Australian Institute of Criminology

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The nature of firearm theft incidents

Reporting firearm thefts

Owners of registered firearms are required to notify police of lost or stolen firearms within a prescribed timeframe. The period of notification varies between jurisdictions, from 24 hours in Victoria to a maximum of 14 days (in writing) in South Australia. In 2008–09, 56 percent of firearm thefts were reported on the day the theft occurred (or was discovered) or the following day (see Table 14). A fifth of thefts were not reported until more than two weeks after the theft occurred. Compliance with mandatory stolen firearm reporting laws was high across all jurisdictions (excluding Western Australia). The lowest compliance rate was in New South Wales where 75 percent of owners reported the theft within the mandatory reporting period (in this case, within 7 days of the theft) compared with 91 percent compliance in the Australian Capital Territory (where a theft must be reported within 48 hours of its event).

Table 14: Period between incident date and report date
0 (the day of the incident) 215 36
1 day 122 20
2 to 7 days 113 19
8 to 14 days 30 5
More than 14 days 121 20
Total 601 100

Source: AIC NFTMP 2008–09 [computer file] (excludes Western Australia and the Northern Territory)

The majority of thefts reported in 2008–09 (94%) were committed within this 12 month period. Of the 37 thefts that occurred before the 1 July 2008, 73% (n=27) were reported two or more years after the date on which the theft was known or thought to have occurred. One theft incident was reported 14 years after it took place.

Seventy-eight percent of firearm theft incidents were reported by the firearm owner—71 percent by the owner of a registered firearm and six percent by the owner of an unregistered firearm (see Table 15). Nine owners (1%) reported the theft of both registered and unregistered firearms, four of whom (44%) were found in breach of firearm regulations. Of the 35 theft incidents in which only unregistered firearms were stolen, two-thirds of the owners who reported the incident to police were found to be in breach of firearm regulations and just over a third (37%) of these were subsequently charged.

Table 15: Persons who reported firearm theft to police
Owner of firearm(s) 469 78
Owner of registered firearm(s) 425 71
Owner of unregistered firearm(s) 35 6
Owner of registered and unregistered firearm(s) 9 1
Owner of premises 14 2
Occupier of premises 28 5
Another licensed person 18 3
Police initiated inquiry 20 3
Other 46 8
Unknown 5 1
Total 600 100

Note: Excludes 1 incident where the identity of the person who reported the firearm theft was recorded as not applicable

Source: AIC NFTMP 2008–09 [computer file] (excludes Western Australia and the Northern Territory)

Circumstances of the theft

As found in previous years, around nine in 10 (89%) firearm theft incidents that were reported in 2008–09 followed from an unlawful entry into a building or vehicle (see Table 16). Just two percent of reported theft incidents occurred as a result of an armed robbery, mostly of armed security guards. Another two percent were associated with firearms being stolen while in transit (ie being transferred between locations by a commercial courier service).

Table 16: Circumstances of theft
Theft, following unlawful entry 533 89
Theft, following robbery 12 2
Misplaced, presumed stolen 24 4
Presumed stolen in transit 10 2
Not returned to owner 2 <1
Other 11 2
Unknown 9 2
Total 601  

Note: Percentages may not total 100 due to rounding

Source: AIC NFTMP 2008–09 [computer file] (excludes Western Australia and the Northern Territory)

Location of theft

The majority of firearms stolen in recent years in Australia were taken from private residential premises (Borzycki & Mouzos 2007; Bricknell 2010, 2008; Bricknell & Mouzos 2007). In 2008–09, private residential premises comprised 77 percent of all firearm theft locations (see Table 17). A total of 1,273 firearms, or 82 percent of all firearms, were stolen from this location. The majority of firearms stolen from private residences were taken from a room in the house (55% of theft incidents) or from the garage or shed (38%; see Table 18).

Business premises have tended to make up around 10 percent or less of theft locations; in 2008–09, six percent of all thefts targeted such locations, with the theft of 88 firearms (see Table 17). Firearms stolen from business premises were more likely to be stored in sites external to the head office or retail outlet, for example in a shed (24% of relevant theft incidents) or warehouse (18%). Thefts from vehicles also fluctuated, but remained at around 10 percent of all firearm theft locations. Eighty-three firearms were stolen from vehicles in 2008–09, most of which were parked on public roads or car parks (38% of theft incidents) or in private driveways (34%). A much smaller percentage of vehicle-related firearm thefts (9%) occurred with the vehicle being parked in a garage or shed. This difference possibly relates to the additional security the garage provided in thwarting theft attempts. It may also reflect the circumstances in which firearms are more likely to be left in vehicles ie firearms are more likely to be left in cars when the vehicle will be temporarily unattended (eg when parked in public locations).

