We think of the police force as some super-efficient machine where thousands of cogs mesh together to drive a justice juggernaut. In fact most police are too busy dealing with a particular crime on a particular day to worry about the bigger picture.
If someone is shot dead it is a job for the homicide squad, if the victim survives the armed crime squad takes control, outlaw bikie crime goes to the Echo taskforce and if no one is hit when a gun is fired it stays with local detectives.
In each case it is the crime, not the weapon, that is of interest. Yet the gun may be the key to a host of unsolved crimes if it can be traced back to an original source.
According to the anti-gangs division’s boss, Detective Superintendent Peter Brigham, it is not a case of one gun to one criminal: “A gun can change hands three times in a week.”
Which means it can be used to shoot up a building in Frankston, collect a drug debt in Flinders and waved in the face of staff in a Seaford convenience store during an armed robbery. And the police may never make the connection.
In 2018 the state government passed laws to give police the capacity to deal with armed crooks, with Firearms Prohibition Orders providing new search powers as well as hefty penalties (up to 10 years’ jail) for crooks who tool up.
But a bizarre judicial decision (later overturned) and a failure to provide adequate resources to a gun squad meant little changed. Until now.
Enter Mick Daly, a veteran homicide investigator who has been made the boss of the new illicit firearms unit, a group of four specialist teams tasked with tracking guns, linking them to crimes and co-ordinating a statewide blitz on firearms trafficking. This means that double the number of investigators that worked on guns and police are now issuing FPOs on a weekly basis on bikies, gang members and other known violent offenders, with around 800 now slapped with the bans.
Some crooks are too dumb to sniff the wind, like the one pulled up after a quiet gamble at Crown Casino. The police did their routine checks, saw he was the recipient of an FPO and ordered him to open the boot. Inside was a loaded shotgun. Now the only Straight Flush that will matter to him will be in the Barwon Prison lavatory.
After a decade in homicide, Daly has seen the carnage left by illegal guns, having worked on a series of underworld murders including that of Jason Moran, gunned down at the Essendon Auskick back in 2003. Moran’s friend, Pasquale Barbaro, was also shot dead as collateral damage and seven kids in the back of the van were left covered with the victims’ blood.
In that case, Daly says, the murder weapon, dropped at the scene, was found to have been handled by several of underworld boss Carl Williams’ trusted associates.
Repeatedly the calibre of the crook does not match the calibre of the gun, which is why we have had a spate of mistaken identity murders such as Paul Virgona, cut down in a hail of bullets on Eastlink in November 2019, and Muhammed Yucel, killed by an inept hit team in Keysborough in May 2017 when the real target was a gangster who lived a few houses away.
In Melbourne we average a shooting every week. Last year there were nine gunshot murders, 41 non-fatal shootings and a large number of drive-by gun blasts from would-be gangsters.
Most of the non-fatal shootings involved abductions where the victims were shot (usually in the thigh) as a punishment for failing to pay a drug debt. Some would turn up at hospital apparently bewildered as to how a bullet ended up in their leg (one claimed his mobile phone exploded in his pocket). Others thought a Band-Aid and a nip of bourbon would make it all go away.
When they do belatedly turn up at hospital with an infected wound that smells like a skunk in a blender they invariably suffer post-shooting amnesia, unable to tell police what happened, where it happened or who did it.
One thug with a buried slug used a Stanley knife to remove the offending bullet. This is not recommended by the Surgeon-General or surgeons in general.
So where do the guns come from? According to Daly, the bulk are so-called “grey guns”; weapons that were once licensed firearms but were not handed in during the 1996 and 2017 gun amnesties.
He says many have been stashed in cupboards and sheds. When they are stolen, usually by burglars looking for cash and sellable items, they leak into the underworld. And, of course, the victim can hardly report the theft of a gun that should have been handed in years ago.
Others are more targeted, such as when a licensed shooter lets slip that they have a gun safe at home. Another problem area is country properties where farmers need guns to control feral animals and put down injured stock.
But these sorts of guns, while extremely deadly, are not the height of gangster fashion. The most image-conscious crooks want flash semi-automatic handguns, which is why they command an asking price between $15,000 and $20,000 (compared to $1000 on the legitimate market).
While that is a large amount of cash to most of us, in the inflated world of drug trafficking it is seen as a legitimate (but non-claimable) business expense. They want them to protect themselves from rip-offs, chase up debts and look like serious gangsters.
“We know there are offenders who sell drugs and also firearms,” says Daly, adding that the drug dealer who can source guns usually goes up the pecking order.
According to the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC), there are 250,000 long arms and 10,000 hand guns in the illicit market and around 2.9 million legal guns.
ACIC found that “the illicit firearms market is driven in part by outlaw motorcycle gangs, Middle Eastern organised crime groups and other groups engaged in trafficking illicit commodities such as drugs”.
One interstate firearms dealer diverted 350 guns into the more lucrative underworld market, with many of the weapons ending up in Melbourne.
In another case police found more than 20 guns hidden in a storage facility, raising the possibility of an underworld gun “library” where you pay to borrow a gun for a particular job.
And for the crooks who are not connected there are always homemade firearms – little pen pistols, pipe guns and slam guns. They are single-shot and of varying efficiency but in the wrong hands they can still be deadly.
Underworld matriarch Kath Pettingill had a weakness for pen pistols, with one falling from her underpants when she was stopped by police. This was neither discreet nor particularly hygienic.
One excited crook couldn’t wait to use his new toy and chose not to read the user’s manual, which meant he was holding his pipe gun the wrong way around when he fired, managing only to put a dum-dum bullet in his tum-tum. If there is a criminal version of Mensa, he would be manning the drinks trolley.
Some crooks know a used gun can implicate them in crimes as easily as a fingerprint does. Which is why Jason Moran threw the gun used to kill Alphonse Gangitano from a moving car on the West Gate Bridge in McDonald’s wrappers. (He avoided being charged with murder or littering.)
When Ashley Mervyn Coulston was grabbed after abducting two people in 1992 carrying a sawn-off .22 fitted with a silencer near the National Art Gallery, an astute forensic examiner linked the weapon to the Burwood murders of 22-year-olds Kerryn Henstridge and Anne Smerdon and Peter Dempsey, 27, five weeks earlier. Without that link, Coulston may never have been identified as the killer.
In one of Daly’s murder investigations the offender may well have eluded justice if he had dumped the gun and the pair of runners he was wearing. He did neither. “After all Nikes are quite expensive,” Daly observed. The offender was able to wear the internationally recognised brand inside prison for the next 15 years.
John Silvester is a columnist.