As their flight made slow circles over foggy Canberra one winter morning in 2012, Alistair Gee and Philip Alpers came up with an idea.
The 30-something lawyer and the 60-something academic were both deeply concerned about gun violence and were heading to the nation’s capital for talks on an international arms trade treaty.
The fog would ultimately prevent them landing in Canberra, but the holding pattern gave them time to talk and plan. By the time they landed back in Sydney, they’d agreed to form an organisation dedicated to improving international control standards for guns, ammunition and explosives.
And by 2018, they did what successive Australian governments have failed to do despite talking about it for almost 30 years – they designed, built and funded a software system to be used as a national firearms registry.
Their low-cost, simple-to-use system, known as ArmsTracker, is now operational or being installed in countries across the globe, including Samoa, Liberia, Ecuador, the Central African Republic, Sierra Leone and Fiji.
“My whole focus at the moment is building gun registers in other countries,’’ Alpers, now aged 74, tells Inquirer. “We’ve developed a software that will do it on the cheapest possible computer.
“And it’s just amazing how small countries that don’t have much in the way of resources are just so grateful to have a piece of software that allows them to set up a gun register. They know the strength of it.’’
Alpers is one of Australia’s best-known gun control advocates – Associate Professor at the University of Sydney’s School of Public Health, and founding director of the GunPolicy.org global research project. He’s been actively campaigning for a national firearms register even before the states and territories agreed – but failed to implement – a register following the 1996 massacre of 35 people at Port Arthur in Tasmania.
Aerial view of the burnt-out Seascape guesthouse after the Port Arthur siege
Former PM John Howard John Howard showing the bulge of a bullet proof vest while addressing an anti-gun-control law demonstration in Victoria
Gee, now 47, is a lawyer with a particular interest in human rights who worked at a humanitarian agency helping those affected by armed violence. He got to know Alpers through their shared passion for reducing gun harm.
On the occasion their flight was caught in fog, they were heading for talks on the Arms Trade Treaty, an international agreement involving more than 100 countries, including Australia, to regulate the trade in firearms.
“I was running an organisation called Act for Peace at the time doing a lot of response work to armed violence,’’ Gee says.
“So for instance, refugee work, post displacement work, and thinking we needed to get closer to the actual cause and dealing with the arms and the armed violence.
“(Alpers) was kind of the only Australian with an interest in that, and expertise in that around the world at the time. So I was very lucky I got to work with him.
“The critical discussion that we had was on a flight to Canberra and the fog stopped us from landing … so we spent an extra few hours circling and then returning to Sydney, and it was that extra time when we worked out we needed to set this up.
“The only time I’ve been grateful for Canberra fog.” The pair founded the Centre for Armed Violence Reduction, a registered charity, in late 2012, which is headed by Gee.
They spent their first few years researching aid funding for armed violence reduction, and writing manuals on compliance with international standards on arms control and urging compliance.
“The low-cost firearms register came later, about 2018,’’ Gee says.
Philip Alpers (right) and Alistair Gee got to know each other through their shared passion for reducing gun harm. Picture: John Feder/The Australian
The early work the pair had done meant they had detailed data on firearms and management systems from across the globe.
“Philip’s been working in this space since the early 1990s, if not, before,’’ Gee says. “What made it possible for us was, with that analysis of every country, we worked out there was a way to do it with a universal master version that could then be customised for every country.’’
Alpers designed the register and, for $10,000, hired a database developer to build it.
“I’ve been reading the gun laws of every country in the world for 20 years now and I know how it’s done,’’ he says. “I was able to design a register for a small country that would work – and that’s because it’s simple. It’s tamper resistant. It is largely an anti-corruption tool. It stops people leaking guns out the back doors.
“What we do is give them a piece of software that will fit on any Windows 10 PC, and use a Microsoft program called Access to run a database.’’
They launched softly in the Pacific in 2019, where gun violence was not a major problem, starting with Samoa, which now records all its civilian and police guns via ArmsTracker.
