Sunday at the south-side club is gangster night. The blokes in streetwear – G Star Raw, Adidas, Louis Vuitton man-bags – the women in not much.
It’s an exhibition of murky trades: drug dealers, bikies, standover men, the underworld’s rising stars and wannabes.
They come from across the city to party and be seen, sweeping into the sprawling neon-lit club like royalty.
The ones flush with cash can spend big to get a VIP booth above the action, while the up-and-comers cluster in knots around the bar.
It looks like just another night fuelled by bravado, booze and cocaine, but they are also here to talk business under the cover of the pounding trance.
Contacts made in this club will blossom into drug deals, black market weapon sales, and violent feuds around the city.
In June, word spread that an AK-47 was available for $20,000.
Assault rifles and machine guns are being seized at an alarming rate. Photo: Penny Stephens
The Soviet-era assault rifle is the weapon of choice for Third World armies and terrorists, but this one was destined for the streets of Melbourne.
The notion that a military-grade weapon could be in the hands of local criminals is shocking, but police have already seized at least five machine guns and assault rifles in the past 18 months. The AK-47 was not among them.
Only a fortnight ago, law enforcement authorities announced they were hunting another seven assault rifles recently smuggled into the country. Weapons from the shipment have been used in armed robberies and drive-by shootings.
These are just a handful of the thousands of illicit guns fuelling a wave of violent crime in the world’s most liveable city.
Young, dumb and armed
Despite Australia’s strict gun control regime, criminals are now better armed than at any time since then-Prime Minister John Howard introduced a nationwide firearm buyback scheme in response to the 1996 Port Arthur massacre.
Shootings have become almost a weekly occurrence, with more than 125 people, mostly young men, wounded in the past five years.
While the body count was higher during Melbourne’s ‘Underbelly War’ (1999-2005), more people have been seriously maimed in the recent spate of shootings and reprisals.
Crimes associated with firearm possession have also more than doubled, driven by the easy availability of handguns, semi-automatic rifles, shotguns and, increasingly, machine guns, that are smuggled into the country or stolen from licensed owners.
These weapons have been used in dozens of recent drive-by shootings of homes and businesses, as well as targeted and random attacks in parks, shopping centres and roads.
“They’re young, dumb and armed,” said one former underworld associate, who survived a shooting attempt in the western suburbs several years ago.
“It used to be that if you were involved in something bad you might have to worry about [being shot]. Now people get shot over nothing – unprovoked.”
The red zone
The violence reached a fever pitch in March, when there were two shootings a day for a week. Police are seizing a firearm every two days from cars stopped in the north-western suburbs, which have been dubbed the city’s “red zone” for gun crime.
Victoria Police Assistant Commissioner Stephen Fontana says law enforcement authorities are deeply concerned by the availability of weapons and the thriving gun culture among some young men, who appear willing to use firearms to settle the most trivial of disputes.
And it’s not simply a matter of criminals feuding with criminals.
The increasingly indiscriminate gun violence has seen innocent bystanders killed, injured or survive near-misses.
In October last year, a 54-year-old father was killed and his four-year-old son wounded in a drive-by shooting on a Thomastown home that now appears to be a tragic case of mistaken identity.
An ambush-style attack in August saw a dozen bullets fired in a quiet suburban cul-de-sac when two assailants tried to gun down members of the Comanchero bikie gang as they parked their car to go to a meeting in a nearby park.
“Anyone who lives in the court could have been coming home and they would have been in the firing line,” a local resident said.
Bullets sprayed into homes have also narrowly missed a sleeping eight-year-old girl and struck a child’s cot in the city’s west in the past year.
“It’s bad enough that we’ve got people seriously injured by firearms related crimes, but the chances, particularly when they’re doing a drive-by, of innocent people going about their daily business getting killed or seriously injured are quite high,” Assistant Commissioner Fontana said.
Gun crime soars
In this series, Fairfax Media looks at Melbourne’s gun problem and the new breed of criminals behind the escalating violence.
