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Characteristics and dynamics of firearm trafficking

In their study of illegal firearm markets in the United States, Pierce et al. (2004: 392) emphasised that the ‘complexity’ of these markets and the paucity of information about how illicit firearm markets operate ‘presents substantial challenges to policy makers and law enforcement agencies in disrupting supply’. Information on firearm trafficking and the intricate workings of the illicit market in Australia is similarly limited. There is general agreement on the likely sources of illicit firearms, and the conduits through which they are trafficked, but less consensus on the importance of these in supplementing the illicit market. Some of this difference in opinion relates to the viewpoint of different interest groups, in particular whether market replenishment is mostly derived from ‘internal’ sources (such as the theft of legal firearms) or reliant on a consistent flow of items from outside Australia (through illegal importation). Yet much of this uncertainty ultimately derives from the difficulty in estimating contribution in the absence of complete data.

Type and size of markets

Three primary firearm markets exist in Australia—the licit, grey and illicit markets. These are as follows:

  • The licit market comprises all firearms that have been registered with the relevant authority and held by an owner with the appropriate licence(s) to possess and use the specified firearm(s).
  • The ‘grey market’ comprises unregistered firearms. Prior to the National Firearms Agreement (1996), only handguns had to be registered in all Australian jurisdictions; mandatory long-arm registration varied between the states and territories. Grey market firearms are those firearms that should have been registered or surrendered (for restricted models) in the gun buybacks that have occurred since the National Firearms Agreement (1996), but for a multitude of reasons were not. In some cases, this was probably because the owner chose not to comply with the new legislative requirements but in others because the firearms had been misplaced, lost or forgotten about. Grey market firearms are not held, used or conveyed for criminal purposes but have been identified as often ending up in the illicit market.
  • The illicit market comprises any firearm that has been illegally imported into Australia, illegally manufactured in Australia or diverted from the licit or grey markets. Illicit firearms may be used in criminal activities.

The introduction of mandatory registration requirements with the firearm reforms now provides a count of the legal market—there were over 2.7 million firearms registered in Australia as of December 2011. It is not possible, however, to estimate the size of either the grey or illicit markets. The grey market may be substantial but there are no reliable estimates of the volume of it or the illicit market.

Sources and conduits

Illegal importation, theft, illicit manufacture (albeit small), the activities of some corrupt dealers, and legacy legislative and procedural loopholes all represent recognised methods by which firearms, firearm parts and ammunition have been or currently are trafficked into or within Australia (ACC 2011, 2009, 2008; Kerlatec 2007; Mouzos 1999; Qld CMC 2004). The trafficking of illicit firearms might be described as being dependent on two sources of supply—point sources and diffuse sources (Braga et al. 2002). Point sources represent the more organised spectrum of illegal firearm transfer, best typified by ongoing diversion of firearms from some corrupt firearm dealers or illegal importation. Diffuse sources are less routine or less dependable ‘acquisitions’, for example, from theft or informal, clandestine sales. These recognised methods of trafficking are described here.

Illegal importation

Many, if not the majority of, firearms in both the grey and illicit markets were most likely legally imported into Australia prior to the firearm and related reforms (see next section). In 2010–11, a total of 85,035 firearms were legally imported into Australia and 4,540 were exported (ACBPS 2011a). In the same period, ACBPS recorded the detection of 5,922 undeclared firearms/airguns, parts and accessories, although not all of these undeclared items were brought in through deliberate, illegal import activity and most of these items were described as ‘low risk’ (Project stakeholder personal communication 7 December 2011).

Aside from the concern that restricted firearm models are being illegally brought into the country is the risk surrounding the illegal importation of parts and accessories which can then be used to manufacture restricted firearms or modify existing firearms. Media reports from the ACBPS (see Table 6) and AIC discussions with stakeholders indicate that it is the illegal importation of parts which is the more common scenario. The servicing of the current illicit market through illegal imports is not an unproven channel but may not be as important a trafficking route as some commentators expect or assert (eg see ABC 2011) and despite more recent high-profile cases (eg see AAP & Davies 2012). This may be because the process of illegal importation is possibly perceived as a less reliable option for firearm acquisition due to increased surveillance from the ACBPS, in combination with police agencies, and thus a greater chance of detection (Project stakeholders personal communication 28 November 2011; 7 December 2011).

