Australian Institute of Criminology

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Executive summary

The size and composition of the illicit firearm market in Australia, and the methods by which firearms are trafficked, have been the subject of conjecture. This conjecture is born from the complexity of illicit firearm markets in general (Pierce et al. 2004), as well as limited open-source information on firearm supply networks. This report follows earlier, briefer studies of firearm trafficking (Alpers & Twyford 2003; Kerlatec 2007; Mouzos 1999) and was designed to describe more fully the characteristics of the illicit firearms market in Australia and its association with serious and organised crime groups (SOCG). Specifically it describes:

  • the composition of the illicit firearm market, including the types of firearms commonly found in the possession of SOCG;
  • the supply routes by which firearms are diverted, or are otherwise transferred, from the licit to the illicit market with a focus on restricted long-arms and handguns; and
  • the legislative, procedural and technological systems that have facilitated (and may continue to facilitate) the diversion of firearms.

The aim was also to identify where improvements could be made in the tracing of firearms to better understand the nature and dynamics of both the licit and illicit market.

The project was undertaken by the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) in collaboration with the Australian Crime Commission (ACC) and the Australian Federal Police (AFP), and funded under the Research Support for National Security Program, which up until 2012 was administered by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. It involved:

  • a review of open-source literature and court proceedings to provide an overview of the types of firearm markets that operate in Australia; the types and known (or suspected) sources of illicit firearms; and the characteristics of participants (sellers and consumers) in the market;
  • a review of Australian firearm laws to identify where legislative loopholes have been closed and where gaps that may facilitate diversion of firearms from the licit to the illicit market still exist;
  • an examination of methods and systems for recording firearm data in Australia to illustrate where improvements could be made to enhance firearm tracing; and
  • analysis of data compiled in the ACC’s National Firearm Trace Database, which contains records of some of the unregistered firearms seized by federal, state and territory police, to describe the composition of, and major sources of supply to, the illicit firearm market.

Legislative provisions

Australia’s firearm laws underwent extensive revision in response to the recommendations set by the then Australian Police Ministers Council (APMC) and Council of Australian Governments (COAG) in the National Firearms Agreement (1996), National Firearm Trafficking Policy Agreement (2002) and National Handgun Control Agreement (2002). These revisions aimed to consolidate firearm legislation in the states and territories (which have responsibility for the regulation of the use, possession and sale of firearms), and included the creation of new offences, or an increase in penalties for existing offences. The changes to offence provisions that were relevant to deterring firearms trafficking included:

  • unauthorised possession, use, sale and disposal of a firearm;
  • trafficking in firearms;
  • unauthorised manufacture of firearms and firearm parts;
  • unauthorised modification of a firearm;
  • defacement or alteration of a firearm’s identification marks; and
  • wilfully making false entries in dealer records and employing prohibited persons in dealerships.

The reforms also influenced the introduction of new provisions on the import and export of restricted (prohibited) firearms and handguns and the creation of two new offences in the Criminal Code Act 1995 (Cth) (Division 360 Part 9.4) concerning the illegal disposal or acquisition of firearms across a state/territory border.

A 2008 AIC review of Australian state and territory firearm legislation found that jurisdictions had substantially complied with these resolutions (Davies & Mouzos 2008) and a subsequent review undertaken for this report showed that further refinements had been made to correct the legislative inconsistency that had existed in the past. However, a number of legislative loopholes were identified post-reform as being responsible for, or facilitating, the diversion of firearms from the licit to the illicit market. The most significant of these was the deactivation loophole in Queensland, whereby dealers and owners exploited a loophole in the Weapons Act 1990 (Qld) regarding the ‘accountable’ (ie registrable) status of deactivated handguns, in order to reactivate poorly deactivated handguns and reportedly to move thousands of them into the illicit market (Project stakeholder personal communication 24 September 2010).

