Weapons, Drugs and Crime: The Australian Experience

Article excerpt

To make Australia a safer place to live, legislative reforms have been introduced that seek to restrict the number of weapons in the community. Reforms have centred on knives carried in public places, and on firearm ownership and possession. The focus on knives is of particular importance, as they are commonly used weapons. For example, knives and sharp instruments were used in 32 percent of homicides in 2003-04 (Mouzos 2005). Knives were involved in 28 percent of assaults and 52 percent of armed robberies in 2003 (ABS 2004). Using data collected as part of the Drug Use Monitoring in Australia (DUMA) program, this paper explores the link between weapons, drugs and crime, with a specific focus on weapon ownership and possession.

Toni Makkai

Director

Previous research has explored the use of particular weapons in crime and the characteristics of weapons offences, but the reasons for owning and carrying weapons, and the sources of those weapons have not been examined. Nor have there been many studies examining the possible link between drug use and weapons, in particular firearms (Sheley 1994). Using data collected as part of the DUMA program, this paper examines the extent to which police detainees self-reported:

* whether and why they owned particular weapons

* where they obtained their weapons

* their use of weapons in crime

* their illicit drug use and criminal history.

Such data have the potential to inform:

* crime reduction policy, by providing an indication of the form and size of the problem

* policing strategies, for stemming supply

* street-level policing, in terms of likelihood of encountering armed individuals

* police training (see also Makkai & McGregor 2002).

Links between weapons and drugs

Illicit drugs have been linked to weapons, particularly firearms, in a number of ways, including that:

* violence, with or without weapons, can be an integral part of the drug trade

* dependent drug users may commit crimes to finance their drug habit, possibly with weapons

* drug users may commit crimes of violence when under the influence of drugs, possibly with weapons

* firearms and other weapons may be exchanged for drugs and drugs for firearms (Oscapella 1998).

A review of the international literature reveals that not all of the links identified are equally supported by research. For example, occasional drug users who are not involved in the drug trade generally do not possess or use firearms more than people who do not use drugs (Sheley 1994). While dependent users may resort to the use of weapons and firearms when committing crimes to get money for drugs, research suggests this is not the most common reason for property crime but that the principal link is the role of firearms in the illegal drug trade including protecting shipments of drugs, intimidating customers or competitors, enforcing debts, resolving disputes, eliminating competition, and punishing informants (Nadelmann 1991; Oscapella 1998),

Methodology

The DUMA program operates across seven sites in Australia on a quarterly basis. It involves voluntary interviews with police detainees, and the provision of a urine sample (see Makkai 1999 on the methodology). In addition to standard questions on drug use and offending behaviour, a different questionnaire addendum is administered to detainees each quarter. The addenda cover topics of specific concern to policy-makers and law enforcement (for example, drug driving, amphetamines, violence in the home). An addendum concerning weapons was administered to detainees in the third quarter of 2001, the fourth quarter of 2002 and the first quarter of 2004 (n=2,323). As the Elizabeth, Adelaide and Brisbane sites did not join DUMA until 2002, they are excluded from the 2001 data. While some of the questions varied across the three surveys, for the most part they were consistent. …