Table 6: Reported illegal importation of firearms, parts and ammunition 2004–11
Item Method of import
Parts for Uzi sub-machine gun Post
‘Handgun’ parts Post
MG42 machine gun parts Post
Airsoft handgun and ammunition (with other prohibited weapons) Luggage
Rifle barrel for M1 carbine Post
Replica handguns/replica flintlock rifles not specified
Frame and 3 15-round 9mm magazines for semi-automatic pistol Post
76 replica flintlock pistols/22 replica flintlock rifles Sea cargo
9mm semi-automatic pistol Post
Six handguns (4 x .32 semi-automatic pistols, 1 x .25 semi-automatic pistol and 1 x .22 revolver) Sea cargo
Handmade shotgun Air cargo
9mm semi-automatic pistol Sea cargo
AK-47 assault rifle (dismantled) Post
Airsoft firearm parts Luggage
15 military style firearm magazines and stock for ‘Steyr’ rifle Post
Air rifle (disassembled)/air rifle ammunition Post
Four magazines for semi-automatic pistol and firing pin Post
2,000 airsoft BB guns Sea cargo
‘Parts’ for a semi-automatic pistol Post
1,500 BB guns Sea cargo

Source: ACBPS 2011b, 2009, 2008a–f, 2007a–c, 2006a–d, 2005a–c, 2004a–b

Theft

Theft is cited as an important source of illegal firearms in countries such as the United States (Kleck & Wang 2009; Pierce et al. 2004; Wright & Rossi 1994) and inferred in other jurisdictions such as England and Wales (Hales, Lewis & Silverstone 2006) and within the European Union (Spapens 2007). Data collected for the AIC’s National Firearm Theft Monitoring Program showed that over the five years between 1 July 2004 and 30 June 2009, an average 1,545 firearms were reported stolen to Australian state and territory police (Borzycki & Mouzos 2007; Bricknell 2011, 2009, 2008a; Bricknell & Mouzos 2007), less than half the average number of firearms reported stolen during the previous decade (Mouzos 2002). Around three-quarters of thefts were from private residential premises, with a mix of targeted and opportunistic incidents recorded. Less restricted firearms (eg Category A and B firearms—see Table 8) comprised the majority of firearms stolen in this period, most likely a reflection of the prevalence of these firearms among the Australian firearm-owning community rather than a necessary preference for such models. Handgun theft has remained consistently below 10 percent and restricted Category C and D firearms (such as pump action shotguns and semi-automatic rifles) rarely featured in firearm theft reports (less than 1% of all reported stolen firearms). Firearms from just 12–14 percent of reported theft incidents between 2004–05 and 2008–09 were recovered by police in the 12 months following the report of the theft (Borzycki & Mouzos 2007; Bricknell 2011, 2009, 2008a; Bricknell & Mouzos 2007), indicating a sizeable, annual contribution of stolen firearms to the illicit market.

Table 8: Firearm classification according to the National Firearms Agreement 1996
Category A
Air rifles
Rimfire rifles (excluding self-loading)
Single- and double-barrelled shotguns
Category B
Muzzle-loading firearms
Single shot, double-barrelled and repeating action centre-fire rifles
Break-action shotgun/rifle combinations
Category C (Prohibited except for occupational purposes)
Self-loading rimfire rifles with a magazine capacity no greater than 10 rounds
Self-loading shotguns with a magazine capacity no greater than five rounds
Pump-action shotguns with a magazine capacity no greater than five rounds
Category D (Prohibited except for official purposes)
Self-loading centre-fire rifles
Self-loading shotguns and pump-action shotguns with a capacity of more than five rounds
Self-loading rimfire rifles with a magazine capacity greater than 10 rounds
Category H
All handguns, including air pistols

Illicit manufacture

Illicit manufacture refers to the unauthorised production of a firearm from raw materials or assembly using disassembled and/or new firearm parts. It has been predicted that the illicit firearm market will (increasingly) be supplied by a ‘growing domestic market of locally manufactured firearms’ (Kerlatec 2007: 160), presumably as other methods for diversion become less viable. The current scale of illicit domestic manufacture is unknown, although the ACC (2011: 76) lists ‘backyard manufacturers’ as a source of firearms for SOCG. Given the risks associated with detection, illicit manufacture is likely to occur in small-scale, made-to-order operations.

Corrupt licensed dealers

Licensed firearm dealers are well placed to divert firearms—they have access to large firearm collections, and their familiarity with legislation and processes around the importation, sale and distribution of firearms will have revealed where vulnerabilities exist and can be best exploited. This form of diversion often relied upon the abuse of legislative or administrative inconsistencies and weaknesses (such as the deactivation loopholes described below), which was nominated as a key conduit in the supply of handguns to the illicit markets in New South Wales and Queensland (ACC 2011; Qld CMC 2004).

