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Shootings a concern, but don't panic

Remember, in the spring of 2000, when the staging of the Sydney Olympics was marred by the prevalence of drive-by shootings? When property prices bottomed out as bullets pierced people's windows? When war correspondents descended on the city to report on the chaos?

No, neither do I.

Yet in the second half of 2000, perhaps Sydney's most halcyon time in recent memory, drive-by shootings were happening at about the same frequency as they have been over the past year.

If some of the current political rhetoric is to be believed, we're living in a conflict zone.

''A city where people fire at each other on street corners in broad daylight - you might expect that in Mexico City or Mogadishu but not Sydney,'' read a press release from the state Opposition Leader, John Robertson, on April 7, one of scores on the topic flooding journalists' inboxes in recent months.

''ANOTHER WESTERN SYDNEY SHOOTING!!'' headlined another, with two exclamation points to emphasise the outrage.

The federal Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, labelled the issue a ''social disaster''. Most recently, after five shootings on Monday night, the state Liberal MP for Baulkham Hills, David Elliott, said he had now seen more shootings in his electorate in little more than a month than he witnessed in five months peace-keeping in Bougainville 12 years ago.

In NSW it can be hard to determine which crime waves represent a real threat to public safety, and those that are exaggerated by politicians.

A report from the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research this week provided some much-needed context.

There were significantly more drive-by shootings last year compared with the year before. The spike, from 71 cases in 2010 to 100 last year, represented one of the few significant rises in crime in NSW, where the rate of most major offences is steady or falling.

However, the rate of shootings is not unprecedented, being nowhere near the peak in 2002, or even reaching that of 2009.

''This is the third cycle [of shootings] in the last 10 to 15 years,'' said the Police Minister, Mike Gallacher, hoping perspective might alleviate the pressure he and the Premier, Barry O'Farrell, are under.

Despite the number of shootings rising between 2010 and 2011, the number of people killed in NSW remained stable - 75 in 2010 and 77 last year.

Compare that with the US, where 85 people are fatally shot every day, and more than twice that number are injured by guns, a report in The Guardian showed this week.

Or compare it with Mogadishu. Ten people were killed in a single bomb blast - an apparent assassination attempt on the Prime Minister - in the Somali capital just days before the NSW Opposition Leader compared it with Sydney.

This is not to say there is no problem here. A rising rate of any form of violent crime is a terrible thing, and any murder is a tragedy for the victim and their family. The public, particularly in areas which experience a disproportionate level of violence, has a right to expect governments and police to do their utmost to make their lives safer.

But suggesting Sydney is embroiled in violent crisis serves no one but the politician scoring the soundbite.

And long term, it may not even serve them, if they eventually find themselves in government or on the frontbench, and have to govern in the culture of panic they helped create.

Josephine Tovey is a state political reporter. Sean Nicholls is on leave.

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