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Gun-shy Australia, reeling from knife crime, weighs public security settings

Gun-shy Australia, reeling from knife crime, weighs public security settings
Police at the Assyrian Christ The Good Shepherd Church in Sydney on April 16, the day after a knife attack took place.
PHOTO: Reuters

SYDNEY — Two stabbing attacks in Sydney which killed six people and injured shoppers and a Assyrian bishop during his service have shocked Australians and sparked calls for greater public security despite some of the world's toughest gun laws.

The deadly attack at a busy shopping mall in Bondi Junction on April 13 has shone a spotlight on longstanding complaints from the country's 155,000 security guards who say they are so poorly equipped, they are disincentivised to act.

"At least the cleaner's got a broom, but a security guard won't be carrying anything except a radio," said Ben Reis, a casual security guard from Newcastle, in a phone interview.

"I've been in a shopping centre and I've caught people stealing and I can't do anything, I can just watch them walk," he added.

The attacks have also lifted the lid on growing public unease about non-gun violence that drove the state government of New South Wales, of which Sydney is the capital, to double prison terms for public knife crimes months earlier.

New South Wales Premier Chris Minns has said it would be "irresponsible not to look at" toughening knife laws further, although he didn't specify how. He said the state would review whether security guards could carry handcuffs, pepper spray or batons although he ruled out guns or tasers.

Roland Springis, a security guard who has worked in malls, has collected more than 3,000 signatures in three days for a petition calling for more protective equipment.

"We don't have anything," said Springis.

Queensland state Premier Steven Miles said the stabbing at the Bondi mall added weight to the argument to extend warrantless stop-and-searches by police, local media reported.

Queensland legislation known as Jack's Law, passed last month, allows police to use hand-held metal detectors, known as wands, to search people in all safe night precincts, at public transport stations and on public transport without a warrant. The strategy is to detect weapons and combat knife crime.

"We've been actively considering whether to expand the public spaces that police can wand in to include shopping centres," Miles said.

As part of the Bondi Junction mall reopening on April 19, all 37 Westfield shopping centres nationally will have an increased security presence, local media reported, citing the company.

Tough gun laws

Political leaders and policy experts pointed to the stabbings as reminders about how much worse a public attack could be if it was easier for the perpetrator to get a gun.

Australia introduced tough new gun laws in 1996 after the "Port Arthur Massacre", the country's deadliest mass shooting, when a lone man with no police record used military-style weapons to shoot dead 35 people in and around a cafe at a historic former prison in Tasmania.

Australia banned all semi-automatic rifles and all semi-automatic and pump-action shotguns. Thousands of unlicensed firearms were surrendered under a gun amnesty programme, and licenced gun owners are now required to take a safety course.

Since then, total gun homicides in the country have halved while the overall number of homicides has flatlined, according to Australian Institute of Criminology data, even as the population has increased 50 per cent.

Australia now has less than one-third the number of annual homicides per capita in the United States.

But the proportion of homicides caused by a knife or other sharp implement has risen to 43 per cent in the five years to 2021, the latest year data is available, from 34 per cent in the five years before the 1996 laws, according to institute data shared with Reuters.

On April 13, during busy afternoon shopping at Westfield Bondi Junction, a mentally ill 40-year-old man with a knife killed six people before being shot dead by police.

On April 15, a teenage boy stormed an Assyrian Christian church service in the city's outer suburbs and was arrested for stabbing a priest mid-sermon and several bystanders. All victims survived the attack which the authorities said was terrorism motivated by suspected religious extremism.

"If the crimes committed over the past days had been committed with easily accessible high powered firearms, there is no doubt the number of victims would be far greater," said Justin Wong, principal lawyer at Streeton Lawyers, a criminal lawfirm.

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