Legislative loopholes

The exploitation of legislative and procedural loopholes primarily by, although not confined to, some corrupt licensed dealers contributed in the past to the diversion of reportedly thousands of legal firearms, notably handguns (Project stakeholders personal communication 24 September 2011; 30 November 2011). Legislative and procedural anomalies recognised as being particularly damaging concerned the ‘accountable’ status of deactivated firearms, the definition of a firearm and mandatory registration of frames and receivers, and the historical non-existent recording of firearms transferred across state and territory borders.

Deactivation/reactivation

In all but two jurisdictions, firearms remain ‘accountable’ even when deactivated. This means that a firearm’s registration status is not invalidated if it is deactivated and the firearm remains ‘on the books’ of the relevant firearm registry. Deactivated firearms, however, do not fall within the legislative definition of a firearm in South Australia and Western Australia. A firearm in these two states loses its accountability status on it being certified as deactivated. Once a deactivated firearm is unaccountable and reactivation occurs, its transfer out of the legal pool is complete.

A deactivation loophole in Queensland weapons legislation inadvertently led to the deactivation of a substantial number of handguns (estimated to be upwards of 4,000) by Queensland-based dealers and probably the transfer of some of these handguns into the national illicit pool (Project stakeholders personal communication 24 September 2011; 30 November 2011). Prior to amendments to the Weapons Act 1990 (Qld) and Weapons Regulation 1996 (Qld), a handgun if rendered inoperable lost any requirement to remain registered in Queensland. Compounding this vulnerability was the lack of inspection of the firearm once the deactivation process had taken place. Subsequently, many thousands of poorly deactivated handguns were reactivated by firearm enthusiasts and criminals, and made their way into the illicit market (Project stakeholders personal communication 24 September 2011; 30 November 2011).

Technical loopholes

Prior to the implementation of the Firearms Amendment (Trafficking) Act 2001 No 24 (NSW), a technical error in the definition of a handgun in New South Wales legislation enabled the diversion of many handguns to the illicit market (Project stakeholders personal communication 24 September 2011; 30 November 2011). The Firearms Act 1996 (NSW) as originally enacted required firearm barrels, but not frames or receivers, to be registered under Part 3 (Registration of Firearms) of the Act. The exemption of frames and receivers meant handguns without barrels could be sold without having to observe regulations on firearm disposal, and frames/receivers could be purchased without need to register them. This opened up opportunities to convert or build up new handguns using non-registrable parts purchased in New South Wales with parts purchased elsewhere. Among the amendments prescribed in the Firearms Amendment (Trafficking) Act 2001 No 24 (NSW) was the stipulation that registration now ‘applies to every firearm frame and firearm receiver in the same way as it applies to a firearm’ (s 93(1)).

Interstate transfer

Diversion by interstate transfer is potentially facilitated by a mix of legislative and administrative loopholes. Until recently, there was no structured system agreed to by all state and territories in the reconciliation of firearm transactions between jurisdictions. Aware of this anomaly, some dealers have diverted licit firearms to the illicit market by falsely declaring on their dealer returns disposal of firearms to other companies or individuals interstate, when in fact the firearm never left the dealer’s possession. This vulnerability assisted in the intra- and inter-state diversion of firearms, predominantly handguns.

Illicit market suppliers and consumers

The trafficking of illicit firearms in Australia is not considered to be organised in structure (Alpers & Twyford 2003; Kerlatec 2007; Mouzos 1999; CMC 2004). Rather, it is dominated by a collection of criminal gangs (OMCGs are frequently nominated) in which illicit firearm trafficking is run as a side business to the primary criminal venture (eg the drugs market) and small networks or individual operators, such as corrupt licensed dealers, who move illicit firearms around by word of mouth.

The consumers of the illicit market comprise much the same group again, consisting of persons, gangs or more sophisticated entities acquiring firearms to commit crime, for protection of themselves or their assets, to perpetuate gang rivalry and violence and/or for stockpiling purposes. It is fair to assume that few, if any, consumers of illicit firearms sit outside criminal networks but it is quite probable there are collectors or other firearm enthusiasts who might look to the illicit market for restricted firearms if they wish to acquire them.

