Gun trafficking and mandatory jail terms
18 Mar 2015|

With an estimated 260,000 illegal (unregistered) guns already in Australia, the horse is already on its way out the stable door. Still, every illegal firearm counts: the significance of the threat is such that government must work diligently to ensure the figure’s not 260,001. So how do we cut the figure—or, at a minimum, slow its growth? One way is to bring pressure to bear on suppliers. And one option there is to impose stricter penalties for the crime. But mandatory sentencing of illicit firearm traffickers is unlikely to result in supply reduction.

For all intents and purposes Australia’s sentencing and incarceration system is focused on four key goals; incapacitation, punishment, deterrence and rehabilitation. The proposed legislative changes, to introduce mandatory five year sentences for firearms traffickers, focus on the application of mandatory sentencing to achieve an increased deterrent effect.

There’s no doubt that Australia’s criminal justice system does, in a general sense, deter law-breaking. But the 260,000-gun question is whether enhanced punishment will generate a more specific form of deterrence. I suspect not. I believe that border security policies focused on increasing the likelihood of being caught are required.

A broad application of rational choice theory allows us to examine these two options using a different lens. Today, if I was choosing to import illegal firearms I would assess my capability to import, chances of getting caught, the consequences of being caught and compare those with the monetary and possibly reputational rewards. If I chose to embark on the path of illicit importation I’d do so with the belief that I was unlikely to get caught. If I didn’t believe that I wouldn’t even try.

Would the outcome of my decision be any different if the new sentencing law was in place? I’d suggest not. True, the risk–reward balance would altered. But if I still believed there’d be no change to the likelihood that I was going to get caught then my decision’s unlikely to be influenced.

Arguably then the proposed introduction of mandatory sentencing will achieve incapacitation and punishment outcomes. Those are valid policy outcomes, just not the ones we want. Unfortunately, it won’t reduce or deter the importation of illicit firearms.

As it stands, the ready availability of illicit commodities such as drugs and guns, most of which originate from overseas, indicates that the likelihood of getting caught remains too low to make much of an impact on domestic supply. The conclusion is that vulnerabilities remain in Australia’s border security that require careful policy consideration.

The challenge is to identify a policy that creates greater certainty of punishment, rather than a greater quantity of it. And doing that requires continued identification of border security vulnerabilities and fixing of the same. That’s a much more difficult and expensive border security challenge. As I have said in previous blog posts the border is a busy place. And it is no longer feasible, or even possible, for our border security agencies to check every parcel, traveller or cargo item.

In that operating context, enhancing border security detections is not a matter of simply increasing the number of passengers or quantity of cargo inspected. The options that I consider most likely to contribute to success involve the collection and analysis, in near real time, of border data. That kind of strategy would permit the conduct of increased numbers of carefully-targeted, risk-based interceptions. The successful delivery of such an approach requires intelligence capabilities concerned with the exploitation of ‘big data’ using data mining and matching.

The Department of Immigration and Border Protection’s National Border Targeting Centre, supported by such capabilities as the Australian Crime Commission’s Fusion Centre, sets the foundations for this kind of response.

The policy options in this space are varied but if the desired outcome is to reduce the availability of illegal firearms in Australian communities the focus needs be on strategies which increase the likelihood that a firearms trafficker will be caught. Those strategies should focus on continuing to enhance our border agencies’ capabilities to detect and investigate illicit firearm trafficking at the border.

Mandatory sentencing of illicit firearms traffickers sends a strong message about government’s commitment but won’t deliver the desired results.

John Coyne is a senior analyst at ASPI. Edited image courtesy of Flickr user Andrew Scott.