Table 17: Location of theft
Private residential premises 464 77 1,273 82
Business premises 38 6 88 6
Vehicle 56 9 83 5
In transit 10 2 28 2
Other accommodation 3 1 9 1
Other 25 4 43 3
Unknown 4 1 20 1
Total 600 100 1,544 100

Note: Excludes 1 incident where the location of theft was recorded as not applicable

Source: AIC NFTMP 2008–09 [computer file] (excludes Western Australia and the Northern Territory)

Table 18: Specific location of incidents of firearm theft from private residential premises, business premises and vehicles
Private residential premises
Room in dwelling 255 55 696 55
Garage or shed 177 38 505 40
Othera 11 2 23 2
Unknown 21 5 49 4
Total 464   1,273  
Business premises
Garage or shed 9 24 27 31
Warehouse 7 18 16 18
Administrative office 5 13 7 8
Retail 5 13 9 10
Otherb 10 26 20 23
Unknown 2 5 9 10
Total 38   88  
Public road or carpark 21 38 26 31
Private driveway 19 34 35 42
Garage or shed 5 9 6 7
Otherc 9 16 14 17
Unknown 2 4 2 2
Total 56   83  

a: Includes ceiling cavities, external laundry, cellar, shipping container and workshop

b: Includes public road outside business premises, non-office space in premises, club facilities, piggery and yard area

c: Includes bushland or rural setting, camp site, parked outside a government office or club or rear yard

Note: Percentages may not total 100 due to rounding

Source: AIC NFTMP 2008–09 [computer file] (excludes Western Australia and the Northern Territory)

Repeat victimisation

Since 2005–06, less than 10 percent of firearm theft locations each year have experienced repeat victimisation. Repeat victimisation is considered to have occurred if some form of theft event took place, irrespective of whether firearms were stolen in the earlier theft incident. In 2008–09, six percent of known theft locations (n=35) had been broken into or otherwise targeted at least once before; 69 percent of these (n=24) were private residential premises. Sixty percent of repeat victimisations (n=21) had occurred in the 12 month period prior to the recorded theft. A break-and-entry characterised nine of these 21 theft incidents and in five incidents a robbery was committed.

Not all repeat theft locations were the site of a previous firearm theft. Firearms (and in 1 incident, ammunition as well) were stolen from less than half (40%, n=14) of repeat theft locations. Some form of detail regarding the type of firearm stolen was provided in the majority of these cases, with a total of 17 rifles, 10 shotguns, two handguns and one air rifle taken from these sites.

Table 19: Primary firearm storage arrangements
Safe/other secure receptacle 378 63
In vehicle 55 9
Carried on person 10 2
Strong room or vault 7 1
On display 4 1
Unsecured/in the open 59 10
Unknown 49 8
Other 34 6
Total 596 100

Note: Excludes 5 incidents where the storage arrangement for firearms at time of theft was recorded as not applicable

Source: AIC NFTMP 2008–09 [computer file] (excludes Western Australia and the Northern Territory)

Table 20: Ammunition storage
Safe or secure receptacle 67 49
Unsecured/in the open 9 7
In vehicle 3 2
Other 13 9
Unknown 45 33
Total 137 100

Note: Excludes 25 incidents where insufficient information was recorded on storage arrangement for ammunition

Source: AIC NFTMP 2008–09 [computer file] (excludes Western Australia and the Northern Territory)

How offenders gained access to theft locations

As described earlier, nine in 10 firearm theft events were as a result of a building (or some other structure) or vehicle being broken into. In almost a fifth (18%) of incidents where private residential or business premises were broken into, the theft was aided by the premises being unsecured at the time of the burglary (see Figure 4; Table 37). This proportion was greater for firearm theft from vehicles—a third of firearms were taken from an unlocked car or truck. It might be expected that in these cases the unsecured vehicles were temporarily parked (eg in public carparks) or in areas where the risk of theft would be considered comparatively low (eg rural locations), however, 44 percent of thefts from unlocked vehicles took place when the vehicle was parked in a private driveway, invariably outside the home.

