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We may never know why Wayne Smith, a man with a history of mental health problems, needed three guns in his home but the system that protected his right to retain ownership of the weapons is no longer fit for purpose.
Smith, 58, shot his son Noah, 15, dead as he lay on his bed in their home in Yamba and then took his own life last Thursday. Twenty-two months before, police arrived at the home to take his three guns after he had made comments about his mental health struggle – including suicidal thoughts – while renewing his firearms licence. Firearms registry staff voiced concern and his licence was revoked. Last December, following an independent psychologist’s assessment, as the system required, his licence was renewed and his guns returned.
Wayne Smith with his son Noah in a photo uploaded to social media in 2017.Credit: Facebook
The government has ordered an immediate review on how Smith got his guns back. NSW Police Minister Yasmin Catley early on Monday defended the firearms licence system as “robust”, but by day’s end had ordered NSW Police Commissioner Karen Webb and the secretary of NSW Health to look into the Yamba deaths with an emphasis on the issuing of gun licences where mental health was a factor.
With gun law reform such a fraught undertaking, the government’s change of heart is welcome, given these tragedies loom so large in our collective memories.
In July 2004, Michael Richardson stabbed his wife Roxanne, smothered his children Luke and Grace and then turned a gun on himself at their home in East Gresford, near Maitland. Depressed by damage to his property caused by drought, Richardson had tried to kill himself by poisoning the previous summer and his gun licence had been revoked and his firearms confiscated. But, after a series of medical examinations, he was later deemed stable enough to have his guns returned.
Little was done but there were moves to readdress gun laws after a family murder/suicide in 2018 caused widespread controversy. Following a drawn out custody battle, John Edwards, a 68-year-old financial adviser, entered the West Pennant Hills home of ex-wife Olga, opening fire and killing his 15-year-old son Jack and 13-year-old daughter Jennifer in their bedrooms before later turning the gun on himself in his Normanhurst home. Six months later, Olga took her own life. Edwards was granted a licence and permits for five weapons, including a semi-automatic, despite a series of red flags on his database record, including a history of domestic violence and apprehended violence orders.
State coroner Teresa O’Sullivan made 25 coronial recommendations following the Edwards killings, mainly around domestic violence. Other options were to allow police to perform gun checks when courts, including the Family Court, deemed children to be at risk and allowing GPs to raise the alarm when a patient has mental health issues.
While it is true that people who have mental illnesses are rarely violent towards others, we seem reluctant to acknowledge that these killings are all of a pattern, with the constant being a history of mental health problems.
Catley has admitted that, with hindsight, the guns should not have been given back to Smith and there was little information available as to the father’s state of mind from when his licence was restored last December until he killed his son last week. “People do recover from mental health episodes,” she said.
But the Yamba incident has exposed holes in the system. It required Smith himself to raise the red flag about his mental health and there is no evidence any medical reassessment was carried out since his guns were returned.
Mental health and guns are a most vexed issue and while Catley is right to point out people do recover from mental health episodes, balancing personal freedoms against public safety is a delicate undertaking that will require sensitivity and care.
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