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Discussion about gun laws in Australia always has the potential to generate some strong views.

It’s a topic that tends to come up whenever there have been a few media reports around shootings. Recent stories include drive-by’s in Sydney’s west, Australian twins with an alleged suicide pact shooting one another in a Colorado shooting range, and a NSW woman who killed her father using a gun stolen from her pistol club.

So what are the gun control laws in this country? Who can and can’t own a firearm? And what do they do with it when they’re not using it for its permitted purpose?

After the Port Arthur massacre in 1996 there was a crackdown on gun laws. The federal government introduced the National Agreement on Firearms (NAF) which all states and territories now subscribe to. In NSW the Firearms Act and the Firearms Regulation set out the rules for gun ownership and use. The NSW Police Force controls the registration process, which includes conducting personal history checks, such as criminal history and mental health.

Military style automatic and semi-automatic weapons are banned (except for military, police or government purposes), and it’s compulsory to register a firearm. You have to be 18 or over (with some exceptions) and have a genuine reason for needing a gun. Self-defence is not an adequate reason.

Some professions obviously require firearms. Other people shoot for sport. That’s allowed, as long as they belong to an approved shooting club, and participate in a required number of competitions each year, and visits to a shooting range or club-organised shoot.

Completing a firearms training and safety course is mandatory, and all gun holders have to take all reasonable precautions to ensure that a firearm is kept safely. Specific storage rules apply to different firearm categories. For example, an air rifle must be stored in an approved locked receptacle with solid metal locks, with ammunition stored in a separate locked container.

Interestingly, you can actually be unlicensed and shoot at a range, using their firearms, provided there is a licensed supervisor and you have filled in the required declaration and been approved.

This scares anti-gun lobbyists, as do some of the changes introduced in the Firearms Legislation Amendment in February 2011, who say it translates to less thorough and frequent checks of the people using firearms.

Among other things, the amendment increases the length of time someone is approved to shoot at a range before having to re-apply, from 3 years to 5. And a permit (eg. for an overseas visitor to compete in a NSW shooting competition) has increased from 30 days to 90.

It’s a balancing act between preserving the rights of law-respecting people who shoot for sport, and the safety of the wider public.

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