Australian Institute of Criminology

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The nature and characteristics of firearm theft that occurred each year in Australia from 2004–05 to 2008–09 has shown considerable consistency. Firearms have been predominantly stolen from private residential premises, usually along with other items such as cash, tools and jewellery. An average of one to two firearms has been stolen in each theft incident, most of which have been registered at the time of the theft and in the possession of a licensed owner. Less restricted firearms (eg Category A and B firearms) comprised the majority of firearms stolen, most likely a reflection of the prevalence of these firearms among the Australian firearm-owning community rather than a necessary preference to steal such firearm models. Handgun theft remained consistently below 10 percent and restricted Category C and D firearms (such as pump action shotguns and semi-automatic rifles) rarely featured in firearm theft reports. The fate of stolen firearms has generally remained unknown. Firearms from an average three percent of incidents reported each year have been identified as having been used in a subsequent criminal act or found in the possession of individuals charged with other serious criminal offences. Yet the majority of stolen firearms (from an average 88% of theft incidents each year) have not been recorded as having been recovered by police.

Compared with the previous decade, the number of firearms reported stolen each year has halved. However, in the five years from the 1 July 2004 to 30 June 2009, there has been a steady increase in the number of firearms reported stolen, from 1,263 in 2004–05 to 1,570 in 2008–09 (in all Australian jurisdictions except Western Australia). Without access to data regarding changes in the number of firearms registered in Australia it is not possible to discern whether this increase in stolen firearms is influenced by a general increase in legally-owned firearms or rather, that it is a genuine indication that theft numbers are on the rise. The pattern observed across the states and territories is not uniform and in most jurisdictions the number of reported stolen firearms has tended to fluctuate rather than present a clear upward or downward trend.

A critical factor in the prevention of firearm theft is owner compliance with prescribed firearm storage standards. As mentioned previously, state and territory firearm legislation stipulates the type of safe keeping arrangements owners are obliged to observe when their firearms are not in use. Penalties apply (including custodial sentences in some jurisdictions) for cases of non-compliance. Nonetheless, rates of storage compliance among owners who reported the theft of firearms remained at 60 percent or less during the monitoring period. It was noted that in most incidents of theft of a firearm from a vehicle, the majority of owners (who reported a theft between 1 July 2005 and 30 June 2009) had not taken reasonable precautions to ensure the safe keeping of their firearms. Similarly, a quarter of owners who reported the theft of a firearm from a private dwelling during the same period were also non-compliant. Firearms not stored appropriately at the time of the theft comprised almost a fifth (18%) of all reported stolen firearms during this period.

The nature of the data collected for the NFTMP does not allow a full assessment of risk since it only refers to situations in which a theft event was successful. It can be used, though, to gauge whether certain locations were more vulnerable to, or ‘assisted’ firearm theft due to the security arrangements (or lack thereof) practiced by firearm owners in these locations. In some theft incidents, private residential and business premises were unlocked and/or the firearms were unsecured at the time of theft but there was no significant association between the security arrangements for the location and the security arrangements taken for the firearm(s). Firearms stolen from private dwellings were mostly removed from rooms within the house or from the garage, with firearm owners appearing to make more effort to secure their firearms if they were stored in the garage than if kept in the home. However, the real vulnerability was found to lie with vehicles. Not only was there a more significant likelihood that vehicles, compared with private residential and business premises, would be unlocked at the time of the theft (χ2=47.92, n=1,627, p<0.001) but that the firearms ‘stored’ in these vehicles had not been secured in any way (χ2=434.66, n=1,933, p<0.001). While firearm thefts from vehicles made up a much smaller proportion of thefts compared with those that targeted private residential premises, they were similar in prevalence with theft rates from business premises and hence highlight the less vigilant approach firearm owners appear to take when transporting firearms by vehicle.

