to identify address changes, particularly when licence holders have a large number of firearms in possession. Without having up-to-date details on addresses, the Registry may lose track of both licence holders and firearms locations. An inherent risk is to police officers attending events without knowing whether there are firearms present.

The Act and Regulation have a strong emphasis on licence holders updating their personal details promptly. The Act has prescribed penalties for non-compliance. However, many licence holders may fail to notify address changes as required or may believe that details of their address changes are passed to the Registry when they update their driver's licence record. Another limitation on data accuracy is that there is no requirement for licence holders to provide supporting evidence when notifying the Registry of a change of address, unlike for a name change.

The Registry is not proactive in ensuring that address details in the register are up-to-date if licence holders fail to notify it of address changes when required. The Registry finds out about address changes from other sources, which may be received well after the change has occurred. This includes when licence holders apply for a permit to acquire a firearm; when police attend events or conduct safe storage inspections; or when licence renewal notices are returned due to an incorrect address. Over the three years to October 2018, an average of around seven per cent (200) per month of licence renewal notices were returned to the Registry due to incorrect addresses. This does not include letters mailed to wrong addresses not returned, but discarded by recipients.

A lack of up-to-date address information reduces the ability to monitor status changes and recover firearms from owners with expired licences

Given that most licences are valid for five years, the Registry's processes are not timely in detecting status changes and means that the register’s address details for these licence holders may be out-of-date for up to five years. The Registry then spends time and resources tracking down the licence holders.

In October 2018, there were 1,270 firearms listed as being in possession of persons whose licence had expired. Police could not recover a quarter of these firearms due to incorrect addresses in the Registry's database.

Information for licensees on how to update their addresses should be more prominent and accessible on relevant websites

The Registry advised us that it has responded to ministerial representations where people have indicated that when they changed their driver's licence address through Service NSW, they assumed that this process would also change their address records at the Registry. This is not the case. The Registry publishes the requirements for licence holders to advise it of address changes on the Registry and Service NSW websites, as well as on firearms licence cards.

Online systems are available to licence holders to update their details on both the Registry and Service NSW websites. While one can find the link using a search engine, it is not prominent on the Registry website and difficult to find on the Service NSW website when firearms licence holders change their driver's licence address details.

In developing a more proactive approach to identifying address changes, the Registry should consider the following steps:

  • improve the prominence of the online update system on its website, and work with Service NSW to make its online update form for firearms licence details more prominent
  • arrange for Roads and Maritime Services to provide the Registry with regular updates of driver's licence address changes and for the Registry to use a matching process of name and date of birth to identify firearms licence holders
  • implement a risk-based approach to target licence holders with large numbers of firearms in possession and check their address details regularly
  • initiate a proportionate and consistent policy for taking enforcement action, including issuing penalty notices for failure to notify change of address.

The Registry is not effectively retrieving firearms held by deceased estates

Under the Act, executors can be responsible for the disposal or safe storage of the firearms in a deceased estate for up to six months. The Registry promptly cancels licences and tracks firearms in a deceased estate when it becomes aware that a licence holder has died. After the six-months statutory period, and where firearms remain in possession of the deceased estate, the Registry creates a COPS event for police to seize the firearms.

The Registry receives and analyses information on potential deceased licence holders through a weekly COPS report, and fortnightly through a report from the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages. This information is supplemented by notifications from estate executors, administrators or next-of-kin.

In early January 2019, there were 2,402 firearms in possession of deceased estates, with 1,214 of these held for more than the six-month statutory period.

2.2 Data integrity

The Registry's processes do not ensure all data is accurate when added to the register

The register is the primary database used by the Registry to administer the Act and Regulation. In addition to our finding that address details are not up-to-date, we also found that the Registry does not validate all data that is added to the register, and that data cleansing programs have been discontinued.

The register is based on outdated technology and is heavily reliant on manual data entry and processes, which can be prone to data entry errors.