There is a predilection for handguns among the criminal fraternity, in acquisition and to use to commit crime (Blumstein 1995; Braga et al. 2002; Hales, Lewis & Silverstone 2006; Kleck & Wang 2009; Smith et al. 2010; SOCA 2006; Spapens 2007; Williams & Poynton 2006; Wright & Rossi 1994; Wright, Wintermute & Webster 2010). While the large-scale, cross-border trafficking franchises are occupied with the movement of military-style firearms and similar firearms, there is ‘limited use’ for such items in domestic criminal enterprise (UNODC 2010: 129). Military-style firearms (such as Bren Light Machine Guns, AK-47 assault rifles, M1 carbines) do permeate the domestic illicit market but they are bought for different reasons (possibly stockpiling) and generally do not feature in the commission of crime. Handguns dominate firearm-perpetrated violent crime statistics from the United States (FBI 2010), England and Wales (Smith et al. 2010) and Canada (Mahoney 2011), despite differential rates of firearm crime overall in these jurisdictions. This has not been the case in New Zealand where long-arms were often used in the commission of violent crime, but this apparent preference for long-arms could be related to the comparative scarcity of handguns, compared with long-arms, in New Zealand (Newbold 1999). More recent data on firearm violent crime in New Zealand, however, are not available.

In Australia, the number of victims of firearm-perpetrated homicide (ie murder and manslaughter) has declined by half between 1989–90 and 2009–10 from 24 to 12 percent (Chan & Payne forthcoming). The predominance of handgun-perpetrated homicide, as a proportion of all firearm homicide, rose from 17 to 45 percent between 1992–93 and 2006–07 (Bricknell 2008b; Dearden & Jones 2008) but dropped again in the following three years to a little over 10 percent. For the most recent year available (2009–10), handgun homicide comprised 13 percent of all homicides that were committed with a firearm (Chan & Payne forthcoming). Data on weapon use from the AIC’s National Armed Robbery Monitoring Program show that armed robberies involving a firearm comprised 14 percent of all armed robberies reported in 2009. This percentage has remained stable over the seven year period from 2003 to 2010. More than half of all firearm-perpetrated armed robberies in 2009 were committed with a handgun (56%, n=2,708), with long-arms used in 10 percent or less of firearm armed robberies reported that year (eg shotguns 10%, n=490; rifles/airguns 5%, n=5; AIC unpublished data).

Hales, Lewis and Silverstone (2006) have differentiated between two types of ‘gun culture’ that sustains the illicit firearms market in England and Wales. The first is the instrumental criminal firearm culture where firearms are obtained specifically for offensive criminal purposes, armed robbery being the most common criminal pursuit. The second is the complex criminal firearm culture, in which firearms are procured for often a mix of offensive, defensive and symbolic functions. It is the latter group of purchasers that Hales, Lewis and Silverstone (2006) have argued is becoming the dominant culture in illicit firearm ownership and use, and that is often connected to, or immersed within, the illicit drugs market. This is a credible scenario for Australia too and may help to explain the type of firearm that comprises the illicit firearm market here.

Handguns, as noted earlier, are the firearm of choice for many criminal groups. Handguns are preferred by the very fact they are concealable and some models have large magazine capacities (Blumstein 1995; Hales, Lewis & Silverstone 2006; Lizotte et al. 2000; Wright & Rossi 1994). Long-arms, in particular sawn-off shotguns, are chosen probably because of general availability but also because of the intimidatory effect they have on victims (Hales, Lewis & Silverstone 2006; Newbold 1999). Select-fire firearms (ie firearms that have at least 1 automatic and semi-automatic mode) hold a ‘symbolic value’ among criminal users that ‘conform(s) to gangster stereotype(s)’ (Hales, Lewis & Silverstone 2006: 55); their power and quick reloading capacities are equally attractive.

Access to the illicit firearm market, or a broader selection of items within the market, usually depends on the extent and strength of criminal connections and length of service in criminal enterprise (Hales, Lewis & Silverstone 2006; Newbold 1999). Older, established consumers tend to be more technically savvy and more discerning in their choice of firearm. Younger or less experienced purchasers may be less knowledgeable about firearms and possibly more impulsive in their selection (Cook et al. 2006; Hales, Lewis & Silverstone 2006).

The reasons for acquiring illicit firearms can be related to the ‘gun cultures’ described before. Some firearms are bought primarily to commit a criminal offence. Others, particularly handguns, are acquired for self-defence or protection and, for younger users, as status symbols (Blumstein 1995; Bricknell 2008b; Cook et al. 2006; Hales, Lewis & Silverstone 2006; Lizotte et al. 2000). Cook et al. (2006) noted that gang members often possessed firearms so that their rivals knew they had a firearm—just showing someone your firearm was sufficient for being left alone. Self-defence and the avoidance of future victimisation were regularly mentioned reasons for firearm ownership by gang members involved in the drugs market, particularly those at the retail end of the market. Then there are purposes related to establishing and maintaining control of illegal economic activities (Markowski et al. 2009), such as handling territorial disputes and ‘sanctioning’ acts of trespass (Hales, Lewis & Silverstone 2006). Finally, there is the acquisition of firearms for stockpiling, to be used when and if more serious skirmishes arise. Military-style firearms may be more likely to be obtained for stockpiling purposes.

