Where are Sydney’s guns coming from? As recently as Saturday, a man was killed in the western suburb of Blackett, only hours after a second man was shot in the leg in the adjoining suburb of Bidwill. The spate of shootings flies in the face of the nation’s supposedly watertight gun laws — and the media, police and community groups seem bereft of solutions.
Gun crime also appears to be getting worse. Shootings in Sydney jumped 50 per cent year on year in 2011, according to the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics, and police estimate an average of two shootings a week occurred in the city in 2012. Blame is often placed on a lack of licensing restrictions within the (legal) shooting community, and ongoing studies from criminal think tanks would seem to prove the same.
Despite further restrictions on licensed owners introduced in NSW a decade ago, gun theft levels remain around the same, with 700 reported stolen by their legal owners in 2011, according to police figures.
According to Samantha Bricknell of the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC), the most likely cause is the growing number of legal firearms acquired by recreational shooters. A 2008 amendment to licensing laws waived the 28-day waiting period for existing owners to acquire additional weapons — which essentially means there are more guns around to steal.
"There has been an increase in the number of firearms being registered in the country and it seems to have been in the last five years," Bricknell told NM. "We haven’t done any significant testing on this, but it may have been the reason [for the large theft numbers]."
Prime Minister Julia Gillard last month assigned Justice Minister Jason Clare to work with NSW Police on finding a solution to the ongoing gun violence in Sydney, providing federal legislative change if needed.
But John Crook, President of Gun Control Australia, says the government has so far failed to act further on gun restrictions because of the ALP’s close association with the shooting lobby.
"In the 1990s, the Sporting Shooters Association was directly involved in recruiting members for the ALP, so a high proportion of their current members are shooters", says Crook. "Politicians have bent over backwards to help shooters in the past and now we’re paying the price."
Samara McPhedran, chair of the Coalition of Women in Shooting and Hunting (WiSH), refutes this claim. McPhedran famously published a paper with co-WiSH alumni Jeanine Baker in 2006 which concluded that the Howard Government’s 1996 National Agreement on Firearms — implemented to great public applause after the Port Arthur Massacre — had been ineffectual in combating gun crime.
"There is no reliable information about where guns recovered from police come from", says McPhedran. "What is available suggests that very few stolen firearms — handgun or otherwise — are subsequently linked with crimes. Illegal reactivation and illegal import are much more likely sources of criminals’ handguns than theft from private owners."
By "illegal reactivation", McPhedran means guns that were bought back by the government following the 1996 laws being diverted onto the black market. Earlier this year, WiSH obtained documents under Freedom of Information laws indicating that a ‘loophole’ had occurred in Queensland in particular after the government buyback, which led to some of the state’s confiscated firearms mistakenly falling into the hands of illegal resellers.
"The deactivation loophole resulted in a large number of handguns entering the illegal market, which would increase the likelihood of those specific firearms being acquired by criminals,"McPhedran says.
Indeed, while the growth in legal firearms would seem the obvious reason for the state’s continually high gun theft rates, the AIC, which regularly monitors instances of firearms theft, says nothing in their data suggests legal owners are becoming more lax with gun storage.
"We have what’s called a non-compliance rate, which is the incidence of people who police have reported as being in breach of the storage conditions of their licence when they go to investigate a reported firearm theft", says Bricknell.
"That rate hasn’t changed — in any given year, a quarter of owners who reported the theft of a firearm to police were deemed to be storage non-compliant. So while owners haven’t improved their compliance rate, it hasn’t gotten worse either."
The avenue that hasn’t been significantly researched in past years is illegal import. Until last year, police insisted there was no evidence of large scale importation of firearms into the country. Then in March, a seizure of 140 ammunition magazines from a smuggling ring in south-western Sydney blew the possibility of guns passing en masse through Australia’s borders wide open.
The ongoing discovery of weapons for which a licence is locally unobtainable — including an Uzi sub-machine gun discovered during a police raid in Campbelltown last weekend — would seem to suggest importation from overseas is continuing.
A source within the NSW police, who wished to remain anonymous, confirms this. The source suggests guns are easily being imported from overseas and used for illegal arms trades in Sydney’s west, but that federal police and customs, focused on the political hot button issue of people smuggling, have no resources devoted to stemming this flow.
Whilst large scale imports might allow the police to catch wind, a smaller operation bringing in weapons in twos and threes, with different parts in different packages — what Sydney University professor Philip Alpers called an "ant trade" on ABC’s AM program — goes largely undetected.
The police source confirms that guns are currently being brought into the country in parts and assembled by arms traders when all parts separately make it through customs. If a single part is seized, re-ordering is quicker and more cost effective. Figures collected by the Crime Commission during an investigation into the illicit market suggest almost 6,000 undeclared gun parts were detected by customs in the 2010-11 financial year — a significant number on its own, let alone taking into account that many more may be going undetected.
With organised crime squads working to root out gun suppliers on the ground — at least four successful raids have been conducted in the last week alone — it appears prevention, rather than intervention, is where law enforcement may be falling short. Bricknell suggests more concrete intelligence is needed in order for the public to get a clearer picture into what’s really going on in the gun trade.
"With firearms stuff, it’s very difficult to comment on what’s going on outside the legal market, particularly when you don’t have a lot of intelligence to work with," she says. The increased federal support promised by Gillard last month certainly shows the government’s taking Sydney’s gun problem more seriously; but in an election year, the issue of gun smuggling could well get lost in the fray.
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