Australian Institute of Criminology

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Introduction

Australian firearm laws have undergone major amendments since 1996 to incorporate changes recommended in the National Firearms Agreement 1996, the National Handgun Control Agreement 2002 and the National Firearms Trafficking Policy Agreement 2002. The purpose of these changes to firearm laws was to:

  • restrict certain types of firearms;
  • establish new licensing, registration, storage and training requirements for firearms; and
  • introduce new penalties for the trafficking of firearms.

One potential outcome from these amendments, specifically those relating to stricter provisions around the securing of firearms, was a reduction in incidents of firearm theft. Between 1994 and 2000, an estimated average 4,000 firearms were reported stolen each year in Australia (Mouzos 2002), although this rate dropped considerably in the next decade (Borzycki & Mouzos 2007; Bricknell 2010, 2008; Bricknell & Mouzos 2007; Mouzos & Sakurai 2006). Firearm theft represents one very credible avenue through which firearms may be transferred into the illicit firearm market. An understanding, therefore, of the general methods used to steal firearms in Australia and specific vulnerabilities associated with current forms of firearm storage provide law enforcement agencies and lawful firearm owners alike with information that can assist in reducing the firearm theft rate even further.

About the National Firearms Theft Monitoring Program

The NFTMP was established at the Australian Institute of Criminology following a recommendation from the then Firearms Policy Working Group to the then Australasian Police Ministers Council that there be longer term monitoring of reported firearms thefts in Australia. The NFTMP was funded by the Australian Government under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 (POCA), for a period of four years.

The NFTMP compiles financial year data provided by Australian state and territory police services on:

  • characteristics of reported stolen firearms (serial number, registration status, firearm type and category, and make, model, calibre and action type);
  • storage arrangements for firearms at the time of theft;
  • method by which the firearms were stolen;
  • recovery rate of stolen firearms;
  • apprehension and prosecution of offenders; and
  • known use of stolen firearms to commit subsequent crimes.

Findings from the NFTMP are used to assist the Firearm and Weapons Policy Working Group in developing initiatives to reduce the incidence of firearms theft and to present information on the status of, and any observed changes in, firearm storage arrangements and compliance. The latter is to be used to construct measures to both improve storage compliance and develop a minimum standard of firearm storage for application to all sectors of the firearm-owning community.

This is the final report in the POCA-funded series and covers all thefts of firearms reported to state and territory police between 1 July 2008 and 30 June 2009. For previous reports in this series and earlier work on firearm theft see Borzycki & Mouzos 2007; Bricknell 2010, 2008; Bricknell & Mouzos 2007; Mouzos & Sakurai 2006.

Methods and data quality

Firearm theft data for the period 1 July 2008 to 30 June 2009 was supplied by all but two state and territory police services, using a purpose-designed template. The Northern Territory provided data on the number, type and category of firearms reported stolen, the number of theft incidents and postcode of theft but were unable to provide data for all other variables. Western Australia was not able to provide any firearm theft data for the 2008–09 report.

The original dataset comprised 655 cases of theft for a total of 1,591 reported stolen firearms for all Australian states and territories except Western Australia. One case was removed as the police eventually concluded the victim had contrived the theft to conceal the illegal sale of the firearm. Another 34 cases were removed as they described incidents of theft in which the firearms reported stolen were not classified as firearms for the purposes of the report. These cases referred to the theft of 20 firearms that were classified as either:

  • replica or imitations firearms, or starter pistols (and where the firearm owner was not found in breach of firearms legislation); or
  • deactivated or inoperable.

The final dataset comprises valid records for 620 incidents of theft, from which 1,570 firearms were reported stolen. Each record represents a single incident of theft, 55 percent of which resulted in the theft of more than one firearm.

Prior to analysis, state and territory data were cleaned and interrogated using logic checks to denote inconsistencies. Missing data again tended to be a relatively minor problem but the proportion of unknown responses remained substantial for some variables. Factors potentially contributing to a higher incidence of unknown returns included:

  • the inability or reluctance of the person reporting the theft to relay specifics about the event or the firearms stolen;
  • delayed reporting; and
  • incomplete incident reports.

Care must be taken when interpreting data presented in this report, specifically that relating to the smaller jurisdictions of Tasmania, the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory. These jurisdictions experience only a small number of firearms thefts each year and correspondingly, small changes in numbers can produce apparently significant, but not necessarily real, differences between years. Where numbers are particularly small, these will be removed from Figures and Tables and any accompanying text.

In this report, comparisons are made of data collected on recorded firearm thefts for the period 1 July 2005–30 June 2008 (ie the previous 3 years) or from 1 July 2004–30 June 2008 (ie the previous 4 years), depending on data comparability. In essence, the 2004–05 data described in Borzycki and Mouzos (2007) is generally comparable with data collected for all subsequent monitoring years, but there is a small group of variables for which data were recorded differently or were not collected at all.

Data limitations

The data presented in this report represents only those incidents of firearm theft reported to police. Not every victim of crime reports the incident to police and hence, not every incident of firearm theft that occurred within the 2008–09 period is necessarily captured in the dataset. Those owners who illegally own firearms, either because they are unlicensed, their firearms were not registered at the time of the theft or the firearm is prohibited under Australian law, are least likely to report a theft because of the risk of being ‘discovered’ and consequently prosecuted for firearms offences. Owners who were knowingly negligent regarding the securing of their firearms may also be less inclined to report a theft, again because of risk of sanction. Finally, owners might not feel compelled to report the theft if their firearm was old, inoperable or of negligible value.

Further, this report does not include information on theft incidents in which firearms were stored at the theft site but were not stolen. Police record information about cases of attempted theft, for example where there is evidence a firearm safe was tampered with but the firearms stored within were not retrieved, but this information may not be documented systematically and hence was not included in the dataset. Finally, police do not record items that were not stolen, irrespective of whether other items were stolen in the reported incident, if there was no evidence of an attempt to take the items. Hence, it was not possible to compare the rates or characteristics of theft incidents in which a firearm was stored on site but not stolen with those in which they were.

Report outline

The report is comprised of four sections describing:

  • the characteristics of stolen firearms and theft incidents, including type of firearms stolen;
  • the nature of theft incidents, such as location, methods by which offenders gained access to firearms and the kinds of other items stolen with firearms;
  • compliance with firearm laws and regulations, including storage, registration and licensing obligations; and
  • recovery rates, the prosecution of offenders and use of stolen firearms in crime.

Trend data is presented alongside 2008–09 data for selected items. The final section incorporates a review of the findings from the NFTMP, examines some of the specific vulnerabilities around current storage arrangements made by firearm owners and suggests future research that would improve knowledge of firearm theft.