Gun ownership in Australia is still high ... University of Sydney research.

Gun ownership in Australia is still high, according to University of Sydney research. Photo: Dominic O'Brien

Australians own as many guns now as they did at the time of the Port Arthur massacre, despite more than 1 million firearms being handed in and destroyed, new research reveals.

A University of Sydney study has shown there has been a steady increase in guns imported into the country over the past decade, with the number of privately owned guns now at the same level as 1996.

Estimates suggest there were 3.2 million firearms in Australia at the time of the Tasmanian tragedy, in which 35 people were killed and 23 injured.

Philip Alpers, an adjunct associate professor at the university's school of public health, said only time would tell what impact the restocking would have.

''Australia's public health effort to reduce the risk of gun violence led the world,'' he said. ''After melting down a million guns, the risk of an Australian dying by gunshot fell by more than half. Plus, we've seen no mass shootings in 16 years,'' Professor Alpers said.

He said that because of law changes, the new guns were not military-style semi-automatics, which were banned and surrendered after Port Arthur, and that handguns were now harder to import into Australia. But he said: ''It only takes one bullet, and the great majority of gun deaths are domestics and suicides.''

Professor Alpers was due to present the new research in Baltimore at the Summit on Reducing Gun Violence in America, organised by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The summit is looking closely at the Australian experience and will hand its recommendations to US Vice-President Joe Biden's gun control taskforce, which is due to report this month following the Sandy Hook school massacre.

Professor Alpers said since eight people were killed in Melbourne's Queen Street massacre in 1987, Australia had run 38 gun amnesties for a combined total of more than 3000 weeks.

This included the 1996-97 national firearms buy-back and the 2003 handgun buy-back, which resulted in 728,667 newly prohibited guns being handed back in return for compensation.

The research suggests that when gun owners who have surrendered their weapons voluntarily and without compensation are included in the figures, more than 1 million guns have been destroyed in Australia since 1988. That is one-third of the nation's private arsenal, according to the research.

While there was an initial spike when owners of now-banned multishot rifles and shotguns replaced their weapons with single-fire guns in the four years after Port Arthur, gun imports fell and remained stagnant. The lowest number of imports in a financial year - just under 18,000 - was recorded in 1998-99.

The research shows that the trade has now recovered, with a steady increase in the 10 years since, peaking at 66,461 guns imported into Australia in 2009/10, the highest number in 13 years. Overall, 1,055,082 firearms have been imported into Australia since gun destruction programs began in 1988 at an average of 43,961 guns a year.

This figure does not take into account firearms that are smuggled into Australia illegally.

However, Professor Alpers said there was little evidence to suggest illegal imports were an issue in Australia and that the main problem was criminals getting their hands on legal guns that have been stolen or lost by lawful owners.