Illicit gun trade alive and kicking

The Federal Government in conjunction with the states and territories is introducing a new national registration system to keep closers tabs on the nation’s licensed shooters. The near moribund Gun Control Australia (GCA) says the register is just ‘the first target’, so what does GCA have in mind? Not saying but it seems, quite independently of anything they may desire, there’s a creeping tendency towards further tightening of gun laws.

Western Australia is proceeding with its own plan, banning certain rifle types and calibres and imposing fresh restrictions on firearms owners, including limits on how many guns may be owned and a requirement for mandatory mental health assessments. So far no other state or territory has opted to head down this path, maybe due to cost and the fact it would surely add to the workload of their strained mental health systems.

Tasmanians who own pre-1900 firearms will be required to apply for a licence or surrender their guns after a review of regulations by police. Previously, antique firearms were exempt from licence, registration and storage requirements under regulations to the Firearms Act 1996. Additionally, amendments to Tasmanian legislation late last year made some unexceptional updates, for example cracking down on gun 3D manufacture, possession and criminal use of gel blasters and automatic refusal of firearms licences for members of outlaw motorcycle gangs.

Queensland, which remains the only jurisdiction in which gel blasters aren’t completely banned, plans to ban their sale to under-18s, though the proposed law changes seem aimed more at keeping knives out of the hands of minors. South Australian police are pushing for law changes to help crack down on untraceable 3D-printed guns being used in an escalating youth gang war, according to The Advertiser newspaper. In the Top End, police have contemplated limits on how much ammunition a shooter can own, with the head of the Northern Territory Police Firearms and Recording Unit having written to shooting groups asking what they think are reasonable limits.

So as 2024 proceeds and WA starts rolling out its new firearms laws, what’s the betting various anti-gun groups and individuals start pressing for other jurisdictions to follow suit. In the past, these same outfits have been most vocal about those states and territories which they say haven’t fully implemented the 1996 National Firearms Agreement. Yet they’re right behind any move by any state to exceed the NFA, all in the interests of public safety of course.

Last year wasn’t great for one anti-gun voice, University of NSW Associate Professor Philip Alpers ,whose long-running website appears to have shut down. “This site has closed due to lack of funding,” says the log-in page. On a personal level that’s disappointing, as it was a useful resource with its compilation of global gun data, a not inconsiderable task in itself. As a colleague in the Defence industry media once remarked: “Let the zealots do the work.”

GCA doesn’t seem much more active as the last stories posted on its website related to gun laws in Serbia and Canada – and that was in May of last year. While the Commonwealth and states have been planning the new national firearms registry, the criminal classes have been ever-active in the acquisition and use of firearms. Incidents of criminal gun violence are generally well reported though the actual information is often scant, yet state and federal police and Australian Border Force happily publicise their triumphs. Here are a few examples.

In December a man in Sydney was arrested in possession of two unregistered Glock handguns. Police allege he was part of a foiled underworld plot to murder a man in the CBD and, in possessing those guns, was in violation of a firearms prohibition order. Then in January, Victorian police arrested three men and seized a number of firearms, explosive devices and about $1 million in illicit cash in searches of homes across Melbourne. No details of guns were disclosed though what’s intriguing is one of those detained was described as a Russian organised crime member. Overseas crims are interested in Australia because of high prices for drugs here, a result of our remoteness and effectiveness of law enforcement.

Victorian police have been busy. An extended investigation into an armed robbery culminated in raids across Melbourne and the arrest of seven men. Seized were 22 guns with ammunition, explosives, drugs, cash, pepper spray, knuckle-dusters, stolen property and 3D-printed gun parts. Again, no details of the firearms were disclosed but discovery of 3D-produced components indicates criminals will seek guns from wherever they can.

Meanwhile, Australian Federal Police are doing their best to stay on top of international developments. 3D-printing guns and components is one example as is the emergence of gauss guns, about which current import legislation is silent. In 2022, police advice to the Attorney General led to their regulation. What’s a gauss gun you may well ask? Think of science fiction rail-guns where an electromagnetic field drives a projectile down a barrel. You can actually buy one in the US (of course), though these early examples are clumsy, unreliable and not very powerful. Yet like 3D-printed guns, they surely won’t stay that way.

The criminal quest for firearms never sleeps, especially the desire for handguns, mostly from the US. Australian Border Force (ABF) interceptions at the Customs barrier frequently become joint operations to make actual arrests. Such was the case in mid-January when ABF and WA police raided a property at Yanchep, seizing 16 unlicensed firearms including a loaded sawn-off shotgun, drugs and unlicensed native wildlife including a carpet python and 34 geckos. The genesis of this bust appears to have been interception of imported gun parts at the Customs barrier and this was all part of Operation Athena, a national initiative targeting illicit firearms and trafficking.

In a national week of action in October 2022, police across Australia made 86 arrests and seized 523 guns. Take away the 51 gel-blasters and 32 airsoft/imitation firearms and the tally is less impressive yet still substantial. Images accompanying the media announcement showed an M60 GPMG and selection of handguns seized from a man in Queensland. Among items recovered elsewhere were various 3D-printed guns, components and plans, indicating the rise in illicit use of this ever-evolving technology.

Criminals still to try to import gun components hidden in legitimate freight items and last September, ABF and Australian Federal Police arrested a Sydney man who was subsequently charged for importing a large quantity of parts intended to build operational firearms. Images accompanying the media statement show what appear to be Glock frames and a complete gun resembling a Mac 10.

In June, ABF detected a single firearm barrel in air cargo where the addressee had neither a firearms licence or import approval and a raid on his home uncovered various bows, blow-darts, knives and drugs. In April of last year, ABF charged a 28-year-old US woman after a handgun was found in her luggage. Yet this wasn’t just any handgun, it was a gold-plated Colt (or clone) 1911 with pearl grips. You have to wonder what on earth was she thinking. The story made news around the world and her case remains before the courts.

In March, ABF examined a parcel arriving in the mail which was found to contain four gun magazines. In a raid on a man’s work and home in South Australia, ABF and SA Police seized 15 long-arms, six handguns, a sawn-off shotgun, suppressors, explosives, stun-guns and knuckle-dusters.

As ABF routinely says in media statements, its officers are among the world’s best at locating dangerous goods such as firearm parts in inbound mail. Unusual items now firmly on police radars are imported trip alarms, simple devices in which a trip-wire pulls out a pin, releasing a plunger which sets off a 12-gauge shotgun shell, making a very loud bang. These would be great for warning off predators (two or four-legged) approaching a bush campsite, problem being that under Customs regulations they fall into the same category as other prohibited weapons. Last August, ABF and WA police revealed they’d seized 47 of these devices in what they termed Operation Tripidation, prompted by a recent increase in trip-alarm importations through the mail.

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