ACT black market fed by theft of legal guns
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ACT black market fed by theft of legal guns

The theft of legal guns is feeding Canberra's black market for firearms as authorities struggle to comprehend the scope of the illegal weapons trade in the territory.

ACT Policing has told The Canberra Times that a black market for guns exists in Canberra, but says its size is unknown.

Estimates put the number of illegal guns in Australia at between 400,000 and 700,000, compared to 2,675,785 licensed firearms.

Experts believe most black market guns have been stolen, either through targeted or opportunistic attacks.

Last week, a collection of 16 rifles was stolen from a locked shipping container in the rear yard of a Fyshwick business. The weapons were all licensed and complied with the ACT's firearm storage laws. Police say their dollar value is in the tens of thousands.

The incident adds to a string of gun thefts in the ACT over the past three years.

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About 65 guns have been reported stolen since 2008, and 48 people have been charged for illegally selling or possessing an illicit firearm over the same time.

But ACT Policing Firearms Registry Sergeant Brett Cunningham said police had little idea of how many illegal weapons were in the ACT.

"Is there a black market in firearms? I have no doubt, I can't lie to you," Sergeant Cunningham said.

"As to how big it is, I have absolutely no idea, sorry, but I couldn't even hazard a guess."

Illegal firearms have been linked with organised crime syndicates, and research from the Australian Institute of Criminology shows most gun-related homicides involve weapons from the black market.

Australian Crime Commission chief executive officer John Lawler told The Canberra Times the weapons held by crime syndicates are largely supplied through corrupt firearms dealers, loose networks of criminal gangs and so-called backyard manufacturers.

Mr Lawler said corrupt weapons dealers could be found in all states and territories, but said it was difficult to estimate how many were currently operating in Australia.

Alongside the territory's black market, Sergeant Cunningham said, was a grey market, of firearms owned by regional farmers, who refused to register them after the post-Port Arthur reforms of 1996.

"What happens is, farmer Joe said 'well, I've never had to register a firearm before, I'm not going to do it [now]'," Sergeant Cunningham said.

"They bury it in a bit of PVC piping in the garden or shove it in their roof."

Sergeant Cunningham said policing agencies, working in the multi-jurisdictional Firearms and Weapons Policy Working Group, were still looking for ways to effectively tackle the black market of firearms.

"It's in its infancy and we are attempting to come up with some ideas, but there's nothing in concrete at the moment," he said.

Adjunct Associate Professor Philip Alpers, one of Australia's leading gun-control experts, believes it will take a major tragedy to refocus the Governments attention on illegal firearms.

Professor Alpers, who works with the University of Sydney's School of Public Health, believes state, territory, and Commonwealth agencies need to do more to trace illegal firearms to their place of origin.

"If you don't collect the evidence, if you don't trace crime guns at every opportunity, back to their source to see where they're coming from, then you don't have an opportunity to plug the holes," Professor Alpers said.