An examination of the current legislation shows that inter-jurisdictional inconsistency, where it exists, is mostly localised, in that one or two states or territories have failed to incorporate amendments as they have been adopted elsewhere. It is difficult to rate the significance of these inconsistencies, yet it is likely that those with a comprehensive understanding of the legislation will continue to search for such inconsistences or gaps and test them for weakness (Project stakeholder personal communication 4 May 2011). Areas where legislative accord could be improved concerns scrutiny around sale and disposal records maintained by dealers, and specifically, increasing penalties on the wilful entry of false information. Diversion by the recording of false information has contributed to the trafficking of firearms in the past (see section on Data analysis). There is also a need to offset issues around vulnerabilities of firearm parts, as opposed to full firearms, in the illicit trade, particularly if there is an increase in illicit domestic manufacture. Some further standardisation across the state and territory firearms laws as to what constitutes a major firearm part or component for the purposes of regulation may be warranted to prevent instances of firearms being manufactured using non-registrable parts.

Characteristics of firearm trafficking

There are three primary firearm markets in Australia. The licit market comprises all firearms that are subject to registration and held by a person with the approved authority to do so. The grey market consists of all long-arms that were not registered, or surrendered as required during the gun buybacks, following the National Firearms Agreement (1996). Grey market firearms are not owned, used or conveyed for criminal purposes but may end up in the illicit market. Illicit market firearms are those that were illegally imported into or illegally manufactured in Australia, diverted from the licit market or moved from the grey market.

It is not possible to estimate the size of the illicit market. Describing the likely composition of illicit stock is, however, a more realistic objective. This study used data on some of the unregistered firearms seized by state and territory police, compiled in the ACC’s National Firearm Trace Database, to quantify the types of firearms seized from SOCG, and as a comparison, persons or groups determined not to be involved in organised crime.

A high proportion of firearms seized from SOCG were restricted (alternatively referred to in the legislation as prescribed or prohibited) models—47 percent of all firearms recovered from entities involved in serious and organised crime were subject to either the 1996 long-arm or 2003 handgun buybacks. Seventy percent (n=368) of all restricted long-arms were seized from SOCG, as were 68 percent (n=431) of restricted handguns. Semi-automatic rifles were the most common restricted long-arm recovered from SOCG, accounting for 69 percent (n=253) of all restricted long-arms. Semi-automatic pistols were the most common handgun item (72% (n=311) of all restricted handguns), for reasons likely related to their ease of concealment, capacity to quickly reload and (for some models) a large magazine capacity (up to 10–13 rounds).

Restricted long-arms and handguns were not as common among non SOCG-related seizures but still made up a sizeable proportion of firearms located. Indeed, the prevalence of restricted handguns as a proportion of all handguns seized for each of the two groups considered was the same for SOCG seizures (67%) as it was for non-SOCG seizures (65%). The preference for restricted handguns among persons not associated with serious and organised crime is probably, in many cases, an acquisition to fulfil a curiosity rather than a criminal need. Historically stricter regulations around handgun use, and legal ownership dependent on the granting of formal membership to a pistol club, would have barred some enthusiasts from acquiring a handgun. The more determined ones may have then looked to the illicit market to satisfy this aspiration.

Overall, the trafficking network is not considered to be overly organised in structure, but largely dominated by serious and organised criminal entities (such as outlaw motorcycle gangs (OMCGs)) who traffic illicit firearms as a side venture and smaller operators, who move firearms around by word of mouth (ACC 2011; Alpers & Twyford 2003; Kerlatec 2007; Mouzos 1999; Qld CMC 2004). An examination of court appeal proceedings for persons charged with trafficking or other relevant firearm offences from the last 10 years distinguished two categories of suppliers—more committed operators who relied on the trafficking of firearms as a regular or primary source of income (and generally had access to a larger supply of sale items, including illegally manufactured firearms) and part-time vendors, who sold illicit firearms on a more ad hoc basis, often to support a drug habit or as a minor side business to their main occupation of dealing in illicit drugs.

