The number, distribution and source of illegal guns in Australia is a statistical black hole: that’s the picture beginning to emerge from a federal senate inquiry into illegal guns and gun-related crime, the public hearings for which began on Monday.
The senate inquiry snappily titled ‘The Ability of Australian law enforcement authorities to eliminate gun-related violence in the community’ was called for by the Greens and is being carried out by the Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee.
Its scope is ambitious. Committee member and Greens senator Penny Wright said the final report would examine how the illegal gun trade was operating, who was behind it and what could be done about it. The inquiry will also look at how technology such as 3D printers could affect the spread of illegal firearms; the effects of a possible ban on semi-automatic handguns and state and territory rules governing gun storage, ownership, sale and transit.
“One of the most consistent themes is the lack of adequate data about where illicit firearms are from, whether they are imported or stolen from legal owners or are being manufactured in Australia,” Senator Wright said.
Ms Wright said that the committee would very likely recommend there be better quality data around firearm distribution and the sources of illegal guns, which could include the reinstatement of a series of reports on firearm theft, previously funded under the Proceeds of Crime Act. The last report was 2008-2009 before funding was pulled.
“One other thing the committee is examining is the security of data about gun ownership,” Ms Wright said.
“We have had some people raise the concern that gun club registries, for example, present a ‘catalogue for criminals’ if they were to get into the wrong hands. One submission has suggested there ought to be conditions that mandate for gun data to be stored as carefully as guns themselves.”
Differing laws between states and territories is also likely to be a target for the committee.
For example, the Victoria Police inquiry submission states that Victoria is the only territory or state that classifies imitation firearms as illegal weapons whereas Western Australians can legally import imitation guns.
Senator Wright said the committee would also consider recommending developing hotspots maps to identify instances of illegal gun use and theft of guns and enforcing uniform standards for gun storage across all states and territories.
The Australian Crime Commission (ACC) – the go-to source for data on illegal firearms – admitted in its submission to the inquiry that “the exact size of the illicit firearm market is an enduring intelligence gap”.
Only limited data is available from the Commission’s 2012 report – the National Illicit Firearm Assessment (NIFA) – with much of it deemed inappropriate for public release.
ACC estimated in 2012 that there were more than 250,000 long-arms and 10,000 handguns in the illicit market in Australia.
The ACC divides this illicit market into the ‘black market’ of any gun obtained illegally, whether through importation, theft, manufacture or diversion from the legal market and the ‘grey market’ of long-arm firearms, which were not registered or not surrendered during government buybacks following the 1996 National Firearms Agreement.
An ACC spokesperson said the ACC’s 2012 assessment highlighted differences in the way agencies and jurisdictions collect data and this needed to be addressed to better chart the scale and trends of illegal guns in Australia.
“The Attorney-General’s Department submission to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee highlights a range of initiatives undertaken to improve data consistency across Australia including the establishment of a firearm tracing service within the ACC, the establishment of the National Firearms Identification Database and the launch of the Australian Ballistic Information Network, developed by CrimTrac, which enables national analysis and electronic matching of ballistic evidence following a crime,” said the spokesperson.
The ACC is currently working on a new (classified) firearm assessment due for completion next year.
While the Commission claims the primary source for illegal guns is stolen legal guns – not illegal importation – frontline NSW police, in the NSW Government Justice Cluster’s inquiry submission, label illegally imported handguns and assault rifles as the “key drive of gun crime” in the state.
Meanwhile, the Australian Institute of Criminology, which helped produce the NIFA report, estimates that the source of around 70 per cent of handguns used to commit crime was unknown, adding that “some degree of caution is hence required when interpreting this data”.
Thesecond public hearing of the inquiry is in Melbourne today and the third is in Canberra on October 31.
The committee’s report is due on December 2, following a two-month extension.
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