The Registry has some controls to ensure that data is accurate before being added to the register. These include manual checking when data comes from scanned or other source documents, such as online address change requests and applications for a permit to acquire a firearm. In June 2016, the Registry started using firearm descriptions based on a national standard for all new firearm records added to the register. This enables integration with the Australian Firearms Information Network and allows other states and territories to access information on the register.

However, the Registry does not validate critical data, such as address changes, before adding it to the register. There is no check on the validity of addresses provided when licence holders update their details through the NSW Police call centre and a limited check when updated online. While the online system confirms the existence of an address through a geolocation validator operated by Australia Post, this by itself does not validate whether the actual address provided is correct.

Inconsistencies in how some data is added to the register has reduced the Registry's ability to carry out some of its regulatory responses

The Registry needs accurate and consistent data to ensure it can properly administer the requirements of the Act and Regulation for deceased estates, however inconsistencies in how data is entered and formatted reduces the overall accuracy of the register.

The Registry does not ensure that it records dates in a consistent format for deceased estates. Some records have deceased dates recorded as year-month-day (Dec 180722), others have day-month-year (Dec 201117), and there are some with no deceased date recorded. The Registry must track and initiate the recovery of firearms that have not been lawfully disposed of from executors of deceased estates after six months. However, due to the inconsistent or missing date records, it is not able to effectively monitor this and initiate recovery actions.

We also found an anomaly where the database allows the inclusion of interstate residential addresses for licence holders, even though only NSW residents can hold a NSW firearms licence. While the Regulation allows a very limited number of licence holders (such as some defence force personnel) to have an interstate residential address, as a general rule, licence holders must reside in NSW. The Registry should manage this situation via exceptions authorised to be added to the register. Without this restriction, the Registry must regularly run a report that lists all licence holders with interstate residential addresses for review. In mid-December 2018, the Registry advised there were 51 interstate address entries which it had to manually check to confirm legitimacy.

The Registry has various programs for checking data integrity in the register, but there are backlogs in identifying and updating incorrect data

We examined how the Registry performs data integrity checks for data already in the register, including whether it actively checks for data errors.

The Registry is aware that data in the register is not accurate and up-to-date. It sought to manage this risk through regular data integrity reports, as well as manual processes to check for, and correct, discrepancies. For example, internal management reports from July to September 2017 listed various data errors in the register. This included a list of firearms with incorrect descriptions of firearm make, model, serial number and calibre recorded prior to June 2016. While the Registry had a program to correct these firearms records, this program stopped in July 2017 with only 50 per cent of the previous firearms records corrected.

This means that there are still some firearms descriptions in the register that do not conform to the national standard, and do not integrate with the Australian Firearms Information Network as required.

The Registry also uses a range of exception reports to identify potential anomalies in the register. It regularly runs these exception reports either automatically or manually. Registry staff then investigate and resolve the potential anomalies. Examples of these reports include:

  • interstate addresses
  • suspended licences where the suspension has exceeded a predetermined period
  • incomplete incident reports from police via COPS
  • firearms from deceased estates not accounted for
  • expired licences shown with an incorrect status
  • discrepancies between Roads and Maritime Services and Registry records
  • duplicate identities
  • firearms from expired licences not accounted for.

The Registry also uses reactive mechanisms to detect data errors in the register. These include address details discussed in Section 2.1, but also can include data errors, such as the number and type of firearms in possession of licence holders, identified by police during safe storage inspections or while attending incidents. Users also report system deficiencies they encounter when using the register.

We found the Registry has a backlog of work to action these data integrity and exception reports. The Registry advised that this is because it gives priority to processing daily COPS notifications, transactions such as permits to acquire firearms and licence applications. The backlog also includes updating details confirming that licence holders maintain their club membership or have met club participation requirements. Both are prerequisites for holding a firearms licence. This is further evidence that the register is out-of-date.

