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

SYDNEY — Two stabbing attacks in Sydney which killed six people and injured shoppers and an 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 Westfield shopping mall in affluent Bondi Junction last Saturday has shone a spotlight on longstanding complaints from the country’s 155,000 security guards who say they are so poorly equipped, they are disincentivized to act.

One of the dead was a security guard, on his first shift at the mall, who intervened.

“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 center 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 Mr. Springis.

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

A new law in that state lets police use hand-held metal detectors, or wands, to search people on public transport for suspected weapons and “we’ve been actively considering whether to expand the public spaces that police can wand in to include shopping centers,” Mr. Miles said.

As part of the Bondi Junction mall reopening on Friday, all 37 Westfield shopping centers nationally will have an increased security presence, local media reported, citing the operator of the chain’s Australian malls, Scentre.

“Everyone is saying it could have been them, it could have been any of us,” said Mala Webber, who runs a digital marketing business down the road from the Bondi mall and was on her way to pay respects at a rememberance ceremony at the mall on Thursday, although she was not ready to go inside.

“People are definitely a bit more uneasy,” added Ms. Webber, who cancelled a family trip to the mall on the day of the attack because of a sick child.

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. Some 650,000 unlicensed firearms were surrendered under a gun amnesty program, and licensed 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%.

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% in the five years to 2021, the latest year data is available, from 34% in the five years before the 1996 laws, according to institute data shared with Reuters.

On Saturday, 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 Monday, 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 law firm. — Reuters