Terry Goldsworthy

Associate Professor in Criminal Justice and Criminology, Bond University

There are few scenes more shocking than random acts of extreme violence against people simply going about their daily lives. Yet this is what Australians are coming to terms with after a man went on a rampage through a Bondi shopping centre on Saturday afternoon, killing six people and injuring at least twelve others, including a baby. The attacker was also killed at the scene.

Police have named the attacker as 40-year-old Joel Cauchi, who was originally from Queensland and had a history of mental health issues.

There are many questions yet to be answered about the attack. But cases of mass murder are so shocking in part because they are relatively rare in Australia.

How common are such events in Australia?

To answer this, we first need to look at what we mean by the term “mass murder”, of which there are various definitions around the world. The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), for instance, describes mass murder as an incident in which four or more people are murdered, within one event, and in one or more locations in close geographical proximity.

While unusual, there have been mass killings before in Australia, each of them shocking the country.

These include the Bourke Street incident in Melbourne in 2017, when the driver of a stolen car drove into pedestrians, killing six people and injuring many others. Another occurred in 2019 when a gunman shot and killed four people during a rampage across the Darwin CBD.

Perhaps the most notorious, though, was the Port Arthur massacre in 1996, when Martin Bryant shot and killed 35 people and injured many others in the Tasmanian town. A 2017 study identified that Australia had 14 mass shooting incidents between 1964 and 2014.

Homicide and knives

In mass murders, most focus is on the use of firearms. However, the use of knives in homicide is significant. The latest national homicide report from the Australian Institute of Criminology shows that in 2020-21, knives and other sharp instruments were used in 38% of murders, followed by firearms (11%) and hands and feet (9%).

The report notes that:

Knives and other sharp instruments have consistently been the primary homicide weapon in Australia between 1989?90 and 2020?21, with 35 percent […] of all homicide incidents committed with this weapon type.

The 2023 United Nations Global Study on Homicide showed that around the world, sharp objects accounted for 22% of homicides, while firearms were the most commonly used murder weapon at 40%. Australia’s tight guns laws, introduced in the wake of the Port Arthur massacre, would most likely explain the prevalence of knives as weapons in Australia.

How big a problem is knife crime in Australia?

In recent years, we have seen increased efforts to fight knife crime. In Queensland, new laws and a media campaign were rolled out in 2023 to try to reduce the number of young people carrying knives.

In Victoria, gang members using knives as weapons have become increasingly problematic , with the chief commissioner giving evidence to a parliamentary committee and describing knife crime as being a significant issue for police.

In New South Wales, legislation was passed to double the penalties for people carrying knives in public, despite the executive director of the states Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (Bocsar) stating that use of knives in crime was at historically low levels.

Active armed offender responses

The events that unfolded at Bondi yesterday are what police call an active armed offender incident. The Australia-New Zealand Counter Terrorism Committee defines such events as:

An Active Armed Offender is defined as an armed offender who is actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people, and who demonstrated their intention to continue to do so while having access to additional potential victims.

In 2014, NSW Police, in collaboration with academics, adopted new policy responses to active armed offenders, with more than 10,000 officers trained in the new procedures.

The characteristics of such attacks can involve groups or lone offenders, who may be armed with firearms, knives or other weapons.

The selection of a major shopping centre on a weekend is in line with the methodology of active armed offenders in that they will chose a crowded environment that gives them freedom of movement and ready access to victims in order to achieve maximum harm.

The heroic actions of shopkeepers taking people into their shops, shoppers confronting the offender and the lone police officer who confronted and shot the offender would all have contributed to reducing the ability of the offender to kill or harm more victims.

As the terrorism committee noted in their guidelines, time plus freedom of movement equals increased casualties. The offender was denied this at Bondi.

What happens now?

The tragic events at Bondi will now be subject of a coronial inquest. The entire shopping centre has been declared a crime scene, which will likely take days to process. The investigation will be ongoing for months as police interview hundreds of witnesses and collate CCTV and private video footage of the incident.

Most crucially, police will now need to look at the history of the deceased offender, to try to determine his motivation in carrying out such an attack.

At some time in the future, the bravery of the civilians and first responders will also have to be acknowledged and celebrated for the many lives that were saved.

If this article has raised issues for you, or if you’re concerned about someone you know, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

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