Firearm trafficking in its most general sense, and as defined in the United Nations Protocol against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Their Parts and Components and Ammunition, refers to the unauthorised ‘…import, export, acquisition, sale, delivery, movement or transfer of firearms, their parts and components and ammunition…’ across internal or state borders (UNGA 2001: 4). The term trafficking can also be used to designate the ‘intentional diversion of (firearms) from legal to illegal commerce’ (Wright, Wintermute & Webster 2010: 353), without involving the movement of item(s) across a physical border.
Tied to the venture of firearm trafficking is illicit manufacture which, according to the UN Protocol, incorporates the ‘manufacture or assembly of firearms, firearm parts and components or ammunition’ from illicitly produced parts and components and/or without the appropriate authorisation (UNGA 2001: 3–4). The Protocol (as per Article 8) also recognises a firearm as illicitly manufactured if, at the time of manufacture, it was not given a unique mark that enables it to be identified and traced.
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 in organised crime. Calculating the size of this illicit pool has proved impracticable, not least because even verifying the number and type of legal firearms in Australia was not possible until the late 1990s with the implementation of compulsory registration schemes for all firearms. It has also remained unclear to what extent the current illicit pool requires replenishment and is serviced by the movement of firearms from the licit market. These aspects of the Australian illicit firearms market will, most likely, continue to evade estimation, yet other features of the market, such as:
- firearm composition and preferences;
- the methods by which illicit firearms are sourced;
- the patterns of reliance on these methods and their future sustainability; and
- the legislative, law enforcement and procedural environment that impede (or in some cases, facilitate) the illegal trade in firearms.
All represent equally crucial and importantly, more feasibly examined elements of inquiry. It is these features of firearm trafficking, its operation in Australia and the connection with serious and organised crime, that will form the basis of the research presented in this report.
In this study, an examination is undertaken into legislative, procedural and technological systems related to firearm registration and tracing in order to identify loopholes and gaps that facilitated and may continue to facilitate the diversion of firearms, firearm parts and ammunition into the illegal market. Investigation is also made of the extent to which SOCG have relied on various trafficking channels and how this relates to the types of firearms they favour. This research will add to a modest collection of Australian studies that have examined the routes by which firearms are transferred from the legal to the illegal pool and how this transfer is facilitated.
The research was undertaken as a collaborative project involving the AIC, ACC and AFP, and was funded under the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet’s Research Support for National Security grants program. The project was approved by the AIC Human Research Ethics Committee on 19 May 2010.
The project consisted of:
- a review of open-source literature and compilation of case studies and court findings for prosecuted cases of firearm trafficking and other, relevant firearm offences;
- a review of Australian state and territory firearm/weapons legislation;
- analysis of the ACC’s National Firearm Trace Database (NFTD); and
- compilation of data on the importation of selected calibre ammunition (ie 25 ACP, 32 ACP and 380 ACP) from ammunition distributors and ACBPS.
The literature review used information contained in open-source documents (mostly peer-reviewed papers and government publications) that described the characteristics and dynamics of firearm trafficking and illicit firearm markets in Australia and other selected regions (England and Wales, the United States, New Zealand and Western Europe). The literature was supplemented with an examination of transcripts of court proceedings available on publicly accessible legal databases—Australasian Legal Information Institute (ie AustLii), NSW LawLink and the Supreme Court of Victoria Court of Appeal Registry. Search terms used to identify relevant court cases were firearm trafficking, prohibited firearm, unregistered firearm, prohibited person, manufacture, as well as relevant sections of state and territory firearm or weapons legislation. It must be noted that most Australian court proceedings are only made available for cases heard in higher courts (generally, those that have gone to appeal) and hence represent a subset of actual relevant cases heard. Indeed, a number of ‘high profile’ court cases reported in the media were not found in the legal databases, the details of which could not be confirmed or expanded upon.
Review of Australian firearm/weapons legislation
The review of Australian firearm and weapons laws included an examination of relevant Commonwealth, state and territory legislation listed in Table 1. This work referenced and updated an earlier review undertaken by the AIC (see Davies & Mouzos 2008) to:
- describe the extent of compliance of Australian firearm laws with the resolutions specified in the National Firearms Agreement (1996), National Firearm Trafficking Policy Agreement (2002) and the National Handgun Control Agreement (2002); and
- identify where legislative inconsistencies still exist that could potentially facilitate firearm diversion.