Most Registry staff have full edit rights for the registry database, meaning some have edit rights over functions outside their roles

There are three levels of access rights to the register by Registry staff: read only, edit and administrator access. Police officers also have read-only access to relevant information in the register via COPS to support their operations.

The Registry advised that most of its staff have full edit rights to the register. This is because, due to the age of the technology, access to the register cannot be customised to a user's role beyond the three levels of access rights. By enabling Registry personnel to have edit rights over functions outside of their roles creates a risk of improper access and erroneous or inappropriate changes to the register.\

To mitigate this risk, NSW Police has a policy to audit staff use of, and access to, police systems, software and data. The policy requires mandatory computer access audits of all staff annually. The Registry is not conducting all of the audits required by the policy. The Registry Commander has recently established a new position of Executive Officer with responsibility for quality assurance across the Registry. Duties will include undertaking data access audits, as well as managing policy on conflicts of interest, declarations of secondary employment and associations, and managing complaints.

3. Administering the Act and Regulation

3.1 Risk-based safe storage inspections

Safe storage is central to firearm safety, and is a key requirement of licence holders

Licence holders must have safe storage arrangements that comply with the requirements of the Act for the firearms in their possession. Due to the risks that firearms pose if not safely stored, failure to have safe storage arrangements can result in significant monetary penalties, as well as imprisonment for up to two years. Licence holders acquiring firearms (other than pistols) only need to self-certify that they have safe storage arrangements that comply with the Act when they apply for a permit to acquire a firearm.

Several Registry and police-led storage inspection initiatives have been implemented since 2009:

  • Between 2009 and 2013, the Registry administered a NSW Government initiative for local police to conduct a 100 per cent state-wide safe storage audit.
  • Between 2013 and October 2015, local police initiated and conducted safe storage inspections, including determining the locations and the extent of inspections.
  • In October 2015, to supplement the safe storage inspections initiated by local police, the Registry introduced a risk-based safe storage inspection program to better target these inspections. As part of this program, the Registry provided local police with extensive guidance on how and where to conduct these inspections.

The Registry's risk-based inspection program targets higher risk firearm holdings

The objectives of the Registry's risk-based storage inspection program are to:

  • implement a cost effective and efficient safe storage inspection program that targets higher risk firearm holdings
  • develop and implement a communications strategy for operational police, including internal and external resources with emphasis on breaches
  • collect and analyse compliance data to support development of risk-based approaches for other firearms regulatory outcomes.

The Registry's risk-based approach identified three key risk factors:

  • the number of firearms stored
  • the category of firearms stored
  • the time since police last inspected the location.

The Registry initially determined that it would direct inspections to premises that stored pistols and where police had not inspected in the past five years, or ever. It identified the premises meeting these initial requirements, and which had the largest number of pistols stored. It then distributed the inspection work evenly among the various police districts. To enhance this process, the Registry advised it was looking at incorporating the additional risk factor of local crime rates.

The individual police commands continued to conduct their own targeted inspections, based on their local knowledge and intelligence. We consider that the program is well designed to achieve its stated objectives.

Since January 2017 the Registry has reduced the risk-based inspections it initiates, and there have been no inspections initiated since July 2018

The Registry began to curtail the risk-based program at the end of 2016. Since then, the Registry has been assisting local police to develop their own inspection schedules on request. This has reduced the number of annual safe storage inspections from 4,377 in the year beginning October 2015, to 3,750 in the year beginning October 2017. The number of risk-based inspections initiated annually by the Registry fell from 2,497 to 150 over the same period, with no inspections initiated in the six months from July 2018.

There may be inconsistencies in how breaches of safe storage requirements are dealt with

In relation to breaches of safe storage requirements, individual police commands determine whether to initiate enforcement actions, and their severity. The Registry advised that when local police undertake enforcement actions under the Act, to their knowledge it is variable across the police commands. The Registry also advised it provides training to general duties and specialist police, and attends licensing conferences to provide information and guidance about firearms administration and enforcement. However, these initiatives are general and not targeted to enforcement of safe storage requirements. To improve consistency in this area, the Registry should provide specific guidance to local police on proportionate application of enforcement actions.

