ABF on front foot over dodgy imports

John Maxwell

At the end of August, Australian Border Force (ABF) revealed they’d arrested a West Australian man on firearms charges which included importing gun parts from China. Earlier that month they also revealed an Adelaide man had been busted returning from the US with firearms parts in his luggage, enough to assemble a complete handgun.

But that’s not all. ABF charged a Sydney man in October of last year after intercepting a parcel from overseas containing four silencers (suppressors) and the same month agents arrested another Sydney man after intercepting a number of inbound parcels, one from the Netherlands containing a silencer and firearms component, the ABF image accompanying the press release showing what appears to be a Glock frame.

Subsequent searches of premises in Sydney uncovered an unregistered firearm and silencer, all of which shows that while lockdown had restricted much activity across Australia, some have been shopping online and, it would appear, in person for gun parts then taking their chances at the Customs barrier.

These busts show the risk of being caught and charged while attempting this are high. “The ABF uses highly-trained officers, detector dogs and cutting-edge X-ray technology to identify offences and we’ll continue to work with partner agencies to combat this criminality,” said ABF Acting Superintendent Investigations (WA) Linda Jose in the media statement relating to the arrest of the WA man.

He was a licensed firearms owner and seized were nine licensed firearms, five handguns and four rifles along with a large quantity of ammo, five homemade silencers, tools including a lathe, milling machine and 3D printers, firearms barrels made in China and 3D-printed gun components. “People need to understand holding a legitimate firearms licence does not allow you to import firearms or firearm parts without a permit,” said Superintendent Jose. “Anyone considering importing firearms or firearm parts should be very clear about the regulations in place and ensure they comply with them.”

The WA man was charged with unlicensed manufacture of firearms and ammunition, possession of a silencer, failure to comply with firearm or ammunition storage requirements and, finally, possession of cannabis. As well as the charges for importing gun parts, the Adelaide man was charged with a further 50 state firearms offences including illegal possession of guns, possessing a silencer and manufacture of firearms.

Silencers – or more correctly suppressors as they only reduce not eliminate the sound of a gunshot – appear to be a bit of a thing. In the bust last December the Sydney man was charged in relation to importing a total of eight silencers in two parcels as well as steroids and growth hormones.

ABF clearly stipulates it’s entirely possible for licensed firearms owners to legally import complete firearms and components but draws a distinction between firearms accessories (for which generally no permit is required) and parts, which may require a permit. Without going into the fine detail that’s generally a two-step process. Firstly, gain certification from your state or territory firearms registry that you’re legally entitled to own the firearm or component you wish to import then apply for import approval.

The key form is the B709 which is available online, however a B709 doesn’t guarantee ABF will ultimately approve importation as it may decide the proposed item doesn’t meet other import conditions, for example safety testing or that it looks too much like a military firearm (the infamous appearance test). The ABF website explains all this and more. They make it clear civilians simply can’t import suppressors and even someone in possession of a rare suppressor permit from their state or territory registry must buy a domestically-made one.

The US is generally regarded as firearms Mecca with a vast industry supporting gun owners there. Yet anyone who’s perused a US gun vendor website will appreciate that exports of many items are regulated and may require US State Department export approval – these include magazines, replacement barrels and much more. Strangely, the US seems to regulate export of some high-end optics even if the same scopes are available in Australia and other than the prospect of being slugged for GST, there are zero controls on import of optics at this end.

China is not generally viewed as gun heaven as civil ownership of firearms is tightly controlled, yet China manufactures a wide range of firearms parts and accessories which it seems quite happy to sell to anyone with the cash by way of online portals such as Ali Express operated by the Alibaba Group, one of the world’s largest retailers and online commerce companies.

The diversity of products is utterly mind-blowing with just about anything you can think of for sale and a lot more besides. Prices for many items are reasonable and include a wide range of firearms parts and accessories, much of them advertised as intended for airsoft competition which uses pellet-firing replica guns closely resembling the real thing. For that very reason, airsoft guns are banned in Australia though not in many other countries including the US and Japan and while nominally marketed for airsoft, rail accessories, scope rings and mounts work just fine on real firearms subject to the immutable rule – you get what you pay for.

But there’s more. A search for ‘Glock’ throws up 60 pages of parts and accessories, mostly sights and optics but a number of China-made internal components. Ali Express features numerous vendors offering what are euphemistically described as solvent traps or fuel filters and with minimal modification these become suppressors. One vendor claims his fuel filters are only for cars though the fitting thread sizes are a bit of a giveaway with ½-28 and ⅝-24 being industry standard muzzle thread dimensions for .223 and .30 calibre rifles.

The term ‘solvent trap’ was apparently coined in the US as a product screwed to your rifle muzzle to stop bore solvent dripping on the floor – if that’s really a problem then buy a bucket! The US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which regulates possession of suppressors, wasn’t fooled and neither were Australian Border Force agents who in 2017 busted a South Australian farmer for importing three solvent trap suppressors from the US. He was lucky to retain his freedom as the maximum penalty is 10 years in jail.

Considering the volume of incoming mail, freight and the number of pre-COVID passenger arrivals, ABF has an impressive record in locating contraband whether that be narcotics, child abuse material or illicit firearms. For those busted – who may have naively assumed the prospects of being caught were remote – the consequences can be dire including jail time, sizeable fines and, for sporting shooters, loss of licence, guns and sport.

So could ABF solve the problem of illicit gun component imports from China by asking Ali Express to ensure its vendors don’t sell certain items to Australian buyers? Well they’ve actually tried this approach and in October 2020 the ABF revealed it had worked with Alibaba to shut down the online store of a vendor selling child-like sex dolls. Yip, you read that right. It followed the seizure of 36 such objects at the Australian border in the previous three months and ABF pointed out to Alibaba that selling these items violated its platform policies, to which the company agreed.

Problem solved? Unfortunately not as ABF has since busted another seven men for importing these items from China. They may not have been shopping with Alibaba but were clearly finding them elsewhere online. So would any effort at the China end to limit sales of restricted gun parts to Australians produce a better result? Probably not.

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