Illegal guns are not a problem, says study author - but police disagree

POLICE figures have revealed there are almost 790,000 registered firearms in NSW, but an average of five weapons are held by each licensed owner.

A University of Sydney study revealed this week Australians now own as many guns as they did at the time of the Port Arthur massacre, despite more than 1 million firearms being handed in and destroyed nationally.

Philip Alpers, an adjunct associate professor at the university's school of public health, said the nation had been steadily restocking its private arsenal, importing guns over the past decade so that the figures now virtually matched those of 1996.

Police told Fairfax Media on Monday that there were 199,380 firearms licence holders in NSW, with 162,460 registered gun owners on the state's firearms licence register.

There are 785,693 registered firearms in NSW.

The general manager of the NSW Firearms Registry, Phil Houlton, said the figures indicated that on average, there were 4.8 guns per registered gun owner.

The main concentration of gun owners was in rural areas.

However, it was unclear how this compared with the time of the Port Arthur massacre, in which 35 people were killed and 23 wounded. Then, estimates suggest there were 3.2 million firearms in Australia but Mr Houlton said ''licensing of longarms did not commence until March 1998''.

Professor Alpers said that due to law changes, the new guns being imported were not military-style semi-automatics, which were banned and surrendered after Port Arthur, and that handguns were now harder to import into Australia.

The research does not take into account firearms that are smuggled into Australia illegally, but Professor Alpers said there was little evidence to suggest illegal imports were an issue.

He said the main problem was criminals obtaining legal guns that had been stolen or lost.

However, the commander of the NSW Firearms and Organised Crime Squad, Detective Superintendent Ken Finch, disagreed with this assessment.

''Our experience would suggest that completely the opposite is true, and illegal imports are a big challenge for us,'' he said.

Last year police smashed what is believed to be the biggest firearm smuggling ring in Australia's history, which imported up to 220 Glock pistols. The weapons were imported in parts, and assembled in Australia, authorities said.

''The increasing use of the internet has seen a rise in the number of illegal firearms imported,'' Superintendent Finch said. ''It certainly is a challenge, yes,'' he said.

The story Illegal guns are not a problem, says study author - but police disagree first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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