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Estimates: Gun Control Questions

Estimates & Committees
Penny Wright 17 Oct 2012

Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee
Wednesday 17 October 2012

Australian Crime Commission

Senator WRIGHT: I have some questions about guns-illegal and legal firearms-particularly about the national intelligence assessment of the illegal firearms market that was undertaken by the commission at the request of the Minister for Home Affairs. In announcing the findings of the final report back on 29 June this year, the minister revealed that there are more than 2.75 million registered firearms in Australia. Does the report disaggregate this number by weapons type?

Mr Lawler: Yes, it does to a degree. The ACC conservatively estimates that there are over 250,000 long arms and 10,000 hand guns in the illicit market. In relation to the 2.75 million registered firearms in Australia, they are held by over 730,000 individual firearm licence holders. The vast majority of firearms registered in Australia are long arms which represent over 90 per cent of registered firearms.

Senator WRIGHT: I do not know that you answered this second question in those statistics you just gave but I am interested to know how many hand guns are registered in Australia and how many of those are semiautomatic?

Mr Lawler: I could do some quick arithmetic on the figures that I just gave you. Of the 2.75 million registered firearms, 90 per cent are long arms so 10 per cent is 275,000 registered hand guns, which would be the deduction from those figures.

Senator WRIGHT: And how many of those are semiautomatics?

Mr Lawler: I do not know that the data we have for the assessment breaks it down specifically by semiautomatic. I would need to check that if I can so that I am completely accurate and then get back to the committee. Potentially during the course of this hearing we may be able to provide information on that.

Senator WRIGHT: Thank you, I would appreciate that you take it on notice. Can the data be broken down even further to show how many of these hand guns are owned by civilians and how many are owned by the police or other security providers?

Mr Lawler: I believe there is the opportunity to further refine the data holdings. Whether that has been done specifically in the context of the national firearms assessment is another issue.
The assessment did not go to the specific type of firearms per se but made broad strategic assessments about the market as we knew it based on the data that was available to us.

Senator WRIGHT: Can I ask you to take that question on notice? I would be very interested to know that breakdown.

Mr Lawler: If it is available we will certainly provide that.

Senator WRIGHT: I am going to move on now to some questions about the illegal firearms market. The minister's media release on 29 June this year indicated a conservative estimate that there are around 10,000 illegal handguns in the illicit firearms market. I would like to have a better understanding of why there are uncertainties around this figure and why that estimate is described as conservative.

Mr Lawler: The reality is that, as with any illicit market, these are estimates, and our best intelligence judgements as to the size of a particular market. There will be a range of factors that will influence that and the principal factor is the data that is available.

One of the things to bear in mind, particularly with illicit firearms, is their durability, their length of serviceability and operability in the illicit market. Once a firearm enters the illicit market it can remain in the market for a very long time. Illicit firearms have entered the market decades ago, where records and material may not have been at the standard we would like it to be at today, and it is nigh on impossible to be absolutely sure about the size of the markets. We are, through the managing and assessment of records as they are available, making intelligence judgements about the size of the markets. We have done this, and it has been our view that we should take a conservative position in relation to that.

Senator WRIGHT: Why is it your view to take a conservative position?

Mr Lawler: We tend to do that with all of our assessments. We want to make sure we can back up the assessment we have made with factual information, and that might be at a particular point or a particular number. There might be intelligence to indicate that that figure is higher, but we do not have hard facts to support that or sufficient intelligence to justify the assessment. That is why we take the conservative view we do.

Senator WRIGHT: I can understand why you would do that. I suppose that when you are dealing with something where the potential consequences of getting the figure wrong are serious because of the nature of what we are describing there is that to be taken into account. But the fact that you are acknowledging that it is a conservative figure alerts people to the fact that the figure may well be higher.

Mr Lawler: Indeed. We do this in other areas as well. For example, we conservatively estimate the cost of organised crime to the Australian community to be $15 billion per year. People often ask how we arrive at those sorts of figures-it is done on the basis of world studies by the World Bank and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, which estimate that it is between one and two per cent of GDP-

Senator WRIGHT: I will cut you off there because it is a little bit off the track and I only have a very limited amount of time. I understand the rationale for having reliable justification for a figure. I want to explore the fact that it is acknowledged that it may be a conservative figure we are talking about. 

Mr Lawler: I think we have done that.

Senator WRIGHT: Of those 10,000 illegal hand guns, do you have any idea how many of those are thought to be semi-automatic?

Mr Lawler: I will have to take that on notice in relation to semi-automatic hand guns.

Senator WRIGHT: I assume that semi-automatic hand guns are the weapons that were likely to be involved in, say, this year's spate of shootings in Sydney, which the community is understandably concerned about.

Mr Lawler: I do not know that that is altogether right. Certainly, a combination of hand guns have, I understand, been used. We will have to see if we have data that breaks those down. I do not know whether the assessment specifically went to that point, or whether we have done the work to go through the multitude of records to try to make assessments about that. I am not at all sure that the data will be available.