The investigation has found:
There have been at least 99 shootings in the past 20 months – more than one incident a week since January 2015
Known criminals were caught with firearms 755 times last year, compared to 143 times in 2011
The epicentre of the problem is a triangle between Coolaroo, Campbellfield and Glenroy in the north-west, with Cranbourne, Narre Warren and Dandenong in the south-east close behind
Criminals are using gunshot wounds to the arms and legs as warnings to pay debts
Assault rifles and handguns are being smuggled into Australia via shipments of electronics and metal parts
In response to the violence, it can be revealed the state government is planning to introduce new criminal offences for drive-by shootings, manufacturing of firearms with new technologies such as 3D printers, and more police powers to keep weapons out of the hands of known criminals.
The way of the gun
On the rowdy Sundays at the nightclub, a number of those up-and-coming gangsters come to the party armed, either carrying a gun on their person or stashed in a nearby car.
While guns have always been available to criminals determined to get them, there appears to have been a major cultural shift in how they are regarded – and used.
The new breed of underworld players, which veteran criminals privately deride as self-aggrandising “Facebook gangsters”, consider firearms a status symbol as much as a tool of the trade, sources say.
In this environment, even minor disputes quickly escalate to drive-by shootings or attacks in public places.
“We’ve seen this trend where a lot of the organised crime groups, hardened criminals used to carry firearms and use them,” Assistant Commissioner Fontana says. “Now we’re seeing a lot of people with guns that are involved in minor, petty crimes, and they’re prepared to use them.”
The indiscriminate violence led police to change the way they respond to incidents about two years ago, with the specialist Armed Crime Taskforce now attending all non-fatal shootings when previously they would have been investigated by local detectives.
The majority of firearm-related crimes are committed by those aged 20 to 34 – almost 1500 offenders were recorded for this age group last year, more than two-and-a-half times the number five years ago, according to the Crime Statistics Agency.
A gun-toting bandit in Ascot Vale. Photo: Victoria Police
The rise of ice
The violence is often linked to the city’s booming trade in methamphetamines, which has sparked turf wars between rival groups and fuelled aggression and paranoia among dealers who are often also users.
“My impression is that a lot of this is drug-fuelled. The victims, as well as the perpetrators, are probably drug-affected at the time,” said Professor George Braitberg, director of emergency medicine at Royal Melbourne Hospital, where many of the city’s gunshot victims are treated.
“We’re seeing a significant increase [in penetration wounds] and that’s a real shame because Australians, by and large, had not really resorted to guns and knives. It wasn’t part of our culture and it’s creeping in.”
A former underworld figure says the drug ice is at the heart of the problem.
“The ice game is going through the roof and the guys running it are also on it,” he says.
Others say gunshot wounds are being intentionally used as a warning or punishment for transgressions, such as failing to pay a debt. It’s a trend similar to the so-called “kneecappings” once used by paramilitary forces in Northern Ireland.
In the recent spate of violence, the vast majority of gunshots wounds requiring hospitalisation struck likely non-fatal areas such as the arms, legs or abdomen. Only 10 per cent of injuries were to the head and none in the neck or chest, according to data obtained from the Monash University Victorian Injury Surveillance Unit.
By comparison, an average of nearly 25 per cent of all gunshot wounds struck the neck, chest or head when analysing hospital data back to 1998.
Then there are the shootings that fly below the radar of officialdom. In October last year, an underworld associate was shot in the leg in Fitzroy, but the incident was never reported to police or medical authorities.
In a number of other recent shootings, victims have been transported away from the scene before paramedics are called or they are dropped off at hospital in an apparent bid to cover up the crime.
Where people are shot
Hospital gun wound admissions 2012-2015
Stolen, smuggled & sold
In 2014, Australia reached a disturbing milestone – the moment when there were more legally-owned firearms in the country than before the 1996 Port Arthur Massacre.
The national gun buyback scheme launched by then Prime Minister John Howard led to the voluntary surrender of more than 700,000 firearms, but more than a million new weapons have been legally imported since.
