Getting a strong pistol grip on smoking guns

The Daily Telegraph, 03 July 2012

How many illegal firearms do you think there are out there? The answer will shock you. A quarter of a million.

In February I asked the Australian Crime Commission to conduct a national investigation of the illegal firearms market. Last Friday it delivered its shocking results – 260,000 firearms in the hands of criminals. That’s more than double the number of firearms the Australian Defence Force has.

Most of these illegal weapons have been stolen or weren’t handed in after the Port Arthur massacre.

The Crime Commission traced 3,168 firearms seized by police across the country. 44 per cent were weapons not handed in after Port Arthur. 12 per cent were stolen. Less than one per cent were illegally imported.

Now we have the facts, what do we do about it?

On Friday I met with Police Ministers from across the country. We agreed to a series of major reforms to tackle this armoury of weapons.

To track illegal firearms we agreed to roll out the Integrated Ballistic Identification System across the country. This is like a DNA database for illegal firearms. Each firearm leaves a unique imprint on the bullet it fires. When police seize a firearm they can fire the weapon, put the details into the database and link that weapon to other crimes. The AFP already use this system. So does the NSW Police. Now we are going to take it nationwide.

We are also going to boost the tracing capability of the Crime Commission and get the United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to provide our police with the latest training and technical advice on tracking illegal firearms.

To stop firearms falling off different State registries and into the black market we have agreed in principle to set up a National Firearms Register. At the moment there are about 30 different firearm registries and databases that are not linked. 14,000 firearms disappear off these registries every year. This will help stop firearms falling through the cracks and into the black market.

We are also cracking down on illegal imports. Later this year I will introduce legislation to create a maximum penalty of life in jail for people who traffic firearms into Australia or between states. I have also set up an intelligence and targeting team inside Customs. The next step is embedding Customs experts in the different police forces right across the country. This will improve intelligence and information sharing.

This is a big step forward. It’s a great example of what we can achieve when state and federal governments work together. It’s also a great example of what we can achieve when Labor and Liberals work together.

There is still a long way to go. Remember there are 260,000 illegal firearms out there. If we are going to get them we have to throw everything at this.

On Friday I put a number of other ideas on the table – including this one.

We need to give police stronger powers to search for guns. Police know who most of the serious criminals are – the ones who stash the guns, the ones who sell them, and the ones who shoot up houses in the middle of the night. But the code of silence amongst criminals and their victims makes it hard for police to do their job.

If we are really serious about getting these 260,000 firearms off the street we need to give police more powers to go and get them. This means the power to randomly search for guns.

If someone is a serious criminal police should have the power to stop and search them for illegal firearms at any time. This includes searching any vehicle they are in and any premises they are in. South Australia already has laws like this. On Friday the other states and territories agreed to consider giving their police the same powers.

It’s just one of a number of things we also need to roll out across the country if we are serious about getting these guns.