Table 1: Australian firearm legislation State and territory legislation Firearms Act 1996 (NSW) Firearms Act 1996 (Vic) Weapons Act 1990 (Qld) Firearms Act 1973 (WA) Firearms Act 1996 (SA) Firearms Act 1996 (Tas) Firearms Act 1996 (ACT) Firearms Act (NT) Provisions contained within Commonwealth legislation Criminal Code Act 1995 (Cth)a Customs Act 1901 (Cth)b Customs (Prohibited Imports) Regulations 1956 (Cth)c
a: Amended by Crimes Legislation Amendment (People Smuggling, Firearms Trafficking and Other Measures) Act 2002 (Cth)
b: Amended by Customs Legislation Amendment (Criminal Sanctions and Other Measures) Act 2000 (Cth)
c: Amended by Customs (Prohibited Imports) Amendment Regulations 2000 (No. 7) (Cth) and Customs (Prohibited Imports) Amendment Regulations 2002 (No. 4) (Cth)
Analysis of the Australian Crime Commission’s National Firearm Trace Database
The NFTD, the primary data source for this study, is a compilation of unit record data on some unregistered firearms recovered by federal, state and territory police agencies. The data compiled by the ACC were supplemented over the course of the project, with records collected by the AFP on some of the firearms that had been the subject of police investigations in four jurisdictions (New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and Tasmania) over the period 1 January 2003–31 December 2010. There were a total of 2,750 records on individual firearms in the data used for analysis. Almost all of these (ie 99% and where information was recorded on the date of seizure (n=2,341)) were seized by police between June 2002 and October 2011.
Data was de-identified by the ACC before it was provided to the AIC. Individual firearms recorded in the database were also categorised by the ACC before transmission as being recovered in association with SOCG or not (referred to herein as non-SOCG). A SOCG is an entity engaged in an activity described as serious and organised crime as defined in the Australian Crime Commission Act 2002 (Cth) (see Table 2). Of the 2,750 firearm records used in the analysis, 61.9% (n=1,701) were categorised by the ACC as firearms seized from SOCG.
Each unit record in the NFTD refers to an individual firearm and includes information on:
- the make, model, calibre, action and category of the firearm;
- modifications made to the firearm;
- the country in which the firearm was manufactured and date of import;
- registration history;
- whether the firearm was subject to the 1996 gun buyback (long-arms) or the 2003 handgun buyback;
- the date and state or territory the firearm was recovered;
- the reason or activity by which the firearm became illicit; and
- the illicit context in which the firearm was recovered.
Restricted firearms were defined as those long-arms that were subject to the 1996 buyback and those handguns that were subject to the 2003 buyback. The findings from this analysis were described in the Milestone 1 progress report.
Some of the variables in the NFTD were compromised by missing information. The high ‘unknown’ return for these variables, which ranged between 11 and 98 percent of responses, depending on the variable considered, was likely related to the absence, until recent years, of a systematic method of recording and disseminating information on the importation, acquisition and disposal of firearms. This affected the validity of some of these variables, a number of which had to be removed from the final analysis. The nature of the data allowed only for simple statistical treatment.
Serious and organised crime is defined under s 4 of the Australian Crime Commission Act 2002 as:
Importation and distribution of ammunition
Twelve ammunition importers and suppliers in Australia were contacted regarding the provision of data on the quantity of various calibres (25 ACP, 32 ACP and 380 ACP) of ammunition sold during 2008–10. These calibres can only be used in small pocket pistols (SPPs), which are restricted under Australian firearm laws. Of the group of importers/suppliers contacted, nine responded to the request but only four were able to provide any data. The two major importers/dealers, responsible for the majority of ammunition imported into and sold in Australia, declined the request on the grounds that they did not have the resources to commit to the collation of such a large volume of data.
A data request was also made to ACPBS for information on the importation (legal or illegal) of these selected ammunition calibres. ACBPS was able to provide this information for the period 1 January 2009 (when ACBPS commenced collecting electronic data on import matters) to 31 December 2011.
Role of the Project Committee
The Project Committee was made up of representatives from the three research partners—the AIC, ACC and AFP—as well as representatives from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, the Attorney-General’s Department and ACBPS. The Committee met five times over the course of the project (between November 2010 and April 2012) to discuss project methodology and scope, milestone findings and their interpretation, and recommendations stemming from the final analysis. Draft and final versions of the milestone and substantive reports were circulated to the Project Committee for their comment.
Observations from Project Committee members and other personnel from their respective agencies were included as personal communication citations in this report where open-source material was not available and the subject was of relevance to the discussion. The author of these citations is not identified in this report.