Australian cases of firearm trafficking

The nature of firearm trafficking in Australia can be discerned from examining open-source material but with the caveat that the absence of intelligence prevents the construction of a more complete picture. As noted earlier, there is a paucity of open-source literature addressing the illicit firearm trade within Australia, indeed on firearms in general, outside the occasional report (usually) prepared by government agencies or interest groups. The Queensland Crime and Misconduct Commission’s assessment of the illicit firearms trade in Queensland in the early 2000s described the market as ‘not large or overly organised’ and was mostly supplied, at least in the past, by the diversion of firearms from the legal market, ‘boosted by opportunistic theft’ (Qld CMC 2004: 203).

Similarly dated assessments of firearm trafficking (Alpers & Twyford 2003; Mouzos 1999) supported the opinion that the illicit market was not organised and supply was predominantly from ‘domestic leakage’ of legal firearms, rather than wholesale illegal importation. A more recent report, on firearm trafficking in New South Wales (Kerlatec 2007), listed diversion, a growing industry in domestic manufacture (presumably unlawful), and illegal importation as methods of supply, although it also predicted an increase in the use and acquisition by criminal elements of imitation and replica firearms. The ACC (2011: 76), in its 2011 assessment of organised crime in Australia, stated that the trafficking in firearms is largely furnished by ‘corrupt licensed dealers, loose networks of criminal gangs and ‘backyard’ manufacturers’ but did not predict any escalation in activity into the near future.

Missing from these more generalised accounts of firearm trafficking is the identity and backgrounds of suppliers and consumers, and specificities around the type of firearms that are bought and sold. Media reports can only go so far in revealing these identities, not least because this form of source material may tend to focus on the more substantial (or sensationalist) cases (eg see AAP & Davies 2012; ABC 2012, 2009; Bell 2008; Earley 2009; Hughes 2007; Nankervis 2012; Nicholson & Ziffer 2004; O’Brien 2007; Robertson 2011; Rule 2009; Trembath 2009; Trenwith 2009). From these, it is clear that some trafficking syndicates have access to significant caches of (usually) restricted firearms (and other weapons) and the link to OMCGs and other criminal groups involved in the drugs trade is readily advanced. The role of licensed firearm dealers and armourers is also apparent, either as a channel by which firearms are moved into the illegal market or as on-sellers. However, the scenarios presented in these reports simply confirm stereotypes around firearm trafficking without detailing the different typologies of involvement. The following discussion examines transcripts from court proceedings to ascertain whether more can be established from this source about suppliers and different levels of trafficking enterprise.

The ‘business of selling’

Among the recommendations specified in the National Firearm Trafficking Policy Agreement (2002) was the introduction into law of new offences or an increase in penalties for activities connected with the illicit firearms trade. These were described in full in the previous section but briefly include, where they were not present in the legislation before:

  • the creation of offences related to the defacement of identifying marks (eg serial numbers) and the illegal manufacture of firearms;
  • an increase in penalties for illegal possession;
  • new provisions for licensed dealers in the recording, reporting and inspection of firearm part transactions and close associate arrangements; and
  • the addition of an offence for employing a prohibited person in a dealership business.

The sample of court proceedings assembled for this report was expectedly small (n=20) and therefore the description of illicit firearm sales contained in these transcripts can only be taken as indicative of trafficking operations. As noted in the Methods section, court proceedings are generally available only for cases heard in higher courts and those cases reported here were mostly those that went to appeal. It was not possible to establish the proportion of cases that proceeded to prosecution that were represented by the cases described here. Indeed, a number of high profile firearm trafficking cases reported in the media in recent years could not be located in publicly available court records.

