Mental health checks for WA's gun owners to become mandatory under changes to firearms laws
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Anyone buying a gun in Western Australia will have to undergo mandatory and ongoing mental health checks, as part of a complete overhaul of the state's 50-year-old firearms legislation.
The changes are designed to create some of the toughest gun laws in the country.
They are occurring separately to any potential national gun register and will make WA the first state or territory requiring specific, legislated and recurring mental health checks for gun owners.
Twenty people died from gunshot wounds in the state last year, and Police Minister Paul Papalia said mental health issues were involved in at least half of those deaths.
He hoped the changes would help reduce murders, gun-related family and domestic violence, attacks on police and suicides.
"This isn't the only solution. It's not a guaranteed solution, but it's more than what we do now," Mr Papalia told the ABC.
"And we are obliged to do our best to make the community safer."
Alison Evans, the chief executive officer at the Centre for Women's Safety and Wellbeing, said the change was urgently needed.
"We do know from research overseas, and in particular in the US, that I think over half of intimate partner homicides are committed with guns, which means a woman is five times more likely to be murdered when her abuser has access to a gun," Ms Evans said.
The state government announced last March it would overhaul WA's 1973 Firearms Act.
The new legislation is currently being drafted and mental health checks will be one of the key features of the new laws, in the same way they are required for a recreational pilot's licence.
A major shake-up of WA's gun laws aims to enhance community safety.
A working group comprising the mental health minister's office, the Mental Health Commission, the Royal Australian College of GPs and other groups will develop the detail of how the checks will work and precisely what would constitute a red flag preventing a gun licence being granted.
Broadly, a health practitioner would conduct the check within set guidelines and WA Police would make the final decision.
"The bottom line is there will be a mandatory mental health check to obtain a firearms licence and it will be recurrent on a regular basis," Mr Papalia said.
The minister said community safety was paramount.
"One of the real key indicators of the likelihood of a woman or family suffering violence [or] being killed in a domestic violence situation is the presence of a firearm in the house," he said.
The mental health checks could also help prevent people taking their own lives, including in rural communities where the average suicide rate among farmers is almost 60 per cent higher than non-farmers, according to coronial data from 2021.
"Anything you can do to help try and reduce that terrible toll. There's got to be a positive," Mr Papalia said.
"This isn't some sort of vindictive thing. This is trying to make it safer for people and sadly, it's the fact that our farmers are suffering disproportionately."
People who are identified as living with a significant mental health condition during the checks will be offered support.
"In the event that this process identifies an issue, then what we want the system to enable is a pathway to seeking help," Mr Papalia said.
"So that's probably an opportunity that might not have existed in the past for that person to reach out because they wouldn't even have been visible to anybody, because there's no obligation to go and see anybody.
"There's nothing punitive about this. It really is trying to help those people. There's a lot of people out there that have sadly taken their lives through access to a firearm."
In Victoria, anyone applying for a firearm licence must declare if they have been treated for certain medical issues, including mental health issues such as depression, stress or emotional problems, in the previous five years.
In Queensland, when someone lodges an application for a weapon's licence, they must provide a medical report issued by a doctor, psychologist or psychiatrist explaining if they are a fit and proper person to be issued with that licence.
The WA legislation is intended to be more defined than that, and with ongoing checks.
The applicant would not have the choice to provide a report or health check from wherever they wanted, or go "doctor shopping".
It's understood the applicant would have to follow a standardised procedure that was then logged with WA Police.
Further proposed changes to WA's gun laws will be announced later this year.
Mr Papalia said that would include making it harder for criminals to obtain weapons on the black market.
"Our changes to the Firearms Act are going to be comprehensive and they will change the system for management of firearms and access to them in Western Australia," he said.
"There's going to be more that we'll be seeing in coming months."
Ann O'Neill was seriously injured and her two young children killed in 1994, when her estranged husband broke into her home with a gun.
She said the knock-on impact of such trauma is long-lasting.
"Most people I know who have been impacted by gun crime just want to make it safer for the rest of the community and I myself have that same desire," she said.
"I have campaigned for years to try and ensure that others don't meet that same fate that the two little people in our family's fate was, at no choice of their own."
Ms O'Neill said the process of ascertaining who can access a firearm should be as diligent as possible.
"I'm really excited about the moving forward and getting some change, it's been a long time coming and unfortunately for far too many families it's too late."
The move was welcomed by agriculture advocacy organisation WAFarmers.
Its CEO, Trevor Whittington, said the organisation welcomed the move and called it a "responsible step forward" that would "hopefully help reduce self-inflicted firearm suicides and God forbid a mass murder".
"Firearms like explosives or aircraft in the wrong hands are potential weapons of mass destruction," he said.
"Firearms in the hands of people with mental health problems can be the means of their own self destruction, or worse the destruction of their families.
"For too long its been too easy for people who have no need for, or are of unsavoury character, or mentally unfit, to get a firearms licence."
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