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Issue # 1399      18 February 2009

NSW residents up in arms over shooting law changes

A bitter row has erupted over the approval to extend a shooting complex at the NSW Southern Highlands village of Hilltop. The controversy is revealing a disturbing trend towards an increase in the influence of the gun industry lobby,

The proposal to extend the shooting centre followed the decision to close the rifle range in the Sydney beachside suburb of Malabar. The site for the extension of the shooting centre was especially created by the former Iemma government, by excising 1,000 hectares from the Bargo State Conservation area, which is home to many endangered species and lies within the Sydney water catchment area. The development would also involve a contribution of $5 million of taxpayers funding.

Local residents have objected to the extension proposal, and have pointed out that it will involve a massive increase in the noise level, a major increase in the frequency of gunshots, an extension of the shooting hours, an increase in the demand for local parking, and increasing pollution of local waterways. The existing site is already heavily contaminated with lead and heavy metals from its use over the last twenty years.

Residents already complain that they can hear the gunshots from the existing complex, which caters for 12 shooters at any one time, but the proposal would cater for up to ten times this number simultaneously, and up to 250 shooters per day.

The development will involve extensive clearing of bushland, construction of additional pistol, air pistol and shotgun ranges, a clubhouse, an armoury, a generator, expanded water storage and an expanded car park. The Army is also likely to use the complex.

Clearing the way

Construction of the existing Hill Top centre in 1986 was opposed by local residents, but the project went ahead after the NSW Labor government of Barry Unsworth (formerly nicknamed “the killer in the cardigan”) used special state powers to override local government zoning regulations.

At this time the government also ignored objections from the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) over the erosion of pristine natural areas and the elimination of walking tracks. The NPWS expressed extreme concern that the area was a high fire risk. The recent Victorian bushfires have provided the most clear evidence of the increasing risk of bushfires from human activity, but this crucial advice from the NPWS is still being ignored.

In order to expedite the current development, the NSW government removed the power to approve the development application from the local council by declaring it to be a project of state significance. Under laws formerly passed by the Iemma government, the responsibility for approval of these projects lies directly with the state Minister for Planning.

In July 2007 lawyers acting for the Hill Top Residents Action Group pointed out that wording in proposed new planning legislation would forbid any Minister from approving a development which had already been prohibited by local government zoning. The former NSW Planning Minister Frank Sartor subsequently amended the planning regulations by way of an announcement in the Government Gazette, thereby effectively removing this obstruction to major development. The Shooting Centre development application then proceeded on its way.

Shooters get their way

The application to extend the Shooting Centre was dogged by rumours that the Iemma government had reached an agreement with the Shooters’ Party to gain their support for new planning legislation which would remove impediments to inappropriate new major developments. The Shooters’ Party holds two of the votes that the government requires to pass legislation opposed by the conservative coalition in the upper house. Since gaining parliamentary representation the Shooters’ Party has voted with the ALP government about 63 percent of the time.

Frank Sartor certainly appears to have given an undertaking to allow the massively enlarged shooting centre to operate seven days a week, and on some nights to remain open until 10 pm. Current Planning Minister Kristina Kennealy, on the other hand, has more cautiously indicated that the development will be banned from operating on the weekends or public holidays.

Predictably, Shooters’ Party MP Robert Brown has complained bitterly: “If you have a regional shooting complex and it’s going to be running major … competitions for some of the clubs that are going to be using it, most of these events happen on long weekends because people come from all over the state, and even interstate and overseas.” That, of course, is just the point that local residents are trying to make.

It remains to be seen whether the Minister will stick to her guns (as it were) over the operating hours, but the indications are that the Shooters’ Party may well carry the day.

Support from the Shooters’ Party is keenly sought by all the major political parties. Last year, despite objections from women’s organisations, the Police Association and the National Coalition for Gun Control, Government and Coalition MPs combined to pass Shooters’ Party legislative amendments which would allow subjects of apprehended violence orders to have their guns returned immediately after expiry of the order.

Gun lobby influence

The anti-gun group Gun Control Australia has pointed to the close relationship between some Australian shooter clubs and extremist US gun organisations. Australia’s largest gun club, the Sporting Shooters Association of Australia (SSAA) and the handgun group Pistol Australia are affiliates of the US National Rifle Association (NRA).

The NRA gained particular notoriety after the Virgina Tech massacre, by refusing to support a ban on gun ownership, and instead advocating that teachers should be armed and that employees should be allowed to carry guns to work in their cars. It also wants ex-military rifles to be available for private use.

For its part, the SSAA has appointed a Canberra lobbyist, apparently with a view to persuading federal politicians to liberalise the existing gun laws. A representative of Gun Control Australia commented: “We don’t need American gun values and gun policies in Australia any more than we need America’s 20 times greater rate of gun homicide.”

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