Drive-by shootings intended to settle petty disputes and protect gangland turf have surged in Sydney but overall gun crime in NSW has halved since the 1990s, according to the latest figures.
A shooting in a public place occurred once every three days in Sydney last year with such incidents increasing by 143.9 per cent in the past 16 years.
But a report into long-term gun trends by the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research found that the total number of criminal incidents in the state involving a gun dropped by 48 per cent between 1995 and 2011.
Gun murders, armed robbery and unlawfully discharged firearm offences all fell significantly while "discharge firearm into premises" type incidents rose from 41 in 1995 to 100 incidents in 2011, creating a puzzling trend for police and firearms experts.
Don Weatherburn, the director of BOCSAR, said better security, the move to a cashless economy and a reduction in heroin supply since 2000 had resulted in fewer armed robberies.
"People just don't have the huge wads of cash around that they used to have," he said.
Yet these trends have coincided with an increase in the number of illegal handguns circulating on Sydney's black market.
The commander of the firearms and organised crime squad, Detective Superintendent Ken Finch, said police intelligence suggests there are more illegal handguns coming to Australia from overseas or the domestic legal market.
"There has been a push in NSW to make the legislation and regulations in terms of gun ownership tighter and we have had several special operations targeting gun crime for some time," he said.
Police have previously attributed the rise in drive-by shootings to a disparate mix of bikie turf-wars, family disputes, "idiot copycats" and petty fights or score-settling carried out by mostly young men with increasingly easy access to a gun.
Figures obtained by the Greens MP David Shoebridge earlier this year show that the number of registered handguns in NSW increased by 24 per cent in six years.
"The number ... has exploded from 33,858 in 2005 to 42,127 in late 2011," he said.
A small portion of these were diverted to the black market either by theft or corrupt dealers and owners and were bought by criminals for up to $15,000.
Mr Shoebridge said handguns were used in 87 per cent of drive-by shootings.
Dr Weatherburn said it could be argued that armed robberies were a far bigger threat to the public because they were usually inflicted on innocent people.
"Whereas your drive-by shootings tend to be gang-related shootings - no comfort for people who live in those suburbs of course."
He said gang members and organised criminals involved in lucrative criminal enterprises such as drug trafficking couldn't take their disputes to court so resorted to drive-by shootings.
"It's basically an attempt to intimidate the opposition or take revenge on the opposition or settle disputes or settle scores."
He said the "broader picture" of firearm crime is better now than it was in 1995.