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Why another guns amnesty won’t stop terror attacks

By Jacinta Carroll

This month marks the 20th anniversary of the Port Arthur incident. Former Prime Minister John Howard has been taking the opportunity to reflect on the positive changes his gun law changes made.

Howard recently linked the death of Curtis Cheng, the police accountant shot last October at Parramatta police headquarters by 15 year old Farhad Jabhar, to the need for stronger gun laws. He’s argued that if 15-year-olds can get hold of weapons like that, there’s something wrong with the laws. And in a separate incident last Sunday NSW Police arrested a 16 year old boy for seeking to obtain a gun to conduct a terrorist attack on ANZAC Day.

Howard has linked the availability of weapons such as that used to murder Cheng with legitimate gun owners. He’s pointed out that once you give people access to weapons and ‘those people snap or exhibit a mental illness’, then you’ll have a tragedy.

The licensing laws Howard introduced in the aftermath of the 1996 Port Arthur incident mean the states and territories decide whether a person has a legitimate purpose to use and/or own a firearm, and place strict limits on the type of firearms accessed.

This means the mass casualty shootings of the type seen at San Bernardino, California, last year, where assault weapons were legally purchased, are highly unlikely to occur in Australia. We’ve not seen here a mass murder by firearms since our gun laws were introduced.

Which brings us back to Farhad Jabhar, Curtis Cheng and counter-terrorism. Farhad Jabhar didn’t have legal access to firearms. Nor did he have a firearms licence or own a firearm. The weapon used, a handgun, wasn’t legally registered.

NSW Police prosecutors allege the .38 Smith and Wesson handgun used in the attack was illegally obtained by Tala Alameddine and passed to Raban Alou before being provided to Jabhar to undertake the attack.

Alameddine allegedly sourced the weapon from a Middle Eastern organised crime gang operating in western Sydney. This type of weapon, it appears, may be obtained for a few hundred dollars.

The gang and some of Alameddine’s associates have previously been the subject of investigation in relation to illegal firearms supply and smuggling.

NSW Police Deputy Commissioner Catherine Burns has stated Jabhar appears to have been picked by the group to commit this crime precisely because he was under the radar for investigators.

Some reports suggests Jabhar was recruited to undertake the attack as the person originally recruited by Alameddine and his associates had been arrested on firearms charges. The problem in this case doesn’t lie with the firearms legislation and those who work within it, but in finding and prosecuting those criminals who operate outside the law.

Crime Commissioner Chris Dawson stated last year that around 90 per cent of the illegal, unregistered weapons in Australia have come from the black market — that is, illegally smuggled in — or the “grey” market of weapons that were not registered or handed back during the Howard era.

Some are calling for another gun amnesty to get these weapons back. With most illegal weapons in the hands of organised crime who can use it either to commit crime or to sell to others who commit crime, it’s hard to see how this might work.

We know there are people in Australia plotting to commit terrorist acts, and they are seeking access to weapons to cause mass casualties.

ASIO’s Director-General Duncan Lewis told a Senate committee in February that ASIO and the police had disrupted six terrorist plots in recent months. Lewis noted some of the plotters were seeking to obtain access to explosives. These people work with organised crime. Justice Minister Michael Keenan has stressed the importance of focusing on changes to legislation to empower the fight against illegal firearms smuggling.

The bottom line is that Australia’s laws don’t allow easy access to firearms, and lawful access to semiautomatic or automatic weapons is extremely restricted and heavily monitored. Howard’s firearms regime has held Australia in good stead.

But the problem in counter-terrorism isn’t those who operate within Australia’s gun laws: it’s the criminal alliance between the gangs that control the illegal firearms markets and the terrorists they’ll trade with.

We need an enhanced understanding of the crossover points to combat both national security challenges.

Jacinta Carroll is the head of the Counter Terrorism Policy Centre at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute

Published in: The Australian - 29 April 2016

Originally published by: The Australian on 29 Apr 2016