Firearm theft in Australia 2008–09

4 Nov 2011

Theft represents one of most likely sources of firearms for the illicit market.

Between 2004–05 and 2008–09, an average of 1,545 firearms were reported as stolen to Australian state and territory police, yet firearms from just 12 percent of reported incidents were eventually recovered by police. This proportion of firearms that were not recovered represents a considerable stream of firearms into the illicit pool.

The National Firearm Theft Monitoring Program (NFTMP), which covered the period 2004–05 to 2008–09, was established at the Australian Institute of Criminology to compile more detailed information on the nature and characteristics of reported firearm theft events. This information was to assist the Firearm and Weapons Policy Working Group, who played an important role in the establishment of the NFTMP, in developing initiatives to reduce the incidence of firearm theft and to assess whether currently prescribed firearm storage arrangements are being observed and are sufficient in preventing theft.

Patterns in firearm theft have shown considerable consistency over this time period. An average of one to two firearms have generally been reported stolen in each theft incident, the majority of which have been taken from private residential premises. Less restricted types of firearms (ie air rifles, rimfire rifles and single or double-barrelled shotguns) have comprised the bulk of firearms reported stolen, reflecting the prevalence of these firearms among the Australian firearm-owning community. Handgun theft has made up less than 10 percent of all reported firearms in any given year and restricted Category C and D firearms (such as pump action shotguns and semi-automatic rifles) have rarely featured in firearm theft reports. Very few stolen firearms are known to have been used to commit a subsequent criminal event (or found in the possession of persons charged with other serious offences eg supply of a prohibited drug) but the fate of the rest has been largely unknown.

The number of firearms reported stolen each year during the monitoring period, which ranged from 1,445 firearms in 2005–06 to 1,712 firearms in 2007–08, was less than half the estimated average of 4,195 reported stolen each year in the previous decade. This reduction in theft numbers may in part be a consequence of stricter provisions around the safekeeping of firearms, which were introduced with the firearm law reforms that began with the National Firearms Agreement 1996. Nonetheless, compliance with firearm safekeeping laws was estimated at only 50–60 percent of owners who reported the theft of a firearm in the years covered by the monitoring program. Non-compliance rates were particularly high among owners who had firearms stolen from vehicles (58%). Further, around 25 percent of owners who had firearms stolen from a private dwelling (where the safekeeping of firearms should, in theory, be easier to comply with) were also found not to have taken all reasonable precautions to safeguard the unattended firearm. Overall, firearms not stored appropriately at the time of theft made up 18 percent or 1,133 of all reported stolen firearms.

State and territory police, firearm interest groups and other relevant stakeholders have played an important role in educating the firearm-owning community regarding their responsibilities around firearm ownership, including the safekeeping of firearms. Modifying current provisions around firearm storage may be one avenue that could further reduce offenders’ ability to penetrate otherwise secure storage arrangements. Further, an investment in situational crime prevention strategies would be equally useful, although work is required to identify and hone the types of techniques that could be employed effectively. These might include strengthening formal surveillance (eg burglar alarms and surveillance cameras), better concealment of targets (eg location of firearm safes), use of property identifiers (eg use of indelible markers on registered firearms) and strategies to assist compliance (eg dissemination of findings from firearm theft research to educate firearm owning community about potential and actual storage vulnerabilities). Further research into the nature and operations of the stolen firearms market in conjunction with policing agencies might also go some way to better determining the operation of the market and provide insights to further reduce the incidence of stolen firearms in Australia.

The NFTMP will conclude with this report. Overall, the program has provided a comprehensive record of the methods and facilitators of firearm theft, the categories of firearms more likely to enter the illicit market and the approaches taken by firearm owners to minimise risk. Equally importantly, the findings from the NFTMP have been used by various stakeholders (eg firearm owners and law enforcement) to reduce the incidence of firearm theft and to impede the flow of firearms into the illicit market and potentially into the hands of criminal elements.

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