NSW gun registry staff confused: new boss

Anthony Bell has told an inquest the NSW Firearms Registry has changed its processes.
Anthony Bell has told an inquest the NSW Firearms Registry has changed its processes.

When it gave John Edwards access to guns, the NSW Firearms Registry was mostly staffed by people confused about the requirement to only grant licences and permits to "fit and proper" people, their new boss says.

The registry's commander, parachuted into the position after Edwards shot dead his children in July 2018, said he found clerks and their supervisors were processing 300 licences weekly without properly determining if a person was fit and proper, as required by law.

"I found some were, but the majority didn't (carry it out) and they didn't have a true understanding of that component," Superintendent Anthony Bell told the NSW Coroners Court on Thursday.

Edwards was granted a special gun training permit, a rifle licence and a pistol licence in 2017. A year later, the 67-year-old pensioner used his legally owned Glock pistol to murder his estranged teenage children Jack and Jennifer in their Sydney home and then shot himself dead.

The inquest into the three deaths has heard the same clerk reviewed Edwards' police record for both licence applications in June 2017, but a system audit showed she checked only some data.

The legislation states the decision-maker can't grant a licence unless satisfied the applicant is "a fit and proper person" and can be trusted to possess firearms without endangering public safety.

"They struggled because of the subjective nature (of the term)," Supt Bell said.

"There is no definition in the legislation about what a fit and proper person is."

He accepted registry staff up to 2017 were only applying a set of narrow criteria to reject licence applications, including whether any apprehended violence order applications were active or whether a final AVO had been in effect within the past decade.

"You could have a robot doing that," counsel assisting Kate Richardson SC said.

"If you didn't have to apply 'fit and proper', yes," Supt Bell replied.

Asked how the registry had reached a state of failing a central aspect of its job - determining who was safe to get a gun licence - the registry commander said it was a question for his predecessor, retired superintendent Bruce Lyons and the former management.

"I identified it pretty early," Supt Bell added.

"It's a concern. It was a red flag to me as a police officer. The whole way I go about it is 'What does the legislation say?'"

He said staff had undergone extensive training and been instructed to escalate to senior adjudicators when unsure about whether to grant a licence.

Licences issued under the old regime were being reviewed when licensees have certain new items added to their police record, when duplicate police profiles are found and under some other circumstances, he said.

Licensees are also reviewed when seeking licence renewals, usually every five years.

He defended the fact the registry began using new criteria for the Central Names Index report summary only two weeks ago, saying development took months and he had many more pressing issues in his overhaul.

The commander wants new licensees fingerprinted at police stations but pushed back on suggestions the registry should be proactively contacting clubs when a person switched to a new club.

Club officials could, however, make complaints to the registry or report to local police incidents of aggressive behaviour, such as that from Edwards towards the Ku-Ring-Gai Pistol Club president in early 2017.

The inquest has heard Olga Edwards, Jack and Jennifer's mother, had formally reported to police that Edwards had stalked her at her dawn yoga class.

But police didn't properly record or investigate the February 2017 incident and never applied for an AVO on her behalf.

Supt Bell had that last step occurred, the registry would have viewed it as a "knockout" issue and denied Edwards any permits or licences.

The inquest continues.

Australian Associated Press