Individual registered gun owners in the Illawarra have amassed private arsenals of up to 141 firearms under a legislative “loophole” that renders frontline police powerless to stop them.
New data obtained by the Greens shows there are almost 19,000 registered guns in the Illawarra.
This includes 141 guns held by a single owner living in the 2518 postcode, and arsenals of 79 and 62 guns in the 2517 and 2502 postcodes, respectively.
Greens MP and gun control spokesman David Shoebridge said the high numbers were the result of loose legislation, which is allowing gun owners to use the same “genuine reason” – often shooting club membership, recreational hunting or vermin control – to obtain unlimited firearms.
“The problem is there is a loophole in NSW’s gun laws that allows people to recycle the same allegedly good reason to get their first gun, then their second gun, then their 120th gun,” Mr Shoebridge told the Mercury.
The arsenal uncovered in the 2518 postcode is the 22nd largest in the state, according to the Greens’ data.
The party took NSW Police to court to obtain the data, which does not include firearms held by arms dealers or by collectors, who require a different category of license, and usually have their firearms rendered inoperable.
“I think it is essential that the public know how many guns are out there in the community because there is often too much complacency about our firearms laws – smug, self-satisfaction that we’ve got it perfect, when there are some significant flaws and loopholes that need to be closed,” Mr Shoebridge said.
“There’s this sense that [mass shootings] can’t happen here, we don’t have this kind of problem, but the fact is, people were rightly mortified that the individual involved [in the Las Vegas shooting] had access to something like 50 weapons, yet someone in suburban Wollongong has three times as many.
“Admittedly not semi-automatic, but nonetheless it’s an unnecessarily large and concerning number of firearms.”
Mr Shoebridge is calling for a change to the law so that anyone seeking more than five firearms would have to provide additional security and justification.
Unlimited licenses were creating “honeypots” of weapons that could fall into the wrong hands, he said.
“This isn’t about removing firearms from the community, this is about getting rid of large private arsenals,” he said.
“A significant part of the problem is leakage of registered weapons into the black and illegal market. As recently as Tuesday we saw 15 guns stolen from a single property in the Hunter Valley. That’s 15 guns that have gone from being legally registered guns to guns in the hands of criminals.”
Police minister Troy Grant declined to answer the Mercury’s questions, but said police conduct regular checks to ensure compliance with firearm ownership conditions.
“Registered firearms are subject to strict regulations with the owners having to undergo a range of criminal and suitability checks,” Mr Grant said.
“Owners are also required to have a separate permit to acquire each firearm they own and are required to have a genuine reason for owning the firearm.”
Lake Illawarra Local Area Command licensing sergeant Gary Keevers, who has worked in the field for 17 years, said frontline police had no powers to curb the number of legally-acquired firearms.
“There’s nothing in the Firearms Act which allows me, as a licensing sergeant, to restrict a person on the number of firearms they can own,” he said.
Last year police introduced more frequent risk-based inspections for gun owners with large numbers of firearms.
Sgt Keevers said licensing police had encountered an eyebrow-raising number of guns during some inspections. But provided the weapons were properly stored, they were legal.
“It seems to be that anyone who’s got 141 firearms should really be seeking to get a collector’s license,” he said. “Then he would be required to got to a much higher level of safekeeping and, being a collector, a lot of these firearms would be made inoperable.”
“I don’t see the need for someone to have multiple firearms of the same calibre. They should be restricted to, say, one or two of each.”
The Greens expect the state’s gun registrations, currently at 900,000, to reach more than one million within the next two years, under the current legislation.