3.2 Enforcement policies and procedures

The Act and Regulation provides for a wide range of discretions for suspending or revoking licences

The Act and Regulation provide a wide range of discretions in deciding whether to suspend or revoke existing licences. Discretionary reasons include:

  • the Commissioner believing a licence holder is no longer a fit and proper person to hold a licence
  • the licence holder is convicted (or subject to a good behaviour bond) for one of a range of offences prescribed in the Regulation. An applicant is not eligible for a new licence if they had been convicted of one of these offences in the past ten years
  • the licence holder not meeting safe storage requirements
  • the Commissioner satisfied that it is not in the public interest for the licence holder to hold the licence
  • the licence holder, through negligence or fraud, has caused firearms to be lost or stolen
  • the licence holder contravened any condition of their licence, or any provision of the Act or Regulation.

For very serious offences, the Registry does not have discretion. A licence is immediately revoked if police issue a Firearms Prohibition Order or Apprehended Violence Order (AVO) to a licence holder. A licence is immediately suspended if a licence holder is subject to an interim AVO, or when the Commissioner is aware that police have charged a licence holder with a domestic violence offence. The Commissioner can also suspend a licence if he has reasonable cause to believe that a licence holder has committed, or has threatened to commit, a domestic violence offence. See Appendix two for a full list of discretionary, automatic or mandatory reasons for suspending or revoking licences.

The Registry does not support its staff with adequate policies, guidance and supervision to support their decision-making

The Registry does not have adequate policies, guidance and supervision to support staff to make sound and consistent decisions when responding to breaches of the Act or Regulation by licence holders. The Registry must correctly and promptly suspend or revoke a firearms licence, and have police seize any firearms in possession, if a licence holder commits prescribed breaches of licence conditions.

The Registry has a policy for making revocation or suspension decisions. However, it was issued in 2007 and it predates the current Regulation, issued in 2017. We found there was little detailed specific guidance in the policy on how staff should exercise discretion. For example, it does not indicate whether staff should revoke a licence if a licence holder is convicted of an offence that would bar applicants from obtaining a firearms licence. There is also no guidance about what staff should do if a licence holder is charged with one of these offences.

Registry staff advised us that in the example given above, they would revoke the licence if a licence holder was convicted, and suspend the licence if a charge was laid. However, the Registry has no specific policy or guidance for even these clear-cut cases.

Relatively junior staff (3/4 clerical officers) make suspension or revocation decisions. While they can seek advice, they are not required to refer their decisions to a supervisor for review. There is a high risk of inconsistent or potentially unsound decisions in the situation where there is wide-ranging discretion, limited guidance to decision makers and optional supervisory review.

Nearly 14 per cent of discretionary licence revocation decisions are appealed, and over a quarter of these appeals are upheld

Under the Act and the Administrative Decisions Review Act 1997, a licence holder may request an internal review of a revocation decision within 28 days. An internal review may affirm, set aside or vary a revocation decision.

We found licence holders have sought an internal review for 13.7 per cent of the 2,739 revocation decisions made over the three years from January 2016. Of these, more than a quarter (27 per cent) were ultimately overturned. For some of these, the original decision was correct when based on information available at the time, but additional information provided during the review process changed the outcome. However, we found that in most cases where the Registry's decision was overturned, this resulted from inconsistency in decision making.

The Registry does not analyse the results of successful appeals to determine trends and potential weaknesses in the initial decision and to provide additional guidance to staff making these decisions. An additional and greater risk to public and police safety is that, due to the limited supervisory review, staff may make unsound decisions not to suspend or revoke licences, but these will not be tested by an appeal. The Registry does not have a policy to quality-review these decisions.

The Registry has implemented some processes to learn from internal reviews of appeals, but better guidance is needed

An internal review may be held prior to an appeal heard by the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal (NCAT). The Registry has advised it does analyse briefings provided by the Police General Counsel on NCAT decisions to determine trends and weaknesses in the initial decision or potential anomalies in the legislation.

