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Theft of guns from farms and urban crime inextricably linked

Many guns stolen from rural farm sheds are later used in crimes in the city. Bamcat/Flickr, CC BY

Revelations of the theft of firearms from Victorian MP Peter Crisp’s farm draws attention to a genuine but often overlooked link between farm crime and criminal events in urban communities.

Discussions with farm communities and Victoria Police over recent months show there is a growing trade in firearms stolen from farms across rural and regional areas by criminal elements. Police in Western Australia are also aware of the link between guns stolen from rural properties and their use in crime in the city.

Following the significant Howard Government gun reforms after the Port Arthur massacre in 1996, huge numbers of firearms were surrendered nationwide and destroyed. With fewer high-powered weapons available, convenience store assistants, petrol station attendants, bank tellers and the wider Australian community enjoy a great deal more safety.

But with the supply of guns down and demand up, enterprising criminal elements have found a new and readily accessible source of firearms.

Rookie gang members are sent on missions to visit farms and specifically target firearms. We know how important long-barrelled rifles and shotguns are for farmers as a tool. When these fall into the wrong hands and are sawn off, they can have deadly consequences.

Long-barrelled rifles and shotguns are stolen from rural sheds, outbuildings, homesteads and vehicles. They are stolen whether they are properly secured or have been left unsecured. Criminals then saw them down and sell them illegally for use in armed robberies and for other criminal purposes.

What often goes unrecognised is the direct link between the theft of a firearm from a farm and its use in armed robberies, home invasions and other crimes in the city. This is an issue of increasing concern for police, increasingly confronted with “wannabe” meth dealers, for example, keen on a gun to show off their street cred and to act with intimidation.

Organised crime gangs know there is a growing market for relatively cheap, available firearms. Many areas targeted for firearm thefts are located on major interstate transport routes. The guns can be swiftly relocated before thefts are noticed and reported.

More often than not, farmers are doing the right thing. They abide by the law by registering their firearms and by locking guns up in strong cabinets. Most would be absolutely horrified to know one of their farm tools has been used in a violent crime in the city. But this, sadly, is a reality in 2014.

Nevertheless, the theft of firearms can be addressed somewhat by farmers observing some basic crime prevention initiatives. Never be complacent. Don’t leave firearms in unlocked vehicles, keep gun cabinets away from other tools such as angle-grinders, and don’t keep the cabinet key anywhere near the cabinet.

Organised crime gangs know there is a growing market for relatively cheap, available firearms. Flickr/Str1ke, CC BY

Governments can assist too. There are now law enforcement officers based in regional areas across Victoria with specific expertise in rural crime, tasked with providing additional attention to crime on farms. This, along with the establishment of an advisory group that specialises in farm crime, has been met with positive reception and ought to serve as a model for other states and territories.

Additional resourcing would make the officers’ jobs easier, allowing them to concentrate on building trust with local communities and educating them. They would also not be distracted by other general duty tasks but could rather focus heavily on diligently bringing farm crime matters to court.

Government, police and local communities working together will go a long way to combating the growing problem of firearm theft from farms though increased education of rural communities to the important of crime prevention but also to crime investigations and prosecutions.

Theft from farms is not just a rural problem. This is a matter of increasing concern to police and ought to be for the wider community as well, wherever we may live.

Victorian farmers interested in participating in the Federation University Research Project can complete an anonymous online survey, answering questions about their experiences of farm crime and their attitudes to responses by the criminal justice system.

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