In a small number of cases (6% or less), the theft was committed using a stolen key. In an equally small number of cases (included in the ‘Other’ category in Figure 4), the firearm was believed to have been stolen by persons (eg family members, employees) who would have had legitimate access to the premises or vehicle, or was surrendered by the owner following a threat from the offender.

Figure 4: Method of access to premises or vehicle (%)

 figure 4

a: Includes using threat, legitimate access and for firearms stolen from vehicles, vehicle stolen or forms of entry that did not involve the use of force or tools

Note: Excludes 11 incidents in which method of access was recorded as not applicable and 43 incidents in which the location was recorded as unknown or another location category

Source: AIC NFTMP 2008–09 [computer file] (excludes Western Australia and Northern Territory)

Storage arrangements and access to firearms

Firearms from 63 percent of all reported theft incidents were stored in a firearm safe or other apparently secure receptacle at the time of the theft (see Table 19). The prevalence of safe storage arrangements has remained consistent since 2004–05, as has the percentage of firearms that were not secured in any way (10%) or were left in vehicles (security arrangements unknown; 9%). As was found in previous years, a very small group of owners (6%) experiencing firearms theft stored their firearms in superficially secure storage arrangements, such as wardrobes and cupboards.

Data on storage arrangements for ammunition have been less detailed and consistent compared with data provided on firearm storage arrangements. Of the 137 incidents of ammunition theft where sufficient information on storage arrangements was provided, just under half (49%) were characterised by the ammunition being removed from an approved safe or receptacle (see Table 20). In all but two incidents, the safe was locked at the time of the theft.

Method of accessing firearms

Describing the method offenders used to access firearms provides additional detail regarding how secure the firearms actually were at the time of the theft incident. The application of force or use of tools was required in 38 percent of incidents of firearm theft in 2008–09 (see Table 21). In 10 percent of incidents, the key was located or the offenders managed to break the combination to the place of storage; in eight percent of thefts, the offenders chose to steal the receptacle in which the firearms were stored, presumably because they were unable, or did not have the time, to break in to the receptacle while on site. This suggests that in at least 56 percent of cases in 2008–09, the firearm had been secured in some way prior to the theft.

In another 16 percent of incidents, the firearm was easily retrieved by offenders because it was not secured properly or had been left in the open. This group of incidents includes thefts from vehicles in which the firearm was not stored appropriately (eg left under the seat, in the glove box). Since most firearms stored in vehicles were not further secured within the vehicle, offenders were able to easily retrieve the firearm once the vehicle had been broken into, if the vehicle was indeed locked.

Table 21: Method of accessing firearms
Using tools or force 225 38
Key located or broke combination 61 10
Entire receptacle stolen 49 8
Receptacle not locked 19 4
Using threat 12 2
Other 12 2
Unsecured/in the open 96 16
Unknown 121 20
Total 595 100

Note: Excludes six incidents where the method of accessing firearms was recorded as not applicable

Source: AIC NFTMP 2008–09 [computer file] (excludes Western Australia and the Northern Territory)

Theft from storage-compliant receptacles

While it was not feasible to collect specific information in the NFTMP dataset on storage arrangements (eg material the receptacle was made out of), other than the general form it took, an examination of the method by which firearms were removed from apparently compliant safes or similar receptacles provides some evidence for how secure these firearms really were at the time of the theft. Force or the use of tools was used to breach safes or other secure receptacles in 56 percent of incidents in which the firearm(s) were stored, indicating that effort was required on the offender’s part to penetrate the safe. In 12 percent of incidents, the offender(s) stole the receptacle the firearms were stored in (see Figure 5) but because of insufficient data as to whether receptacles were fixed to walls or floors, it was unclear whether these receptacles could just be carried away or the offenders had to lever them off before stealing them. In another 15 percent of incidents, the offender(s) located the key to the safe or they were able to break the combination, although it cannot be discerned what proportion of these incidents were aided by the key being located and in what proportion the offenders had to break the combination. These results parallel previous years findings regarding how offenders remove firearms from safes (see Borzycki & Mouzos 2007; Bricknell 2010, 2008; Bricknell & Mouzos 2007).

