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Despite strict regulations on the import, export, ownership, use, transfer and storage of licit firearms, there exists in Australia a potentially large pool of illicit firearms, some of which are acquired, stockpiled and used for serious and organised crime. The composition of this pool, the sources of these illicit firearms and the general sustainability of the illicit firearm market, however, remains a largely unexplored subject in Australia, outside of knowledge that is generated through intelligence. A series of drive-by and other shooting events in a number of Australian states since 2011 refocused attention on the illicit firearm market, in particular its consumers and the methods by which firearms were being trafficked.

This report follows a modest group of publicly released examinations of firearm trafficking operations in Australia, to describe what can be determined about the composition and maintenance of the illicit firearm market, its use by serious and organised crime groups and the diversity of transaction arrangements used to vend illicit firearms. As the report was limited to open source material, some of the nuances of, or emerging trends in, the illicit firearm trade are still to be drawn out. However, the report presents, using data on unregistered firearm seized by Australian state and territory police, a fuller picture of the type of firearms that serious and organised crime groups are actively obtaining and the common routes of supply from the licit to the illicit market.

Australia’s strict firearm laws permit only controlled access to handguns and automatic and semi-automatic long-arms. Hence, restricted models are commonly elevated to items of choice. Just under half of firearms found in the possession of serious and organised crime groups were models that were the subject of buybacks that accompanied the major firearms agreements in 1996 and 2002. The majority of these 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. Many of these restricted firearms were seized from entities involved in the illicit drug market and/or firearm trafficking ventures, or from members of outlaw motorcycle gangs—a criminal fraternity commonly connected to the sale and purchase of illicit firearms. Not all illicit firearms, of course, are purchased by persons engaged in serous and organised crime, and this group of consumers and their engagement with illicit firearms is worth further examination.

The tenure of firearms in the illicit market is not well understood, although the methods of diversion are. Illicit importation, diversion by some corrupt firearm dealers, deactivation loopholes (which enabled the diversion of poorly deactivated handguns out of the licit market), theft of legally owned firearms and the ‘grey market’ (ie long-arms that were not surrendered during the 1996 gun buyback but are not conveyed for criminal purposes) all represent legitimate sources of trafficked firearms. There has been some contention about the importance of these sources. Analysis conducted for this report suggested that the ‘grey market’ was the primary source for illicit long-arms, while many illicit handguns originated from theft and the Queensland deactivation loophole.

The completeness of the data used for the report requires the addition of caveats about the need to use care in interpreting the presented findings. Data, along with intelligence, play a crucial role in understanding the dynamics of firearm trafficking. Since the 1996 and 2002 firearm reforms, important steps have been made in the collection of firearm data in Australia. Further changes to improve the standardisation and harmonisation of these data will deliver the ‘cradle to grave’ benchmark crucial for accurately tracing firearms, and consequently the means to support targeted enforcement responses.

Adam Tomison

Last updated
3 November 2017