Interview with Kim Landers ABC The World Today – 27 April 2012

Topics: Gun crime and gun law reform

KIM LANDERS: On the eve of the 16th anniversary of the Port Arthur massacre the Federal Government has announced it intends to reform Australia’s gun laws.

The Minister for Justice and Home Affairs Jason Clare wants to close loopholes in the national firearms database and give all states access to a ballistics system to trace the history of weapons.

He says there are, quote, “tens of thousands” of illegal guns in Australia.

I spoke with the minister earlier and I began by asking him who’s responsible for so many weapons getting onto the black market.

JASON CLARE: The Crime Commission gave us a report two weeks ago that indicated there’s tens of thousands of illegal firearms out there including more than 10,000 hand guns.

These are guns that haven’t been handed in after the Port Arthur massacre which is 16 years ago tomorrow.

There are also guns that have been stolen from legitimate owners and not recovered. Over the last five years more than 7,000 guns have been stolen across the country.

A good example of this is what happened in Western Sydney on Tuesday. Police and Customs raided a house looking for steroids and they found a pump-action shotgun which had been stolen from a house in the Hunter 13 years ago.

That’s one of 7,000 guns that are out there that criminals have and it’s the major problem. You’ve got guns out there that are 10, 20 years old and they don’t have a use-by date. They can keep using them.

KIM LANDERS: But if you say there are tens of thousands of illegal weapons in this country, that’s a pretty sad indictment on the ability on police services and Customs and the like isn’t it?

JASON CLARE: Well these are guns as I say that have been here for sometimes 10, 20 or 30 years. We found a gun on the streets of Melbourne last year that is over 100 years old and still working.

This is the, I guess this is the crux of the problem. Once a criminal has a gun, whether it’s buried in their backyard or carried around on the street, it can be working and able to be used against people for years and years and years.

KIM LANDERS: But it would also indicate that there must be some pretty big gaps in intelligence. If these weapons have been around for so long, why hasn’t something more been done to actually track them down and find them?

JASON CLARE: Yeah it’s a good question and intelligence is the key. You ask any police officer and they’ll say it’s information that helps to arrest criminals and seize drugs or seize guns. Whether that’s on the streets of Sydney or Melbourne or whether it’s at the border, police need information.

They’re doing a good job in Sydney I’ve got to say. They have arrested a lot of crooks and seized a lot of weapons. But they have also been frustrated by the lack of information they get from people who have had their houses shot up, people that are too afraid to talk to police and that makes their job harder.

KIM LANDERS: In February you established the Firearms Intelligence and Targeting Team to work between the Crime Commission and also state and territory police forces to try to trace firearms. What have they come up with so far?

JASON CLARE: Let me just correct that a little bit. What I announced in February is a national investigation into the illegal firearms market. They presented a preliminary report to the states and territories a couple of weeks ago. That’s exposed this massive local black market of firearms.

But what I have also done is I’ve got together the Federal Police, the Crime Commission and Customs and said look – what immediate action should the Federal Government take here? And the advice from all of them was the same – intell is the key.

We need to set up an intelligence and targeting team inside Customs that fuses together all of the information that we get from police around the country so that we are targeting the right packages and the right criminals who might try and import guns.

It’s the same model that we’re using to target drugs and it’s the same model that we use to target potential terrorists.

KIM LANDERS: Well what’s that intelligence turned up so far?

JASON CLARE: Well it’s just got underway. We started the team last week. And to ensure that this is as effective as possible we’ve approached the New South Wales Police to embed a Customs officer inside the New South Wales police and they’ve agreed to that. So that’s a good start.

The key is intelligence and the key is making sure that all of that intelligence is shared between all the police and law enforcement agencies across the country. So having Customs embedded inside the New South Wales Police I think will be a very effective thing to do.

KIM LANDERS: You talk about sharing intelligence although that has been a bit of a bugbear in the past – getting various state and federal agencies, police services, to work together. There will be another meeting involving police commissioners from around the country and heads of these other agencies in a couple of months. What are they expected to hear?

JASON CLARE: Police do work well across the country. They do share information. But I think there’s more that we can do. As I said 16 years ago tomorrow we had the Port Arthur massacre and out of that came big national firearm law reform.

We created some of the toughest firearm laws around the world but it still has weaknesses. There are areas there that could be improved and could be strengthened and let me give you three examples.

We have got about 15 different data bases that hold information on firearms across the country and they are not all linked. So again we need to make sure that we do a better job of sharing information between police forces and different law enforcement agencies. We haven’t done enough there and there’s more that we need to do in that area.

We’ve got a national firearms database which has information on who has licences and who has registered firearms. But there are weaknesses there as well. If a firearm moves from one state to another it can effectively disappear and police can’t find out where that weapon is. So there’s more reform that needs to be done to tighten and improve that system.

And thirdly in New South Wales they have a system called IBIS which is a system that does a ballistics analysis of every firearm seized from a criminal. It’s effectively finger-printing the firearm that’s seized from criminals.

Now it exists in New South Wales, the Federal Police use it but every other state doesn’t have that system. If we want to be effective at doing an analysis of weapons seized from criminals like the weapons that are being seized right now off the streets of Sydney then we need to take this nationwide because it will help us to make sure that where a weapon is seized whether it’s in Sydney or whether it’s in Perth or anywhere else, we know the history of that weapon, where it’s been used.

KIM LANDERS: And so recommendations to fix all of these little loopholes that you have just been speaking about – are they the recommendations that will go to that meeting?

JASON CLARE: Yeah, police ministers across the country will meet in June and I am working with my state colleagues on a package of reforms to improve firearm laws over the next few weeks so that we can bring forward some reforms that will improve gun laws across this country when we meet in June.

KIM LANDERS: You mentioned that tomorrow is the anniversary of the Port Arthur massacre. In the wake of that tragedy a national gun register was recommended but as I understand it, it’s never been completely introduced. Is that one of those loopholes that you were speaking about, the weaknesses in the national firearms database, that you’ll now close?

JASON CLARE: That’s right. It was the second one I pointed to there, that you have effectively got a system where you can see licences and registration across the country. But there are loopholes in it. If a firearm moves from one state to another police tell me that it can effectively disappear off their radar and they can’t tell where it is.

Another example is if someone dies and the firearm is given to somebody else then the system won’t necessarily tell you who has that weapon. It can disappear into what the Crime Commission call the grey market.

KIM LANDERS: Can you understand though, 16 years after Port Arthur you are still in the position of the Federal Government and state authorities as well, of talking about closing loopholes. To some people that might seem quite extraordinary.

JASON CLARE: Well we’ve got a bigger problem than that. We have got tens of thousands of weapons on the street right now and many of those weapons in the hands of criminals that are shooting up parts of Western Sydney.

This is my home town. This is where I was born and raised. It’s the area I represent and the people I represent are terrified because you have got criminals shooting at each other and they are worried that one of those bullets is going to miss a criminal and hit them.

This is very serious. We need to do everything that we possibly can. The firearm laws that we have got in this country are a lot better than they are in many other parts of the world but they can be better still and I am determined to make them so.

KIM LANDERS: The Minister for Justice and Home Affairs Jason Clare.

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