YOUNG men are arming themselves with illegal guns to fight petty disputes in a trend that is alarming police and has placed Sydney in the midst of another spike in public shootings.
The acting Police Commissioner, Nick Kaldas, has pleaded with young men to ''think about your family and loved ones and what this means'' after a spate of fatal and drive-by shootings already this year.
Three men have been shot in Sydney since Sunday afternoon, including a 24-year-old father, Joshua George, who died from a single wound to the chest after a disagreement at a party the night before. He is the eighth man shot dead in five months.
''We are seeing guns used to settle the most trivial matters,'' Mr Kaldas told Fairfax Media. ''Small debts, arguments over women, domestic tensions, road rage and minor property disputes.
''It appears to have become more acceptable to use a gun to settle a difference rather than, say, physical force or a punch.''
While gun crime in the city has fallen in the past 15 years, shootings in public places have soared and the director of the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, Don Weatherburn, said Sydney was ''smack bang in the middle of another rise''.
Dr Weatherburn said that each time public shootings appeared to be back under control there was another spate - and this time he warned it could escalate further.
''There is no telling where it's going next but at the moment the signs are not good for this early in the year,'' he said.
''The fact that the homicide rate is coming down is a comfort but the big fear is that people will switch from shooting at houses to shoot deliberately targeting individuals.
''Most of these shooting incidents aren't resulting in the death of anybody but if they did start aiming we would have a serious problem on our hands.''
Dr Weatherburn said that previously gun crimes had mainly been carried out by ''organised crime gangs'' or were ''the classic domestic homicide/sexual jealousy shootings''.
Now police are worried about the ''idiot factor'' - young men who see guns as the first and only option in petty arguments.
Recent incidents include:
Graeme Smith, 21, who is on the run after arguing with Mr George and shooting him with a longarm rifle at Claymore in the city's south-west;
Six shots fired into a home at Roselands, which police say was triggered by a slap in the face at a Punchbowl hairdresser's;
One man allegedly firing shots into homes at Belmore and Brighton-le-Sands after another man complimented his wife at a wedding;
A dispute between two wives in a supermarket that led one husband to shoot the other's home.
Police said they seized 6000 to 7000 guns a year but access to firearms was still the big issue.
''The big problem we are facing is the accessibility of weapons,'' Mr Kaldas said. ''Whether it's young men or others in criminal groups, they are getting access to guns and as long as those guns are out there, we are going to see shootings.''
A recent report by the Australian Crime Commission said a conservative estimate was that there were 250,000 longarms and 10,000 handguns in the nation's illicit firearms market.
The number of guns imported to Australia legally has also risen, including a 24 per cent increase during the past six years in the number of registered handguns in NSW.
A small portion of these were diverted to the black market either by theft or corrupt dealers and owners and were bought by criminals for up to $15,000.
The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, last week asked the Home Affairs Minister, Jason Clare, to examine ways to curb gun violence in western Sydney.
Dr Weatherburn said shootings in public places were not as frequent as when they peaked in 2000-01 but one underworld source said months of drive-by shootings were now bubbling over into brazen executions.
''Drive-bys are a warning,'' the source said. ''But the warnings are obviously not working so it becomes full-blown killings.
''When you go up to a man and shoot him point blank, you're intending to kill him. We haven't seen behaviour this ruthless for a long time.''