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Illegal handguns becoming the weapon of choice: Australian Institute of Criminology

Media Release

14 October 2008

Despite apparently low ownership rates among criminals, handguns appear to be the weapon of choice for firearm-related crime in Australia according to the latest Trends & issues paper released by the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC).

Criminal use of handguns in Australia outlines the use of handguns to commit lethal and non-lethal crime in Australia and explores the legal status of handguns in these crimes.

Dr Judy Putt, General Manager of Research at the AIC, says that while the overall use of firearms in violent crime has declined in many English-speaking countries, including Australia, the proportional use of handguns in firearm-related crime has increased.

"The percentage of handguns used in firearm homicides has risen from less than 20 to around 50 percent in the past 10 years, while armed robberies saw handguns account for between a half and two-thirds of those involving firearms over the same period," Dr Putt said.

"Of the 150 offenders known to have used a handgun to commit homicide since 1989-90, 12 percent were licensed firearms owners and only two percent had used a registered handgun," Dr Putt said.

"Armed robberies committed with a handgun are distinct from armed robberies in general. While individuals remain the primary victims of armed robbery, business establishments are more commonly targeted - particularly those such as licensed premises, where higher proceeds are more likely."

Handguns represent seven percent of registered firearms in Australia but it seems most of the handguns used in crime are obtained illegally and informally.

About five percent of police detainees in 2005 and 2006 said they owned a handgun, usually purchased illegally, commonly through family and friends.

Dr Putt said protection and self defence were the most common reasons given by police detainees for owning a handgun but that a third admitted to using a handgun to commit a crime in the previous year.

"Although the apparent rate of ownership remains low, handguns continue to be obtained illegally by the criminal community, where their concealable nature, high firepower and large calibre can be exploited in the commission of violent crime."

AIC media contact: Scott Kelleher, Tel: 02.6260 9244; m: 0418 159525.