That said, the internal review unit in the Registry relies on extensive case law when conducting internal reviews, and has developed a summary document which mostly consists of legalistic extracts of decisions made either by the courts or NCAT.

Internal reviews can be time and resource consuming for the Registry. Improving the consistency of initial revocation decisions through better guidance and supervision should result in a more efficient use of Registry resources.

Lack of specificity in delegations has reduced the effective supervision of staff decisions

The Registry Commander has delegated all powers available under the Act or Regulation to all Registry staff down to 3/4 clerical officer level. The delegation instrument does not delegate specific powers to designated positions in the Registry. This approach has reduced the effective supervision of staff decisions, including decisions on suspensions and revocations.

The Registry Commander has acknowledged our concerns about the limited guidance, supervisory review and the current delegations. He advised us that he has initiated a review and update of delegations to clearly delegate powers under the Act and Regulation to specific positions and address issues with the current limited supervision of decisions. He also advised he proposes to upgrade specific guidance to decision makers and implement a training program.

The Registry suspends or revokes licences but takes no other enforcement action

In addition to suspending or revoking licences, the Act and Regulation include a suite of sanctions if licence holders breach other conditions of their licences, or provisions of the Act or Regulation. These start with penalty notices for lower level offences, up to court-imposed fines and / or imprisonment. These breaches include:

  • giving possession of a firearm to an unauthorised person
  • failing to notify the Registry of changes in their details, such as address and genuine reasons, within specific timeframes
  • failing to safely store firearms
  • failing to notify the Registry of supply or purchase of a firearm, theft or loss of a firearm.

Apart from issuing suspension or revocation notices, the Registry has no policy on using its powers to apply penalty notices or recommend court proceedings for breaches. For breaches such as failure to notify address changes, to pass safe storage inspections, or to notify supply or purchase of firearms, the Registry appears best placed to identify when these occur, their severity and initiate enforcement actions which are consistent and proportionate.

Over the five years from January 2014, local police issued 111 enforcement actions, including penalty notices, where a licence holder failed to notify an address change. The Registry did not issue any in the same period.

Over three years to October 2018, an average of, around 200 licence renewal notices each month were returned to the Registry due to incorrect addresses. Registry staff spend time tracking down correct addresses and reissuing the renewal notices. To reduce the risk of the Registry losing track of licence holders and their firearms, it should have a policy for taking proportionate and consistent enforcement action for this non-compliance.

3.3 Administrative policies and procedures

The Registry is not adequately assessing the validity of reasons provided by licence holders for acquiring firearms

When licence holders apply for a permit to acquire a firearm, they must give a ‘good’ reason as part of their application. Under the Act, the Registry must be satisfied that the licence holder has demonstrated a ‘good’ reason. Nothing in the Act outlines or explains what a good reason is, but it is a different legal test than the ‘genuine’ reason test to qualify for a firearms licence.

Up until November 2018, the Registry did not assess whether the applicant had a ‘good’ reason to acquire the firearm. Applicants signed the application form to declare they had a ‘good’ reason. This was a form of self-assessment that is contrary to the principle of the Registry, as the Commissioner's delegate, to be satisfied that applicants had demonstrated a ‘good’ reason.

In November 2018, the Registry introduced an online permit to acquire application form, which requires the applicant to mark one of a range of ‘good’ reasons listed on a drop-down menu.

The Registry only assesses ‘good’ reasons provided by applicants for category C, D and H firearms (see Appendix four for an explanation of the firearms in these categories). In assessing these applications, the Registry advised that it took some account of the types of firearms already acquired by the licence holder. However, the Registry has no guidance on how staff should assess whether the applicant has provided a ‘good’ reason, increasing the risk of inconsistent decisions.