The twin purposes of the NFTMP were to assist state and territory police in identifying initiatives in reducing the incidence of firearm theft and developing a minimum standard for firearm storage common to all sectors of the firearm-owning community. The type of data provided on firearm storage arrangements was not descriptive enough to be able to comment on the adequacy of current storage specifications (as prescribed in state and territory firearm laws), except that it was evident that determined offenders were able to penetrate otherwise secure receptacles. It was apparent from incident narratives (where they were provided) that in some cases of firearm theft, offenders came well prepared with equipment (or sought out equipment within the theft location) to either remove the receptacle or break into it to retrieve the firearms stored inside. From other incidents it was less clear what preparation, other than the basic method applied (eg application of force or use of tools), had been taken by the offender to breach the firearms safe. Firearms stored in garages or shed were found, on the whole, to be better secured than firearms stored inside the home, but paradoxically may be more vulnerable to theft due to the greater likelihood of tools or other paraphernalia that can be used to breach the firearm safe being available to offenders in this location site.

Modifying current provisions around firearm storage may be one option that law enforcement agencies may adopt in seeking to further reduce the incidence of firearm theft. Other options, involving investment from state and territory police and/or the Australian firearm-owning community, might focus on situational crime prevention methods. Situational crime prevention is based upon the premise that crime is often opportunistic and aims to modify contextual factors to limit the opportunities for offenders to engage in criminal behaviour (Tonry & Farrington 1995). Under this approach, the situational or environmental factors associated with certain types of crime are identified, manipulated and controlled, with reference to assumptions regarding the nature of the offending and of the participating offenders (Cornish & Clarke 2003). With regard to firearms theft, a situational crime prevention approach would focus on increasing the effort required on the part of the offender to successfully steal a firearm (ie target hardening), or focus on increasing the risk to the offender (of committing the crime) and reducing the rewards (related to the theft of the item). Further work is required to identify and hone the types of crime prevention techniques that could be employed, but obvious methods include strengthening formal surveillance (eg burglar alarms and surveillance cameras), better concealment of targets (eg location on firearm safes), use of property identifiers (eg use of indelible markers on registered firearms) and strategies to assist compliance (eg dissemination of findings from firearm theft research to educate the firearm-owning community about potential and actual storage vulnerabilities).

One area that would benefit from further exploration is the stolen firearms market, the networks that support this market and potential methods of market disruption. Little is known about the structure and typologies of the stolen firearms market, to what extent it is facilitated by the range of relevant agents (eg residential and commercial ‘fences’) and the characteristics of its consumers. It is assumed that different agents are involved depending on the nature of the theft and the ‘knowledge’ of the offender with respect to the disposal of less conventional goods such as firearms. Additional research could provide an:

  • ‘inventory’ of ‘at-risk’ firearms;
  • a description of preferred methods of disposal;
  • the manner in which firearms are bought and sold in illegal markets; and
  • a jurisdictional outline of differences in firearms stolen and bought.

Results from such research may be used to inform future intervention strategies to further safeguard firearms from theft and interrupt specific typologies of disposal.

The NFTMP, which concludes with this report, has provided a comprehensive record of the methods and facilitators of firearm theft, the categories of firearms more likely to have been entering the illicit market and the approaches taken by firearm owners to minimise risk. Although anywhere between 1,500 and 1,700 firearms were reported stolen each year of the monitoring period, there is no suggestion that the majority of firearm owners were not complying with laws around the safekeeping of firearms. That said, clearly some owners were not compliant and additional initiatives may now need to be considered to further reduce the incidence of firearm theft. The consistency in the findings from the NFTMP over the four year period, particularly with respect to theft locations and their associated vulnerabilities, provides a stable template from which these initiatives may be developed. Options for consideration would include recommending changes to legislation regarding minimum storage requirements, promoting additional auditing of safekeeping arrangements, enhancing educative programs for the firearm-owning community or encouraging additional investment in crime prevention strategies. Equally importantly, the findings from the NFTMP can be (and have been) used by the different groups of stakeholders (eg firearm owners and law enforcement) concerned with reducing the incidence of firearm theft to produce complementary approaches to disrupting future opportunities for theft and hence impede the flow of firearms into the illicit market and potentially into the hands of criminal elements.