Tough new weapons laws 'miss hard core of criminal underworld'

By Greg Ansley

CANBERRA - The introduction of tough laws to control guns and knives appears to be failing to keep lethal weapons out of the hands of Australian criminals.

An Australian Institute of Criminology study of interviews with more than 2300 prisoners also found that drug users were more likely to carry - and use - weapons than other offenders.

But it said that while weapons were used in robberies to fund drug habits, their main use was by traffickers and dealers to protect drug shipments, intimidate customers or competitors, collect debts, punish informers and eliminate rivals.

The study, by institute research analysts Jenny Mouzos and Maria Borzycki, reported that while new laws may have helped reduce the number of knives and guns in illicit circulation, they have failed to deter hard-core criminals. It also pointed to a large firearms black market.

Gun laws have been tightened significantly in Australia since the Port Arthur massacre a decade ago, matched by tougher controls on the sale and possession of knives.

The institute said the focus on knives was important because of the frequency of their use.

Knives and sharp instruments were used in a third of the murders committed in 2002-03 and in 28 per cent of assaults and more than a half of armed robberies in 2003.

But most prisoners interviewed for the study said they had obtained knives and guns for protection or self-defence rather than for crime.

About a quarter said they had bought guns for hunting, and 20 per cent of knife owners said they used them for legal purposes.

A small number admitted owning guns or knives for use in the drug trade or other criminal pursuits. Only one gun in 10 had come from a specialist gun shop.

Almost two-thirds had been bought illegally from friends, family or on the street, with an even higher proportion, 66 per cent, of knives coming from illicit sources.

And many carried their weapons regularly despite tough laws against possession in public places.

Almost one-third of knife-owning prisoners regularly went out on the streets with their weapons tucked into pockets, boots, clothing or bags, while 14 per cent of gun owners said they carried their firearms with them.

The study said that drug users were more likely to use these weapons.

"Regardless of the weapon used, detainees who used a weapon to commit a crime reported higher levels of illicit drug use and were more likely to test positive to drugs than detainees who did not use a weapon to commit crime," the study said.

The researchers noted that the tough new laws were actually missing a criminal hard core.

Almost half of the prisoners interviews said they had owned some sort of weapon over their lifetimes, and about 40 per cent reported owning a weapon in the previous 12 months.

While the level of lifetime gun and knife ownership had fallen in the three years to 2004 - possibly because of new controls - there had been an upsurge in more recent ownership.

"[New laws] clearly have not impacted on a subset of detainees because the proportional ownership of firearms in the year before interview increased over the same period," the study said.

"The illicit trade in firearms is a challenge for law enforcement because some individuals appear undeterred by the penalties associated with their illegal trade and ownership."

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