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New laws in WA would take guns away from people accused of domestic violence. Will they protect women?

After last week’s tragic double murder suicide in the Perth suburb of Floreat, questions have been raised about why police did not remove the killer’s legally owned firearms. Allegedly, his daughter alerted police multiple times that she and her mother believed they were at imminent risk of harm, but no action was taken.

Under current firearms laws, Western Australia’s police have very broad powers to seize firearms if they believe there is a risk of harm being suffered by any person. We do not know why those powers were not used.

However, the WA government has announced it is going to change the law to make it mandatory for police to remove firearms from anyone who is the subject of a domestic violence complaint.

Will this really protect domestic violence victims, or is it just a political ploy to deflect attention from how police respond to domestic violence incidents in the state?

How do police assess risk in domestic violence cases?

There are many different ways for police to deal with domestic violence incidents. This includes, for example, issuing a protection order, taking a perpetrator into custody, or referring the victim to other services.

Risk-assessment processes help police decide what type of response is most appropriate. Generally, when police conduct risk assessments they use a combination of interviews with the victim (and sometimes the perpetrator), professional judgement, and structured “tick box” tools.

A weatherboard house with dozens of bunches of flowers laid on the front lawn
Two women were murdered in Floreat in Perth in late May. Aaron Bunch/AAP

These tools consider indicators such as whether:

  • the victim is fearful
  • the perpetrator has ever threatened to kill them
  • the perpetrator has ever physically assaulted them
  • the perpetrator has ever threatened them with a weapon of any kind.

Whether the perpetrator has access to firearms is included as part of the risk assessment.

Risk assessment is imperfect and not always able to detect “subtle” or “hidden” forms of abuse. How accurate risk assessment is also depends on things like the experience of the police officer and what information is disclosed to them.

How police respond to domestic violence can also be affected by their perceptions of the victim and/or perpetrator, as well as by their own beliefs and knowledge about domestic violence.

Is domestic abuse with firearms common?

Homicide statistics are held by different agencies and it is difficult to get exact breakdowns of method by homicide type.

According to the most recent figures from the Australian government’s National Homicide Monitoring Program, in 2022–23, there were 75 female homicide victims nationally. Of those, eight were killed by a gunshot wound.

We do not know how many of those firearm deaths were domestic and family violence related, but a different source, the Australian Bureau of Statistics, says in 2022 (the most recent data) there were 71 female domestic and family violence related homicide victims nationwide, none of whom were killed with a firearm.

Australian Bureau of Statistics data also shows Western Australia has very few domestic and family violence related homicide deaths involving firearms.

Will mandatory gun removal make a practical difference?

It is hard to say whether mandatory firearm removal will make a difference to domestic and family violence homicides. On the surface, it looks like it should, but domestic violence is complex.

WA has so few firearm-related domestic and family violence fatalities that it is unlikely we will ever be able to determine whether anything has changed. We also do not know how many homicides may occur in cases where firearms have been removed using existing police powers, but where another method was used.

Moving past the numbers, there is a concern the proposed laws may create a false sense of security for victims, as well as lead to police complacency. Just because guns have been removed does not mean a victim is safe.

A young blond woman sits wearing a grey blazer
Ariel Bombara, the daughter of the man who killed a Perth mother and daughter, has called for systemic change to protect women. Phil Hemingway/AAP

What should the next steps be?

Sadly, we see many cases where victims of lethal domestic and family violence tried repeatedly to get help in the lead up to their deaths. Too often, the systems that are meant to protect them did not listen and did not hold the perpetrator accountable.

Lawyers, advocates and families in WA are coming forward and saying things need to change. Yet the government has been silent on how it plans to better protect domestic and family violence victims where there is no firearm present.

In Queensland, after a series of high-profile domestic and family violence related deaths, the government convened an independent commission of inquiry into Queensland police service responses to domestic and family violence. That inquiry revealed a need for better risk assessment practices, improved police training and education, and system-wide reforms so that victims are taken seriously.

If the WA government genuinely wants to protect people from domestic and family violence, it must stop trying to sweep difficult questions under the rug. The reality is that headline-grabbing laws cannot fix systemic problems.

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