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Australian-made, but only for G-men and the movies

Made and sold legally ... semi-automatic weapons in Melbourne.

Made and sold legally ... semi-automatic weapons in Melbourne.

SEMI-AUTOMATIC weapons identical to those used to kill more than 40 people in recent massacres in the United States are being manufactured by a small company in Melbourne's suburbs.

The company has legally built almost three dozen of the weapons to meet a demand created by Australia's strict importation laws, and is selling them to licensed buyers for almost $9000.

It is the only company in Australia turning out the AR-15 semi-automatic rifles, a civilian version of the US military's famous M-16.

The AR-15 is reportedly the most popular weapon of its type in the US, but its role in recent mass shootings has drawn scrutiny from gun control advocates, who see it as the epitome of the type of weapon they are hoping will be banned, as it was for 10 years from 1994.

The owner of the business manufacturing the weapons in Melbourne asked Fairfax Media not to name the company for ''security reasons'', but stressed the weapons were being made and sold legally.

''The licences aren't just issued to anyone here, there's no comparison with the United States,'' the owner said. ''It's inflammatory to link [the recent massacres] with this, to say they shouldn't be made here at all. They're made for a purpose and they're not sold to the public. We're the quiet minority, we just go about our business and it's very frustrating to be constantly up against it.''

Under laws in most states, the main people who can buy semi-automatic weapons are professional hunters engaged in large-scale pest control (such as culling feral animals from a helicopter), and law enforcement agencies or the military.

Victorian laws state the chief commissioner of police can also grant a ''Category D'' firearms licence if it is required for ''an official, commercial or prescribed purpose''. There are 23 such licence holders in Victoria.

The federal Attorney-General can also permit the use of semi-automatics for the production of films, as fully-functioning weapons are required to fire blanks. A licensed armourer can hire the weapons to a film-maker and must supervise their use. Weapons imported for film production must be destroyed at the end of filming, or exported.

The company manufacturing the AR-15s in Australia originally began producing them to get around these restrictions, as weapons made in Australia need not be destroyed or exported at the end of filming.

''It's just unworkable for any small production like Rush or Underbelly or anything like them to bring weapons in. Either the budgets aren't there, or they're too small,'' the owner said.

He said it would be difficult for the Australian film and television industries to compete with their US counterparts if they had to pay to import the weapons and then destroy or export them.

The company's owner told Fairfax Media that he had decided to branch out beyond the props market and offer them for sale to other licence holders, such as government-employed hunters.

Under gun laws introduced by the Howard government after the Port Arthur massacre in 1996, the sale or possession of semi-automatic rifles were severely restricted, and the government spent hundreds of millions of dollars buying guns from owners.

The federal Home Affairs Minister, Jason Clare, would not comment on the desirability of an Australian company making semi-automatic rifles.

A spokeswoman for the minister noted only that Australia has ''some of the strictest gun laws in the world''. ''Laws regulating the local manufacture of firearms and firearm parts are the responsibility of the states and territories,'' she said.

''All state and territory jurisdictions require firearm manufacturers to hold a licence.''

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