How many of the weapons in the hands of legal owners end up on the black market is a contentious subject, although criminologists have estimated at least 1500 are stolen each year.
Gun ownership advocates argue that many of the firearms used in crimes are illicit guns that were not turned over during the 1996 gun buyback – a source known as the “grey market”.
But the “diversion” of newly imported weapons – either through theft or illegal sale – is one of the biggest sources of black-market firearms, a senior law enforcement source says.
Despite Australia’s strict border controls, the smuggling of high-powered military-style firearms is also a growing problem, particularly with the country’s reliance on shipping by sea cargo and the rise of the so-called “dark web”.
Guns seized by police are taken to the Victoria Police Forensic Centre to be crushed. Photo: Jason South
The investigation of an armed robbery of an armoured car outside a Sunbury McDonald’s last year revealed the arsenal of powerful weapons now in the hands of local criminals.
Victoria Police raids on the crew allegedly responsible for the $290,000 theft uncovered a cache of military-style weapons, including a US-made M16 assault rifle and a Thureon machine gun – a firearm never before seen in Australia. Thureons would be used in other crimes over the next year.
That bust led to the seizure of six fully-automatic assault rifles and 96 handgun frames in the US, and dozens of machine gun and handgun parts, and 10 kilograms of ammunition, in Victoria and NSW.
The raids came from the formation of a special state, national and international task force known as Operation Ironsight.
Police admitted they had only recovered four of the 11 assault rifles believed to have been smuggled into the country.
“These weapons are assault rifles for killing people, they’ve been used in armed robberies and drive-by shootings,” Assistant Commissioner Stephen Fontana said.
The weapons that were seized in the US were set to be smuggled into Australia in the false bottom of a shipping container. Gun components can be extremely difficult to detect when mixed with metal objects or car parts, sources say.
Given that only a fraction of sea cargo can be physically examined at the point of import, law enforcement and border authorities are deeply concerned about the vulnerability of Australia’s docks and freight terminals.
Joint operations between the AFP and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms have also intercepted a high-powered handgun concealed inside an Xbox console and parts for an assault rifle hidden in a DVD player. Both were ordered by Australians through a black market website and shipped by post from the southern United States.
However firearms get onto the black market, the trade can prove very lucrative for the organised crime groups that control it.
A brand-new Glock semi-automatic pistol purchased for $700 from a legal firearms dealer in the United States will fetch $8000 to $12,000 on the streets of Melbourne.
Those in the illegal firearm trade are also often deeply involved in the drug trade.
A police raid on a clandestine drug lab operated by veteran criminal Peter John Walker in 2013 also uncovered a cache of more than 20 firearms, including two sub-machine guns, semi-automatic shotguns and silencers.
Criminal networks also create caches of illicit weapons, including machine guns and pistols with silencers, that are bought, sold and traded among the underworld in ways that are difficult for police to track.
Members of the Haddara crime family, which has been involved in a spate of shootings in the western suburbs, were jailed in 2014 on drug trafficking and weapons convictions, including the sale of two AK-47s and two semi-automatic assault rifles.
A US-made weapon (similar to above), along with a M16 assault rifle and a handgun, were seized in 2015 during an investigation into an suspected armed robbery crew with links to an outlaw motorcycle gang.
The widespread availability of firearms is also raising national security concerns in light of recent terror plots and attacks in Melbourne and Sydney.
“There’s a lot of firearms in the illicit market that are floating around, so any of those weapons could end up in the hands of extremists, just as we’re seeing them in the hands of criminals, who are using them,” Assistant Commissioner Fontana says.
Interestingly, the AK-47 that hit the market earlier this year was shopped around to drug dealers, standover men and bikies but not to anyone with extremist links.
“Even crims don’t want that kind of trouble,” a source says.
An AK-47 was offered for sale earlier this year by an unidentified party for $20,000. In 2012, members of the Haddara crime family attempted to sell two AK-47s to undercover police officers for $8000 each.