Grey area – Illegal gun number ‘steady’ for a decade

John Maxwell

Somewhere out there in the illicit ‘grey market’ are 260,000 guns (250,000 longarms and 10,000 handguns) which, if not already in the hands of criminals, soon could be. Really? This estimate of the number of guns in Australia’s illicit grey market dates back a decade and despite a succession of gun busts, seizures and amnesties hasn’t officially become even one gun smaller. Yet it’s repeated almost as gospel by numerous media outlets and other reports.

“More than 260,000 guns are in circulation across Australia amid a national gun amnesty launched to keep firearms out of the community,” News Ltd reported in February in an article headlined ‘Terrifying number of illegal guns in Australia’.

And from Melbourne’s Herald Sun earlier this year came: “The Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC) estimates more than 260,000 firearms are circulating in the country’s illicit firearms market.” The story claimed Melbourne streets had been flooded with illegal firearms which were being used to carry out high-level drug trafficking, violent robberies and murders. And so it goes on.

The SSAA has always been sceptical about the claim of 260,000 illicit firearms and the reverence which this unsubstantiated estimate is afforded. The Association’s Tim Bannister questioned the number’s origin when he was a councilor on the Office of Home Affair’s Commonwealth Firearms Advisory Committee. Labor’s Jason Clare admitted the number was determined internally from a ‘guestimate’ by one department which was then taken up by another department – there was no scientific basis on the formation of the number.

So what exactly is the grey market? Well, it’s all those guns which remained unregistered during implementation of the National Firearms Agreement (NFA) following the 1996 Port Arthur tragedy. In its report on Illicit Firearms In Australia released in October 2016, ACIC said most grey market firearms were unlikely to be held for the purpose of violent crime but, if stolen, were unlikely to be reported.

“Many members of the community still possess grey market firearms because they didn’t surrender these during the 1996-97 gun buyback,” the report says. Yet the actual illicit market comprises other guns – those stolen from legitimate owners, illegal imports and ones manufactured illegally, including by the emerging technology of 3D printing.

Around the turn of the century some 5000 cheap Chinese handguns were legally imported, deactivated to minimum standard and sold without requiring the purchaser to possess a handgun licence, permitted through a legal loophole (now closed) in Queensland law. Many of those guns were restored to working condition and remain out there.

And what about all those Chinese SKS rifles imported pre-1996 of which reputedly only a fraction were surrendered, leaving thousands or tens of thousands still out there? Police occasionally bust criminals and others with SKS rifles but not in the numbers which could support claims of a vast arsenal of semi-automatic rifles in the community.

In its 2016 report ACIC said based on available data it conservatively estimated there were 260,000 firearms in the domestic illicit market. “This estimate is based on a range of intelligence sources including firearm importation figures and seizure trends over time,” it said. ACIC stressed this was an estimate and the exact extent of the Australian illicit firearms market could not be determined as no historical data existed on the number of guns prior to implementation of the NFA.

It said the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimated the global illicit market was 10 to 20 per cent of the number of firearms in the lawful market and on that basis Australia’s illicit market could contain somewhere between 300,000 and 600,000 firearms. But ACIC’s figure of 260,000 illicit guns wasn’t new as that very same number features in the 2012 Final Report of the National Investigation into the Illegal Firearms Market. That investigation was conducted by the Australian Crime Commission, forerunner to ACIC and successor to the National Crime Authority. Then Labor Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare told parliament a conservative estimate was there were more than 250,000 longarms and 10,000 handguns in the illicit firearms market.

The Minister made a number of points: At that time there were more than 2.75 million registered firearms held by more than 730,000 individual firearm licence holders (it’s now a lot more). Shooters appreciate that guns are long-lived with the oldest firearm traced by the Australian Crime Commission (ACC) being a functioning revolver made in 1888.

ACC’s assessment of the illicit market was informed by its trace program in which it examined the provenance of 3186 guns seized by Australian law enforcement agencies. Of those, 44 per cent had not been surrendered or registered post-1996, 12 per cent were stolen or the subject of staged theft, illegal importation accounted for 0.5 per cent although experience since then has shown criminals are very serious about acquiring guns from overseas, especially the US. Underlining the difficulty of tracing illicit firearms, for a third (33.5 per cent) the method of diversion could not be determined.

So a little bit about criminals and guns. Crooks are interested in any guns though some more than others, handguns due to their concealability and allure being especially prized but even a single-shot .22 rifle could be used to enforce a drug debt or rob a pharmacy. Many criminals don’t know much about guns, a fact underlined to this writer when reporting a trial in the UK some years ago in which a couple of low-level crooks stole a shotgun from a country house, sawed off the barrel and stock then used it in a hold-up. That shotgun was a Purdey and a cheap one on the second-hand market might set you back $20,000.

That the Australian firearms grey market is substantial is demonstrated by the number of guns surrendered in various state and national amnesties:

  • According to research by the Federal Parliament, as of 2017 there had been 28 assorted gun amnesties across states and territories since Port Arthur.
  • The 2003 national handgun buyback resulted in the surrender of 68,727 handguns nationally. Technically this wasn’t an amnesty as it was directed at legally-owned guns with their owners compensated.
  • The first national gun amnesty since the NFA of 1996-97 ran from July 1 to September 30, 2017 and resulted in the surrender of 51,461 firearms, almost half (24,965) in NSW. That’s in addition to 67,323 surrendered in three earlier state amnesties.
  • So far, more than 10,000 guns have been surrendered across the nation in the current permanent amnesty which started in July of last year.
  • Police routinely take guns from criminals – one here, a few there but larger numbers are seized in targeted operations against groups such as outlaw motorcycle gangs. Last December the Australian Federal Police said their National Anti-Gangs Squad had seized 99 firearms from bikie gangs in 2020-21 and 51 in 2019-20.

You’d think all that would make a dent in the national illicit arsenal but not according to ACIC which stands by that 260,000. “There are a number of variables involved in reaching this assessment and ACIC continues to review this estimation as more definitive information becomes available,” an ACIC spokesperson told Australian Shooter. “While the size of the illicit firearm market cannot be definitively measured, based on available data ACIC conservatively estimates there are 260,000 firearms (250,000 long-arms and 10,000 handguns) in the domestic illicit market.” The spokesperson said the estimate was based on a range of intelligence sources including historical and updated firearm importation figures and seizure trends since the 2013 release of this estimation. “ACIC has not observed a significant change in the market since the 2016 Illicit Firearms in Australia report was released.”

With the national firearms amnesty well under way, there’s another issue not at all canvassed in the numerous media reports around the country, many parroting the figure of 260,000 illicit guns. So what does success really look like? That’s a point well made in a federal parliament discussion paper released ahead of the 2017 amnesty. As desirable as it would be for criminals to hand in their guns, the government had no expectation they’d do so. What do get handed in are a lot of antiques and heirlooms with imagery of the piles of surrendered firearms typically showing air rifles and old .22 calibre rifles along with much smaller numbers of military rifles and handguns.

These clearly fill out the numbers and justify assertions the amnesties are removing large numbers of firearms from the community. “Given the standard refrain is to ‘get guns off the street’ and reduce their availability, it’s tempting to assume that amnesties which result in people mainly handing in antiques, replicas or unwanted heirlooms are less successful than amnesties which see modern handguns and military-style weapons being surrendered,” the discussion paper admits.

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