For category A and B firearms, such as non-self-loading rifles, the Registry cannot demonstrate that it is effectively administering this requirement of the Act because it does not check the ‘good’ reason provided. The Registry advised us that this was because it considered these were low risk firearms.

Without considering the number of firearms held by a licence holder, as well as the types, it is difficult to see how the Registry can make a proper assessment of the ‘good’ reason given by applicants.

It is unclear what the ‘good’ reason is for some licence holders who have in excess of 50 or 100 firearms

Under the Act, storage requirements for firearms do not limit the number that licence holders can store at any one location. Large numbers of firearms stored in one location can present an increased risk as a target for theft - particularly if they do not have safe storage arrangements.

By early November 2018, for the three licence types subject to this audit, there were 81 locations with over 100 firearms, and 287 locations with between 50 and 100 firearms stored by individual licence holders. While all these licence holders may have ‘good’ reasons for accumulating large numbers of firearms, the Registry cannot assure that some of these licence holders are not collectors seeking to avoid taking out a firearm collectors licence, which has more stringent storage and firearm disablement requirements.

The Registry provides inappropriate guidance to pistol clubs that they can accept members' self-assessment of their safe storage arrangements

In 2003, the NSW Government introduced handgun reforms by amending the Act. The Act requires applicants for a permit to acquire a pistol to have their pistol club confirm in writing that the licence holder has adequate storage arrangements. The licence holder presents this certificate with their application. This requirement is more stringent than the self-certification required from applicants for rifles. As such, we consider that for a pistol club to confirm safe storage for pistols not stored at the club, it would either need to inspect the storage arrangements, or rely on a responsible third party to carry out an inspection. However, the Registry does not provide guidance to this effect.

The Registry, when assessing an application for a permit to acquire a pistol, does not question whether the pistol club had inspected the licence holder's storage arrangements. This is consistent with the Registry’s 2003 (still current) guidance to pistol clubs that advised there was no requirement for clubs to physically inspect members' safe storage facilities. The guidance also advised clubs that verbal or written confirmation by members, a receipt for a pistol safe showing delivery address, or a current inspection certificate appropriate for storage of pistols, would satisfy the club’s requirements to provide such a confirmation.

The Registry’s advice that pistol clubs can accept members’ self-assessment of their safe storage arrangements is not appropriate. It negates the clear distinction made by the 2003 amendment to the Act that licence holders should not self-certify their safe storage arrangements for pistols. The use of a receipt for a pistol safe with delivery address provided by an applicant is still a form of self-certification.

The Registry should revise its guidance to pistol clubs about this responsibility. This should be similar to the Registry's guidance to police about how to conduct safe storage inspections. In particular, it should not allow clubs to accept a member's self-certification of their storage arrangements. Updating this guidance to clubs is consistent with the Registry’s regulatory responsibilities under the NSW Government framework for better regulation.

3.4 Performance information

The Registry executive does not receive adequate information on the performance of key Registry operations

Up until September 2017, the Registry produced a detailed monthly report to the executives of the Registry and NSW Police. The report included details of all the main Registry transactions, including:

  • licence applications and reapplications
  • permits to acquire firearms received and processed
  • number of firearms currently held in unauthorised possession
  • number of prohibition orders served
  • various proactive data cleansing activities
  • number of suspension and revocation notices served
  • internal reviews of appealed revocation decisions
  • firearms seized
  • mail room statistics.

The report included graphs of key data showing trends over a four-year period.

In November 2017, the Registry changed the content of the monthly report, making it less detailed to better suit the needs of the NSW Police executive. However, this excluded most of the transactional, performance and trend information from the previous style of report. While the Registry advised that its executive can still access this information, it is not in a form that reports on operational performance against expected outcomes and trends over time.

The available information lacks performance-based indicators that would assist the Registry executive to more effectively manage its operations and performance. For example, measuring the number of firearms safe storage inspections undertaken against those that failed the inspection, or measuring the number of licence revocations issued against the number referred for internal review, would provide meaningful measures of performance.