They then started installing the system at the request of governments in more restive countries, including Liberia, the Central African Republic and Sierra Leone, as well as registers for the military in Fiji, a surplus arms destruction program in Cambodia and the Ecuadorean air force.
It is available in English, French, Spanish and Khmer, and can be adapted into other languages on request.
The register system has been installed at the request of governments in more restive countries, including Liberia. Picture: AFP
From the very first system, ArmsTracker has now matured into a program where Gee and Alpers’ organisation accesses the grants, customises the program to suit individual country’s needs and languages, often buys the computers, and provides the training to install it and use it. In some countries, guns had previously been recorded in handwritten logbooks or Excel spreadsheets, while others didn’t record gun ownership at all.
About $1m has been spent on the program so far, which is now backed by the work of 91 students from Gee’s alma mater, Macquarie University in Sydney, who help with the coding and do other work.
Things do not always go smoothly. “We were just about to install in Niger when they had a coup,’’ Alpers recalls. “Burkina Faso had a coup when we put in our first installation. And this goes on and on. That’s the story of developing countries, but there’s a lot more enthusiasm for firearm registries in developing countries that really need it and really have a problem with guns.’’
Gee and Alpers use international donors to fund the registers, usually making grant requests to various UN bodies, or the voluntary trust fund that was set up as part of the Arms Trade Treaty process. They travel regularly to Geneva or New York to tap donors on behalf of the countries that can be gifted the entire program.
They are also supported by the Mines Advisory Group, an international charity dedicated to clearing landmines and other unexploded ordnance, which helps with local knowledge and staff.
“They can’t afford any of this,’’ Alpers says of some of the countries developing their own gun registers. “We act as the implementing agencies, responsible to the (trust funds) to make sure that it happens and every penny is accounted for. Then we deal with the governments of the country to make sure it gets done. We provide the training, the software and a whole heap of other devices they need. In many cases, they need computers and we provide computers on the ground.’’
Many of the guns used in crimes in PNG have leaked from police stocks, which were originally provided by Australia decades ago.
The pair make ArmsTracker available only to government agencies, to assist accurate record-keeping and enforcement of local weapons laws. It can track imports and exports of guns, transfers and sales, stockpiles, and ownership.
ArmsTracker also enables tracing, identification of weapons, interagency co-operation and, according to its advertising material, “helps countries to reduce gun-related crime, trafficking, injury and death, reduce the risk of armed conflict and to comply with international arms control treaties and agreements’’.
The system is also being installed in PNG, following a request from the government there to help the country update its civilian firearm registry. The country is being wracked by gun violence in the capital, Port Moresby, and in several remote highland provinces. Many of the guns used in crimes in PNG have leaked from police stocks, which were originally provided by Australia decades ago.
“We’ve got a request from the Prime Minister’s department to provide ArmsTracker to them. We’ve met with various people in the PNG Constabulary. They want it and we’re just arranging logistics to be able to provide it to them. So I’m hoping that’ll be able to start in the next few months,’’ Gee says.
The war in Ukraine has seen some of the European donor money for ArmsTracker diverted, and plans to establish a register in Gambia are on hold due to the funding squeeze.
Despite the stalemate in Australia over a national firearms register, neither Gee nor Alpers believes ArmsTracker would be acceptable for use here.
“The first thing is they wouldn’t trust anything that cost less than $2m. And they’d want to immediate reconfigure it and they say it’s nowhere near good enough for us,’’ Alpers says.
Gee agrees their system is like a Toyota Corolla, but Australia wants a Ferrari. “They want something more sophisticated, especially if they’re trying to bridge six existing registries,’’ Gee says. “For instance, we tendered for the New Zealand register last year, but they wanted all sorts of things that the countries ArmsTracker is set up for don’t want and don’t need.
“Our clients want the Toyota Corolla. They’re often going from handwritten logbooks, and they would be spooked by a Ferrari, even if it were available, which it is not.’’