Senator WRIGHT: If the data is not available do you think that would be useful data to understand and interrogate?

Mr Lawler: It would be data that would be important in one context, but in the context of the assessment a range of other things are equally important, if not more important: How is the illicit firearms market working? Who is responsible for the market? How are these firearms entering the illicit market? To what degree? What does our intelligence tell us about that particular picture?

Senator WRIGHT: I can certainly understand that. I imagine the nature of the weapons involved would also help add information to that question that would need to be understood.

Mr Lawler: Indeed.

Senator WRIGHT: The media release also indicates that a significant proportion of the illegal firearms market consists of weapons that were not registered or surrendered after the 1996 gun buyback. We know that up to 660,000 firearms were surrendered as a result of that buyback. Do you know, or do you have an estimate of, how many firearms were eligible for surrender at that time? I am interested in understanding better the percentage of guns that were eligible that were surrendered at that time.

Mr Lawler: This figure might be a little elusive. The reason for that is the data we are relying on is jurisdictional data. My understanding is that there were different licensing regimes in the various jurisdictions in relation to long arms and hand guns, how that was recorded and whether we are able to definitively say at a particular point in time how many weapons were registered. As I understand it there were regimes where a person who was registered could have a number of firearms registered to them based on a licence to a person. For some of those figures to be absolutely accurate may be elusive, but I will take that on notice.

Senator WRIGHT: Thank you for that. If you could take on notice not only the question I asked, which was the number of weapons which were eligible for surrender at the time, but also an assessment on the basis of those figures of what percentage of the newly prohibited firearms did the buyback scheme succeed in removing from the community. I understand that it is not always going to be a totally accurate figure, but the degree of uncertainty that you have around the figure would be helpful for me to understand as well. This is just so we have a sense of the problem we are looking at.

Mr Lawler: If the information is available-that is the only caveat I would put in place here.

Senator WRIGHT: Thank you for that. Will the final report of the national investigation into the illegal firearms market, as presented to the Standing Council on Police and Emergency Management back in June, be made public at any point?

Mr Lawler: No, it is a classified document.

Senator WRIGHT: In that case, has the commission given consideration to publishing at least parts of that report for the public interest, such as the disaggregated data on the number and types of registered firearms in Australia?

Mr Lawler: We have not considered making that particular report public. There have been statements made by members of the ACC board and by the minister about the general findings from the National Illicit Firearms Assessment. I am happy to go through the summary of key findings from the assessment if it would help, but there has not been any plan to make that report an unclassified report.

Senator WRIGHT: Nor aspects of it?

Mr Lawler: No.

Senator WRIGHT: The summary you just referred to is available publicly, I think.

Mr Lawler: There are, I understand, summary documents available on the website.

Senator WRIGHT: When you just offered to go through those, they would be the publicly available documents that you would go through in this forum? 

Mr Lawler: Correct.

Senator WRIGHT: In that case I will not ask you to go through those now. In delivering advice on how to tackle the illegal firearms market, has the commission given any consideration to the likely impact, effectiveness or cost of introducing a ban on semiautomatic handguns with exemptions for government owned guns or perhaps other security providers?

Mr Lawler: No.

Senator WRIGHT: No consideration at all?

Mr Lawler: No.

Senator WRIGHT: I have a couple of questions in relation to the confiscated assets account. I understand that the commission, along with the Australian Federal Police, is a member of the Criminal Assets Confiscation Taskforce.

Mr Lawler: That is correct.

Senator WRIGHT: Does the task force have targets or guidelines for the amount of money it is required to identify, pursue or confiscate in any year or across any other period of time?

Mr Lawler: The task force is being led by the Australian Federal Police, with, as you say, the Crime Commission and the Australian Taxation Office and the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions involved in the task force. I am not aware of specific targets that have been set but that may be a question better directed to the Australian Federal Police. The commission has six staff attached to this task force, specialist staff that complement and assist the task force's work. Can I just say that the task force has been very successful in its activities and significantly enhanced seizures of cash and property have resulted from the task force's work, so they are to be commended.

Senator WRIGHT: It has a number of options available to it in order to target the accumulated wealth of criminals. I am interested in the amounts flowing to the confiscated assets account. Do you know if the task force has a monetary target specific to that account, or would your answer be the same as the previous answer?

Mr Lawler: I think again the question is better directed to the Australian Federal Police. I am not aware of a target.

Senator WRIGHT: How much money has entered the confiscated assets account since the establishment of the task force?

Mr Lawler: Again, the ACC does not manage the confiscated assets. The department might be best placed to answer.

Senator WRIGHT: Can I ask someone who might be able to answer that? I imagine it would be fairly simple question to answer, to take that on notice. 

Mr Sheehan: We will be able to answer that at nine o'clock tonight.

Senator WRIGHT: Okay. Thank you very much. They are all my questions, Chair.

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