Australian Institute of Criminology

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The complexity of illicit firearm markets has hampered abilities to predict and disrupt supply. It has also led to conjecture about the sources and mechanics of the market that without comprehensive analysis has been difficult to substantiate or refute. The nature of this report prevents the use of closed source information that would have assisted in drawing out some of the less well understood (or less publicised) facilitators of the market and allowed confirmation of trafficking operations that are described here. Further, the nature and quality of the available information has additionally influenced how much can be revealed about market composition and supply and its relationship with organised crime. Nevertheless, this research has achieved two constructive goals. First, it has described the likely composition of the market, specifically the preferences for restricted long-arms and handguns by SOCG and suggested the mix of deliberate and fortuitous diversion pathways exploited to obtain these firearms. Second, it has highlighted where irregularities in documenting firearm transfer has potentially concealed the point or time at which firearms have left the legal market.

The quantity of restricted long-arms and handguns found among seized illicit firearms is not unexpected. Australia’s strict firearm laws permit only controlled access to handguns; automatic and semi-automatic long-arms, and restricted models are commonly elevated to items of choice because they have features regarded as essential or preferential for the offensive, defensive and symbolic purposes for which they are acquired (Hales, Lewis & Silverstone 2006). Long-arms and handguns that were subject to the gun and pistol buybacks that accompanied the major firearms agreements comprised almost half (47%) of all firearms seized from SOCG. Other handguns not subject to the pistol buyback, but still restricted under Australian laws, made up another 15 percent of seized firearms from SOCG. The majority of these restricted firearms were semi-automatic rifles and semi-automatic pistols, supplemented by smaller quantities of pump-action shotguns, revolvers, semi-automatic shotguns, submachine guns and single shot pistols. The predominance of restricted long-arms and handguns among SOCG is not just a function of preference but is almost certainly connected to contacts within the illicit market.

The types of handgun recovered from SOCG, particularly among OMCGs, likely represent the ideal weapon as they are concealable, transportable, and have magazines that are easily and quickly changed and (for some models) capable of firing 10–13 rounds. Research from England and Wales and the United States shows the dominance of handgun ownership among participants in the manufacture, distribution and sale of illicit drugs (Blumstein 1995; Cook et al. 2006; Hales, Lewis & Silverstone 2006; Lizotte et al. 2000; Wright & Rossi 1994) and this association was found here too—around four in 10 restricted handguns were seized from entities involved in the illicit drugs market.

Restricted long-arms were found to be less common than restricted handguns but, again, predominantly connected to SOCG. The function of such firearms is arguably not as recognisable as handguns, at least in relation to their portability and practicality. Their acquisition is possibly more closely related to the attraction of owning highly powered, high-capacity and highly lethal items. Hales, Lewis and Silverstone (2006: 55) cited symbolism, along with ‘overwhelming power’ and ‘indiscriminate aim’ as features that attracted certain gang members to automatic firearms (these firearms included both long-arms and handguns), although they noted that this appeal did not extend to the majority of persons interviewed. The cost and impracticality of operating such firearms were nominated as dissuading factors. Restricted long-arms, then, are possibly acquired largely for defensive purposes, stockpiled in arsenals for use when rivalry or hostility intensifies between two competing groups. However, 41 percent of SOCG restricted long-arms were possessed at the time of seizure for the purposes of being trafficked, indicating that the ultimate destination or use of these long-arms is not immediately apparent.

The consumers of illicit firearms are not, of course, exclusively criminal entities involved in serious and organised crime. Over 1,000 of the firearms included in the analysis were seized from non-SOCG individuals. The circumstances of seizures of non-SOCG firearms were largely denoted as the commission of firearm offences, and although information on the offender status of the individual prior to the seizure was not contained within the data, it was assumed that the acquisition of firearms by non-SOCG persons was for reasons or purposes different to those for SOCG acquisitions. Nonetheless, restricted handguns seizures from non-SOCG were proportionally the same as SOCG handgun seizures, indicating a similar proclivity for concealable, higher powered handguns. Historically stricter provisions for handgun ownership, coupled with further tightening of laws post-reforms, has likely augmented the attraction of restricted handguns, and enthusiasts may have needed to consult with suppliers from the illicit market to obtain these items.