Two categories of suppliers might be distinguished from the compiled cases. The first category comprised individuals or groups of individuals who were evidently in the ‘business of selling’—the sale or supply of firearms was a regular or major form of income, at least for a sustained period of time. These suppliers were known or suspected to have engaged in multiple, illegal sales of firearms, usually restricted models, to persons who did not have the appropriate licence to own the firearms being disposed of or were designated a ‘prohibited person’ under the relevant state or territory law. For example, in The Queen v NP [2003] NSWCCA 195 (17 July 2003), the defendant was described as clearly ‘being in the business of supplying firearms [and prohibited drugs]’ and that ‘business had been good and profitable’ (Transcript of proceedings, The Queen v NP, New South Wales Court of Criminal Appeal, Hodgson JA, 17 July 2003: 8). In a number of cases, the appeals judge represented the seriousness of the matter with the defendant’s apparent disregard for the identity of the eventual purchaser of the firearm or the reason for the purchase. In The Queen v Nash [2008] SASC 48 (29 February 2008), Justice David noted it was ‘clear that the respondent acquired the firearms illegally’ and on the respondent’s plea the act of sale ‘was made on the basis of recklessness, it [was] difficult to imagine that these firearms were to be used by the purchasers for anything other than a sinister purpose’ (Transcript of proceedings, The Queen v Nash, Supreme Court of South Australia, David JJ, 29 February 2008: 127).

Nash had been found guilty of taking part in the supply of a prescribed firearm (an Uzi 9mm submachine gun), 12 Category H firearms (6 handguns on 2 separate occasions) and two Category D firearms, contrary to s 14A(1)(b) of the Firearms Act 1977 (SA). Similarly, in The Queen v Dunn [2003] NSWCCA 169 (13 August 2003), in which it was determined in the sentence hearing that 40 firearms had been illegally sold, Justice Meagher, while acknowledging the specifics of the sale(s) were not established, stated ‘one might be forgiven for speculating that the purposes were hardly likely to be benign or the participants to be savoury’ (Transcript of proceedings, The Queen v Dunn, New South Wales Court of Criminal Appeal, Meagher ACJ, 13 August 2003: 19).

The sale of firearms to persons who had the intention of taking firearms to a state other than the jurisdiction of sale informed in part the decision to dismiss the appeal in The Queen v Howard [2004] NSWCCA 348 (12 October 2004). In this case, the offender, who lived in Queensland, had sold two handguns and was offering to sell another two handguns with silencers (contrary to s 51(1A) of the Firearms Act 1996 (NSW)), to a buyer (an undercover police officer) who had made it known to the offender he was from New South Wales and intended to take the firearms back across the border. While the offender had no previous criminal history, the appeals judge agreed with the district court judge’s summation that:

…like others of his ilk, he regards personal financial gain as of more importance than the safety of the community. I am totally satisfied that he knew exactly what he was doing; that he was deeply steeped in his love for firearms and felt no sense of responsibility, so long as he did not pull the trigger (Transcript of proceedings, The Queen v Howard, New South Wales Court of Criminal Appeal, Spigelman CJ (citing Ducker ADCJ): 8).

The second category of supplier could be defined as part-time vendors, who sold firearms on a more ad hoc basis. While involvement in the drug market, either as a user or dealer, was not unique to this group of suppliers, the available cases suggest that the sale of firearms were for these offenders, a means to support an existing drug habit or a minor side-business to dealing in drugs. In Baxter v the Queen [2007] NSWCCA 237 (10 August 2007), the respondent was described as a heavy drug user who purchased and sold amphetamine and methylamphetamine. Telephone intercepts indicated the offender was also occasionally occupied in sourcing and selling firearms; he was convicted, along with drug offences, for the sale of a shotgun, contrary to s 51(1) of the Firearms Act 1996 (NSW), as well as possession of a replica Smith & Wesson handgun, contrary to s 7(1) of the Act. Supporting a drug habit was the primary factor in the illegal sale of firearms in Regina v Justin Van Turnhout [2007] NSWDC 363 (9 November 2007). The firearms the respondent sold were his own or that of a friend, rather than items acquired elsewhere, which he sold along with various quantities of methylamphetamine. Joint sales of firearms with prohibited drugs is also described in The Queen v DJM [2002] NSWCCH 493 (9 December 2002), in which a self-acknowledged drug dealer was involved, on two separate occasions, in the sale of heroin and semi-automatic pistols to a police operative.

