CANBERRA, Australia (AP) -- Australia will allow gun owners to hand in illegal firearms without penalty next year as concerns grow over gun crimes involving such weapons, a federal minister said Friday.
Australia's police and justice ministers agreed at a meeting to start a nationwide gun amnesty from the middle of 2017, Justice Minister Michael Keenan said.
"Australia is world-renowned for the strength of our firearm laws, but illegal firearms do remain a deadly weapon of choice for organized criminals," Keenan told reporters.
It will be the first Australia-wide amnesty since a gun buy-back program in 1996 that followed a lone gunman killing 35 people in Tasmania state, Sydney University gun policy analyst Philip Alpers said.
That tragedy galvanized the government to legislate tough restrictions on rapid-fire weapons and to buy back almost 700,000 newly outlawed guns.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics shows the nation has since imported almost 1.2 million legal guns, although none of them are military-style semi-automatic assault rifles that are now banned from public ownership.
An Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission report released Friday estimated there could be as many as 600,000 unregistered guns in Australia. There are 2.89 million registered guns among 24 million Australians, an increase of 9.3 percent in the past five years, the report said.
Most illegal guns in Australia were legally owned before 1996 when guns did not have to be registered. They were not handed in during the buy-back and there are no records that they even exist, the report said.
The market for illegal guns is partly driven by Middle Eastern crime gangs, outlaw motorbike clubs and other groups that traffic illegal commodities such as drugs, the report said.
It said that guns can be bought easily in the United States and sent to "countries such as Australia with relative anonymity, especially where transactions are made using emerging technologies and business practices, such as the darknet and freight-forwarding services."
Alpers said overseas experience suggested that the Australian amnesty would collect only "rubbish guns" that were not valued by either legitimate gun owners or criminals.
The government plans to crack down on illegal guns by introducing a mandatory five-year minimum prison term for gun traffickers, as well as boosting screening of international mail, air and sea cargo.