The supply lines to the illicit market also consist of a mix of organised and opportunistic transferral. Illegal importation, theft, illicit manufacture, some corrupt dealers, legacy legislative loopholes and interstate transfer are all recognised methods of supply to the illicit firearm market (ACC 2009; Kerlatec 1999: Mouzos 1999; Qld CMC 2004) but the importance of these, historically and in the present time, is disputed. From the analysis of the aforementioned seizure data, it was evident that the grey market was the predominant source of long-arms to the illicit market—it accounted for 92 percent of all restricted long-arms and 86 percent of all non-restricted long-arms. Theft or loss contributed to 12 percent of non-restricted long-arms entering the market and just four percent of restricted models. The grey market is likely to continue as a legitimate source of long-arms to the illicit market but this all-capturing reservoir, which inadvertently emerged from the 1996 firearm reforms, potentially masks where diversion or other illegal methods of supply have actually occurred.

There is better differentiation of the methods used to traffic illicit handguns but issues around the quality of the data qualify the strength of the findings. Based on the available information, the deactivation loophole was an important contributor to the illicit handgun market, identified as the source for 39 percent of restricted handguns and 21 percent of non-restricted handguns. Theft has been just as important a source. Half of all non-restricted handguns seized by state and territory police (where information was available) were stolen items, as were 31 percent of restricted handguns. The data indicated that illegal importation, however, has played a minor role (despite predictions elsewhere) and illicit domestic manufacture contributed to around one in 10 of both restricted and non-restricted handguns entering the market. These findings, however, need to be treated with caution due to the large number of cases (70%) that had unknown information on the diversion pathway.

Tracing firearms

These data give an indication of historically important supply routes (the deactivation loophole being a relevant example) but are possibly less reliable in predicting future patterns of supply. Further, the issues of data completeness that affected many variables in the dataset mean that that there are limitations to some of the findings, in particular the source of illicit handguns. Firearm data are recorded across numerous sites, including police administered firearm registers, material inventories, ballistic library inventories and firearms in police possession records, such as:

  • the Integrated Cargo System, Firearms Tracking System and Detained Goods Management System operated by the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service (ACBPS);
  • the Defence Export Control System administered by the Defence Export Control Office; and
  • the National Firearms and Licensing Registration System (NFLRS) administered by CrimTrac.

A recommendation from the National Firearms Agreement (1996) was not only to establish an integrated licence and firearm registration system in each jurisdiction but to promote the collation and exchange of data between jurisdictions. This is also a provision outlined in the 2001 United Nations Protocol against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Their Parts and Components and Ammunition (UNGA 2001).

The original and existing model stemming from this particular National Firearms Agreement (1996) recommendation is the abovementioned NFLRS, but considerations (and actions) have since been made to improve and expand on this concept to better facilitate and simplify current capacities to trace the movement of firearms. However, the establishment of an all-encompassing National Firearms Management System (NFMS) or its equivalent, through which an array of relevant data custodians can upload, update and trace information on individual firearms and track individual firearms using a shared authoritative identity record, is still to be realised.

To ensure an NFMS operates well, attention must also be drawn to improving the recording of firearm data. Tracing firearms through an integrated system will be compromised if fundamental identification data are not recorded accurately or recorded in a myriad of formats. Correct initial capture data on serial number (the ‘fingerprints’ of a firearm) and other identifying markers are paramount to the efficacy of a system such as NFMS, as is conformity to the standardisation of terms. Discussion with stakeholders to the project indicated that these fundamentals continue to plague the accurate capture of firearm data, because persons involved in data recording do not always have the technical expertise for firearm identification procedures and/or previous and current data capture systems have permitted the entry of inconsistent (often wrong) information which cannot necessarily be validated post-entry.

In its most complete sense, firearm tracing refers to the tracking of a firearm from ‘cradle to grave’, recording different stages in the tenure of a firearm’s legal custodianship (eg manufacture, import, sale, deactivation, lawful export). When firearm data are captured consistently and comprehensively, they can be used to denote where firearms have been lost to the system and to recognise preferences in the types of items being transferred out of the licit market and the methods by which they are diverted. Data-recording practices (mostly in the past) have however, resulted in certain data useful or critical to firearm tracing being captured only recently, being captured inconsistently or not being captured at all. Implementing the suggested improvements to both the recording and dissemination of firearm data has the potential to assist law enforcement in identifying and disrupting the flow of firearms into the illicit market and refine targeting of enforcement activity.