A separate group of participants involved in the illicit movement of firearms are those not directly involved in the selling of firearms, or the procurement of firearms for sale, but rather engaged in the exchange or receipt of firearms in return for another illegal commodity. In The Queen v Gasmier [2011] SASCFC 43 (20 May 2011), it was noted that ‘the appellant was sentenced on the basis that he had been approached by a friend who asked him to take the guns and ‘move them on’, in exchange for drugs’ (Transcript of proceedings, The Queen v Gasmier, Supreme Court of South Australia (Court of Criminal Appeal), Sulan JD: 5). The firearms were a Category A 12-gauge single barrel shotgun and a Category D .22 calibre semi-automatic rifle, which were located in the boot of the appellant’s car. Similarly, in Howlett v Tasmania [2010] TASCCA 15 (12 October 2010), the appellant was shown to have been involved in the exchange of drugs for firearms, in this case brokering the exchange of two ounces of methlyamphetamine for five firearms. The appellant was to receive one of the five firearms as commission; he was ultimately not charged with an offence contrary to s 110A of the Firearms Act 1996 (Tas) (unlawful trafficking in firearms). However, the appellant’s ‘motive’ for possessing the methylamphetamine—‘to facilitate the crime of trafficking in firearms’—was noted at sentencing and in the subsequent appeal as an influential factor for sentencing purposes (Transcript of proceedings, Howlett v Tasmania, Supreme Court of Tasmania (Court of Criminal Appeal), Blow: 16).

Sale items

The origin of the trafficked firearms was not commonly stated in appeal proceedings. Theft was cited as the source of firearms in R v Mundy [2011] QCA 217 (2 September 2011) (55 firearms stolen from an Ipswich dealer), R v Anderson [1998] QCA 272 (11 September 1998) (theft of 45 firearms from a residential property) and R v Nash [2008] SASC 48 (29 February 2008) (firearm specifics and quantity not cited) but outside these and the handful of cases regarding import offences, the method by which the firearm was trafficked was not known or only inferred. It was evident that all but a few of the firearms listed were unregistered.

Where information was available regarding the firearms offered for sale or sold, the great majority were handguns, mostly semi-automatic pistols. Other, less commonly tendered items were Category D semi-automatic rifles, submachine guns and a mix of restricted and less restricted (eg Category A bolt action rifles) long-arms. In incidents of trafficking categorised above as involving the more ‘committed’ seller, the serial numbers and other identifying features on the vended firearms (again, predominantly semi-automatic pistols) had been defaced or obliterated and some of the pistols had been modified for or were fitted with silencers (eg The Queen v NP [2003] NSWCCA 195 (17 July 2003); The Queen v Dunn [2003] NSWCCA 169 (13 August 2003); The Queen v Howard [2004] NSWCCA 348 (12 October 2004); The Queen v Nash [2008] SASC 48 (29 February 2008); The Queen v Mundy [2011] QCA 217 (2 September 2011); Samac v The Queen [2011] VSCA 171 (17 June 2011). Evidence of long-arm modification—shortening of the barrel and/or the stock to render the firearm (more) concealable—was described in Regina v Justin Van Turnhout [2007] NSWDC 363 (9 November 2007); The Queen v Dogan [2011] NSWDC 86 (28 July 2011); and Yammine v The Queen [2010] NSWCCA 123 (23 June 2010). Many of these firearms were loaded at the time of sale, or when located, and ammunition and/or magazines were generally proffered with the sale item.

Warehousing

A number of trafficking cases revealed that suppliers (or potential suppliers) stored or had access to substantial numbers of firearms. In The Queen v Mark Isaac Shane Brown [2006] NSWCCA 249 (17 August 2006), the offender was described as a ‘warehouser’ of prohibited weapons, contrary to s 51D(2) of the Firearms Act 1996 (NSW) (unauthorised possession of prohibited firearms or pistols in aggravated circumstances). The warehousing of firearms also formed the charges referred to in Yammine v The Queen [2010] NSWCCA (23 June 2010) where seven prohibited firearms were found on the appellant’s property, allegedly accumulated due to a build-up of tension between rival OMCGs.

Similar stockpiling of firearms was described in The Queen v Henderson and Warwick [2009] VSCA 136 (16 June 2009) and DPP v Fleiner [2010] VSCA 143 (18 June 2010). In the former case, a search warrant executed on a storage unit frequented by the appellants discovered seven firearms, five of which were unregistered. The amount located was less than the 10 stipulated under s 7C of the Firearms Act 1996 (Vic) (ie possession of a traffickable quantity of firearms) but the appellants, who were convicted of drug trafficking offences, were both prohibited persons as defined under the Act and hence disqualified from owning any type of firearm. An explanation for the firearms was not provided at the appeal hearing.

In DPP v Fleiner [2010] VSCA 143 (18 June 2010), the respondent concerned, also designated a prohibited person for the purposes of s 5 of the Firearms Act 1996 (Vic), was found to have amassed 45 unregistered firearms, a ‘large amount’ of ammunition and ‘dozens’ of firearm parts. The respondent’s counsel in the sentence hearing described the firearms as collector’s items, to which the Crown demurred, arguing ‘this number in one place could accurately be described…as an arsenal’ (Transcript of proceedings, DPP v Fleiner, Supreme Court of Victoria (Court of Appeal), Harper J (citing the Crown): 29). While the respondent pleaded guilty to an offence against s 7C of the Firearms Act 1996 (Vic), along with various offences related to the possession and trafficking of a drug of dependence, there was no evidence the owner was vending the firearms nor where they were obtained from.