The conduits of supply to the illicit market are better differentiated for handguns than they are for long-arms, but the quality of data used to identify these supply routes, in particular the very high ‘unknown’ response rate for handguns, compromises the strength of these findings. The ‘grey market’ has and likely continues to be a legitimate source of long-arms to the illicit market, but this all-capturing reservoir that emerged post-1996 conceivably masks some diversion events. Most of the seized long-arms, irrespective of restricted status, were recorded as having originated in the grey market, with a much smaller percentage being stolen items. Theft appears to have made a much more substantial contribution to the supply of illicit handguns and the ‘deactivation loophole’ described earlier was identified (where information was available) as the source of 70 percent of restricted handguns and 71 percent of non-restricted handguns seized by police.

These data give an indication of historically important supply routes (the deactivation loophole being a relevant example), but are less reliable in predicting future patterns of supply. Further, the limitations of the data should be noted as they provide important qualification to some of the findings. The question of illegal importation is a case in point. Illegal importation has been touted (by some) as a critical source for illicit firearms, but the analysis suggests it has made an apparently minor contribution. However, additional variables on the legal status of importation could not be used to further investigate the proportion of seized firearms that were legally or illegally imported into the country, and hence be used to help corroborate the findings from the analysis.

Along with questions about the contribution of illegal importation to the illicit market is how much contribution ‘domestic leakage’ is making at present and will make into the future. There have been a small number of publicised cases of illicit domestic manufacture in the last decade, with the majority of illegal industries producing prohibited models. The analysis showed that illegally manufactured firearms comprised around eight to 11 percent of seized handguns (although mostly pen guns) and two percent for restricted long-arms. The direction of scale of activity, however, is difficult to predict. The risk of detection has probably meant most manufacturing operations are small, made-to-order ventures and this model of operation may continue into the immediate future. Other common forms of domestic leakage are the theft of legal firearms and dealer diversion. Data from the AIC’s National Firearm Theft Monitoring Program found an average of almost 1,500 firearms were reported stolen and hence entering the illicit market between 2004–05 and 2008–09. The great majority of these firearms were not models commonly acquired by SOCG but they still made up around 30 percent of all firearms seized from SOCG and a larger proportion for non-SOCG. The National Firearm Theft Monitoring Program data does not enable definitive identification of targeted thefts, but incident narrative indicated where targeting was suspected, usually associated with multiple thefts, thefts from transport or courier companies and armed robberies of security guards. The largest theft incident from this period was the theft of 55 firearms, mostly handguns, from a firearm dealer in Queensland.

The involvement of some corrupt firearm dealers in furnishing the illicit market is established, but more conclusive information on the manner of involvement sits outside open-source material. Dealers were instrumental players in the exploitation of the deactivation loophole that facilitated the inflow of reportedly thousands of handguns into the illicit market and in other large-scale diversion ventures such as the ‘Starlight’ operation in South Australia. Outside deactivation, dealer-related diversion was responsible for a small number of the seized firearms recorded in the analysis data, largely enacted through the provision of false information to disguise inter-state transfers or receipt and disposal of items, or the staging of false exports.

While these analyses establish some specifics on the supply to, and composition and consumption of, the illicit firearms market, issues of data quality and the strength of some of the findings from the analysis emphasise the need for standardised records on firearms to be developed. Before the firearm reforms, records on firearm import, sales, transfer of ownership and disposal were not systematically collected. For example, documentation of serial numbers on imported firearms did not occur until 2001 for handguns and 2006 for long-arms; many jurisdictions did not require the registration of long-arms, and interstate transfer of firearms were not always followed up by the jurisdiction of departure or receipt. These and other factors, such as a lack of standardised data-recording procedures and a lack of technical expertise in recording firearm characteristics, have produced data that can only support to an extent the tracing of firearms.

The suggestions made in the previous section about improving first capture recording of firearms identification features, such as the critically important serial number, standardisation of data entry fields and the creation, at the very least, of data linkages between firearm record systems are not new. The ideal of a fully integrated data system, as envisaged in the National Firearms Agreement (1996), has been explored but it is not yet realised. Small, incremental steps, including a commitment to upgrade technical expertise, create common ontologies and generate additional platforms for information exchange will assist in the momentum to develop data in a format and a level of completeness suitable to delivering the ‘cradle to grave’ benchmark crucial for accurately tracing firearms. It will also assist in a better understanding of the mechanics of the illicit market, and hence methods to combat its supply, by signposting preferences in items and the common and newly exploited modes of transference.