The findings fall short of the initial hype that surrounded the reforms, which Deputy Commissioner Shane Patton declared in 2017 would be “a real game-changer”.
Despite police claiming at the time there were about 2200 suspects who could be issued with an order once the laws passed, new figures reveal only 252 gun bans have been issued since May 2018 when the changes took effect – far less than NSW’s average of 730 orders a year.
Police attribute the relatively low number to the “considered approach” they have taken, part of which initially involved limiting the new powers to senior officers in Crime Command and Counter Terrorism Command.
“We are now working to roll out the ability to issue FPOs to a number of other areas within Victoria Police, so over time we expect the numbers to increase,” Assistant Commissioner Tess Walsh told The Age.
But in the first major review of the legislation, a bipartisan parliamentary committee questioned whether the orders were having the desired impact, and warned that their broad criteria “raises the risk that members of the community with little or no criminal involvement could be targeted”.
“Whether FPOs are the game changer police claim is difficult to determine based on the relatively low number of orders that have so far been issued,” says the committee’s report, which is now being considered by the government.
“The committee further notes that of the charges laid as a result of FPO searches, fewer than half were for firearms offences.”
Police Minister Lisa Neville did not say whether she would seek to strengthen the legislation in view of recent concerns. However, she said the FPOs had been “incredibly successful” and the government would continue working with police “to target illegal firearms and the serious organised crime networks who use them.”
Police also defended the scheme, pointing out that that prohibition orders are not issued lightly given the powers that come with them.
“A number of factors are taken into consideration … including the criminal history of the individual, the people the individual associates with, the behaviour of the individual, or on the basis of information known to the Chief Commissioner that indicates the individual may pose a threat or risk to public safety,” said Assistant Commissioner Walsh.
The spread of illegal firearms has long been a problem in Australia, with the federal Crime Commission conservatively estimating there are currently 260,000 illicit firearms in the domestic market.
Tensions were compounded last year, when eight people were killed in as many weeks in a spate of shootings across Melbourne. One of those shootings involved a fatal drive-by at Prahran’s Love Machine nightclub, which was linked to underworld figure Nabil Maghnie, who was gunned down this month.
Victoria’s reforms – modelled on NSW’s successful scheme – were designed to reduce such crimes, giving the Chief Commissioner or his delegates the discretion to issue an FPO if it’s deemed to be in the “public interest”.
However, a recent decision by the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal to overturn a ban imposed on former Rebels bikie boss Colin Websdale highlighted the complexities in meeting that public-interest threshold.
Under the scheme, police also now have extraordinary powers to search people and cars or property without consent, or a warrant. Figures show that between May 9, 2018, and June 30, 2019, 205 warrantless searches were conducted, resulting in 139 individual charges. Items seized include silencers, revolvers, ammunition and magazines, barrels, bolts, drugs and cash. But in 85 of the searches, no offences were detected.
Farrah Tomazin is a senior journalist and investigative reporter for The Age, with interests in politics, social justice, and legal affairs.