Figure 5: Method of accessing firearms stored in safes or other secure receptacles (%)

 Figure 5

Note: Refers to those incidents in which firearms were stored in a safe or otherwise secure receptacle (n=378). Excludes 1 incident in which the method of access was the use of threat. Percentages may not total 100 due to rounding

Source: AIC NFTMP 2008–09 [computer file] (excludes Western Australia and the Northern Territory)

Items stolen

Firearms and ammunition

Multiple firearm theft was reported in slightly more than half (55%) of reported theft incidents in 2008–09. Twenty-two percent of all firearm theft incidents involved the theft of two firearms, 10 percent of three firearms and nine percent of four firearms (see Table 22). The largest number of firearms stolen in a single theft incident in 2008–09 was 19. Multiple firearm thefts were more common in private residential premises (61%) than they were from vehicles (23%; see Figure 6).

Figure 6: Single versus multiple firearm theft, by location

 Figure 6

Source: AIC NFTMP 2008–09 [computer file] (excludes Western Australia and Northern Territory)

The theft of ammunition has consistently been reported in around a quarter of all firearm theft incidents; in 2008–09 ammunition was stolen together with firearms in 27 percent of reported thefts (see Table 23). It was known that stolen ammunition had been secured in an approved receptacle in at least 40 percent of reported theft incidents but the inconsistent quality of additional data on ammunition storage precluded further analysis.

Table 22: Firearms stolen per theft
Firearms (n)Incidents (n)Incidents (%)
One 279 45
Two 139 22
Three 64 10
Four 53 9
Five 26 4
Six 18 3
Seven 13 2
Eight 12 2
Nine or more 16 3
Total 620 100

Source: AIC NFTMP 2008–09 [computer file] (excludes Western Australia)

Table 23: Theft of ammunition
Ammunition stolen 162 27
Ammunition not stolen 396 66
Unknown 42 7
Total 600 100

Note: Excludes 1 incident where the theft of ammunition was recorded as not applicable

Source: AIC NFTMP 2008–09 [computer file] (excludes Western Australia and the Northern Territory)

Other non-firearm goods

Other goods were stolen with firearms in 55 percent of all reported theft incidents (see Table 24). Firearm thefts in which non-firearm goods were also stolen were classified by Mouzos and Sakurai (2006) as general burglaries, while thefts in which only firearms (and ammunition) were stolen were taken as possibly indicative of a targeted firearm theft. General burglaries have comprised around 55 to 60 percent of theft incidents since 2004–05. Items commonly stolen with firearms included cash (36% of all general burglaries), tools (31%), jewellery and watches (26%), and personal electronic items such as mobile phones and iPods (24%; see Table 25). In some years, general burglaries have been more commonly associated with multiple firearm theft than incidents of targeted theft, which suggested that these thefts were characterised by a degree of opportunism in which as many goods were taken as possible. However, this association was not always found to be significant and in 2008–09 this was also the case (see Figure 7).

Figure 7: Firearms stolen, by type of theft (n)

 Figure 7

Source: AIC NFTMP 2008–09 [computer file] (excludes Western Australia and the Northern Territory)

Table 24: Theft of other goods
Other goods stolen 329 55
Other goods not stolen 258 43
Unknown 11 2
Total 598 100

Note: Excludes 3 incidents where the theft of other goods was recorded as not applicable

Source: AIC NFTMP 2008–09 [computer file] (excludes Western Australia and the Northern Territory)

Table 25: Types of other goods stolen
 General burglaries (n)General burglaries (%)
Cash 95 36
Tools 84 31
Jewellery/watches 69 26
Personal electronic items 65 24
Luggage and other storage items 55 21
Home entertainment 48 18
Firearm accessories 41 15
Weapons 36 13
Personal items 30 11
Recreational items 29 11
PCs and accessories 28 10
Alcohol and other drugs 26 10
Vehicles 25 9
Other household items 22 8
Vehicle accessories 18 7
Agricultural items 15 6
ID and negotiable documents 14 5
Keys 11 4
Collectible items 9 3
DVDs, CDs, videos, games etc 8 3
Household electrical appliances 5 2
Other items 31 12

Source: AIC NFTMP 2008–09 [computer file] (excludes Western Australia and the Northern Territory)