The vulnerability of warehoused firearms, even if amassed by persons with no apparent ‘sinister intent’, underlined the case in The Queen v Cromarty (2004) NSWCCA 54 (22 March 2004) and highlights the grey area between the accumulation and possession of large numbers of firearms and trafficking. The firearm collection at the centre of this case was described as the ‘largest cache of weapons ever taken from a private individual in Australia’ (Transcript of proceedings, The Queen v Cromarty, New South Wales Court of Criminal Appeal, Kirby J: 11). Among the firearms collected by the respondent were 35 firearms prohibited under Schedule 1 of the Firearms Act 1996 (NSW), 103 unregistered firearms, 10 pistols on which the serial number had been defaced, two shortened self-loading rifles, 147 firearm parts, 2,850 cartridges of ammunition and seven silencers for rifles and pistols. The firearms were distributed throughout the house and garage and none were secured according to legal requirements. Among the five counts Cromarty pleaded guilty to was the unauthorised possession of firearms in aggravated circumstances, contrary to s 51D(2) of the Firearms Act 1996 (NSW).

The respondent, who had a dealer’s licence and licences to possess Category A, B and H firearms, was not thought to have been involved in the trafficking of illegal firearms; however, ‘he was certainly conscious of his obligations under each Act, and understood the security risk that he ran’ (at 55) by cultivating such a large collection of firearms. In considering the appeal against sentence from the Crown, Justice Kirby stated:

…although the primary object of s 51D…may have been the punishment of criminals who warehouse illegal firearms, the objective was, I believe, broader than that. The measures…were ‘designed to inhibit the illegal supply of firearms’. The purpose of the amendments extended to the stockpiling of weapons, as happened here, where that stockpile was vulnerable and, if violated, may feed the market in the illegal supply of firearms (Transcript of proceedings, The Queen v Cromarty, New South Wales Court of Criminal Appeal, Kirby J: 86).

Conclusion

Past descriptions of the illicit firearm market in Australia have suggested the market is not highly organised and combines the activities of criminal gangs trafficking in firearms as sideline commerce and individual players (such as corrupt dealers) who organise illegal sales (or diversion of firearms) on a personal-order basis. This general depiction is more or less confirmed based on what can be ascertained from other open-source materials although the cast of suppliers is not as neatly defined. It includes those who utilise the sourcing and sale of illicit firearms as a major (rather than secondary) form of revenue; those with no formal links to trafficking networks but who move or broker the occasional sale of a firearm, often as part of a drug transaction; and provisional contributors who act based on need (eg to support a drug habit). Handguns, mostly semi-automatic pistols, appear to be the primary commodity, supplemented with military-style long-arms (such as Category D semi-automatic rifles) and less restricted long-arms. The differentiation in activity likely reflects a combination of factors, including sophistication in the establishment of networks of access and supply, the types of customers, product volume available and consumer preferences.

The illicit firearm consumer in Australia is not so easily drawn from the literature cited, although they may match those described by Cook et al. (2006) and Hales, Lewis and Silverstone (2006), with firearms acquired for offensive and defensive functions, to instil status and to amass arsenals. What is not clear is the extent of consumption by persons not engaged in criminal activity but who have looked to the illicit market to obtain their firearms. The presence of the grey market probably offsets some acquisition of long-arms from the illicit pool but handguns, if denied to consumers through legal avenues, are generally only available from the illegal supply.

Numerous sources for illicit firearms have been identified, yet different commentators have elevated the relative importance of these in stocking the illicit market. The contribution of legislative loopholes and stolen firearms is probably the least disputed of these sources, although more could be learned about the incidence of genuine targeted theft incidents versus opportunistic theft (ie where an array of goods found by the offender are stolen with the firearms). Other sources, such as illegal importation, illicit domestic manufacture and the role of corrupt dealers are less clear, not so much because their contribution is necessarily considered negligible but because evidence is not as complete, is not publicly available or is largely anecdotal, is less likely to be detected, or is a combination of these. A clearer understanding of the relative importance of different avenues of supply could be used not just to determine the success of targeted responses (eg the closing of legislative loopholes) but potentially to predict future vulnerabilities and changes in the dominance of supply pathways.