Soaring gun crime spurs national move to choke illegal trade

By Greg Ansley

New laws on drive-by attacks, organised crime aim to encounter High Court decisions. Photo / Thinkstock
New laws on drive-by attacks, organised crime aim to encounter High Court decisions. Photo / Thinkstock

Federal and New South Wales law agencies have launched a new crackdown on illegal firearms that will cross state borders in a bid to uncover the national black market in guns.

Triggered by a spike in shootings in Sydney and Adelaide, the Australian Crime Commission is to co-ordinate the high-tech tracing of weapons used in dozens of drive-by shootings.

It will also investigate links to organised crime, including warring outlaw motorcycle gangs - also targeted by tough laws revised to circumvent adverse High Court rulings.

Separate new legislation will be introduced into the NSW Parliament this week to tighten controls and impose much harsher penalties for crimes targeting houses in drive-by raids, directing or benefiting from the activities of criminal groups, and consorting with criminals.

Laws on supply and possession of ammunition will also be tightened.

The moves follow increasing pressure on governments to clamp down on gun-related violence which has soared in the past few months in Sydney and Adelaide.

There have been 61 drive-by shootings in southwest Sydney in the past 10 months - 20 since New Year - but only eight people have been charged in direct relation to the attacks.

Shootings have also spiked in Adelaide, especially in the north, many related to feuding bikie gangs.

Both NSW and South Australia have framed new legislation to beat measures struck down by the High Court after appeals by bikies.

In Western Australia, police are investigating at least seven shootings in the past month and other gun-related crimes, including two murders since September.

Federal Justice Minister Jason Clare said the Crime Commission would now launch a national intelligence assessment that would involve federal, state and territory police, agencies such as Customs, and data from the American on-line E-Trace network which tracks the history of illegal weapons and identifies their origins.

He said the commission was already working with the NSW police to trace guns used in Sydney's drive-by shootings, and using its coercive powers to help SA police gain information from witnesses refusing to talk.

That information was being shared nationally but as police seized more weapons, criminals changed their methods.

NSW Police Minister Michael Gallacher said state borders couldn't be protected from gangs: "Criminals don't recognise boundaries. We need to be able to operate at a national level."

The intelligence assessment, due to be complete by July, will include tracing analysis from all shootings, and all weapons seized, across the nation in the past year.

"We're going to use modern technology and coercive powers to identify criminals and make it easier to catch them," Clare said.

Police believe that while illegal weapons are smuggled into the country, the main sources of firearms for criminals are legal stockpiles and thefts from registered owners.

Clare said most black-market firearms had been around since former Liberal Prime Minister John Howard launched tough gun laws after Tasmania's 1996 Port Arthur massacre.

"They don't have a use-by date, so we do see a lot of old weapons there," he said.

The commission estimates that about 1500 firearms are stolen every year, although most illicit long guns such as rifles and shotguns come from people who failed to register them after Howard's new laws.

Illegal handguns - a key target for the new moves because of their rise as the weapon of choice for criminals - slipped into criminal hands through early loopholes that have since been closed.

A study by the Institute of Criminology found that handguns were increasingly used for protection by gangs and drug dealers for their high firepower and easy concealment.

Handguns accounted for about half of all firearm-related homicides and were used especially in crimes targeting organisations and large cash robberies.

"They've been a predominant weapon with organised criminals because of their concealable nature and that's one of the specific focuses for the national assessment," Crime Commission chief John Lawler said.

In NSW, new laws will impose 16-year maximum jail terms for drive-by shootings, 15 years for directing organised crime, 10 years for gang leaders, and five years for knowingly benefiting from crime.

Consorting with criminals, including with the use of SMS text and emails, will carry a maximum three years, and tough regulations will be imposed on the sale and possession of ammunition.

Disarming Australia

New gun control measures:

* New controls on imports of assault rifles and semi-automatic shotguns imposed.

* National Agreement on Firearms, banning self-loading rifles and self-loading and pump-action shotguns, launched after the April 1999 Port Arthur massacre.

* Buyback schemes netted 640,000 weapons, including 70,000 handguns.

* Federal organised crime strategic framework launched in 2009 to counter growing concern at the use of guns by crime gangs.

* New federal response plan and co-ordination of national efforts to control organised crime established in 2010.

- NZ Herald

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