Illegal gun number estimates outdated and misleading

Rachael Oxborrow

An estimation of the number of illegal firearms circulating in Australia hailing from 2012 continues to be bandied about by governments, police and media without alteration a decade later, this despite several firearms amnesties “removing guns from our streets”, firearms trafficking busts and other various seizures associated with criminal activity occurring in this period. The logical assumption is this figure would’ve been impacted by a number of factors during this time.

The reality of the situation is mainstream media and politicians love putting a number to a claim. At a glance a figure can lend credibility and create an emotive response and in the case of putting a number on illegal firearms in Australia, headlines create heightened feelings of shock, drama and alarm.

The number – quoted as 250,000 or 260,000 illegal firearms depending on who you ask – is broken down to 240,000/250,000 longarms and 10,000 handguns and originates from a classified report from the Australian Crime Commission into the illegal firearms market in 2012. The report was ordered by then Minister for Home Affairs Jason Clare, who was responding to a string of shootings in western Sydney and Adeliade and its aim was to create a system to trace the history of illicit firearms and identify points of origin. Details from the report that were made public include:

  • There are more than 2.75 million registered firearms in Australia held by more than 730,000 individual firearms licence holders;
  • A conservative estimate is there are more than 250,000 longarms and 10,000 handguns in the illicit firearms market;
  • Illegal firearms originate from those stolen from licenced owners, firearms not surrendered or registered post-National Firearms Agreement law changes, illegal imports, firearms built or reactivated illegally and firearms dealers acting illegally.

The ACC conducted a tracing analysis of 3186 firearms seized by law enforcement to inform this report which revealed almost half these firearms were not surrendered in the wake of the Port Arthur tragedy and a very minor percentage come from international imports.

The issue we face as law abiding firearm owners is a tendency by the media to link legitimate owners with unlicensed, illegal firearm users. People who have gone through the checks and balances to be granted a licence are being lumped in the same camp as potential criminals, despite the Australian Institute of Criminology time and time again finding it is unlicensed people with unregistered, illegal firearms who are responsible for gun crimes. In almost all cases these crimes are drug, gang and organised crime-related.

Just last year we saw the draconian attitude of our lawmakers towards legitimate licensed firearm owners come to the fore when firearms and ammunition access was severely restricted in some states. The ban – justified by authorities suggesting shooters were stockpiling ammunition and firearms in response to the COVID-19 pandemic – was eventually overturned amid political pressure.

Continuing to use an outdated estimation of illegal firearms numbers undermines work to capture ‘grey market’ firearms not registered or handed in during previous amnesties and efforts by authorities to address criminal activities such as the recent ‘Operation Ironside’ global sting. The SSAA has and always will support evidence-based decision making and measures to combat criminals and their use of illegal firearms. The focus needs to be on the illicit market and legislation which doesn’t necessarily burden the legitimate licensed owner.

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