Alexander Gillespie: Staring down barrel of a gun crisis

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Lax storage and security issues as well as porous regulations need urgent work to control spread.
The global trade in illegal firearms is estimated to be about NZ$1.5 billion per year. Photo / iStock
The global trade in illegal firearms is estimated to be about NZ$1.5 billion per year. Photo / iStock

Parliament woke with a start when a police bust in Takanini recently netted a handgun and 14 high-powered military style rifles. This firepower is about double what terrorists used in the attack in Paris at the end of 2015 in which 130 people were killed.

The Takanini bust followed police reports that pistols and military-style semi-automatics now make up 14 per cent of the illegal firearms they retrieve. Parliament is also nervous about the recent spate of gun-related crime. Although murder by firearm is only a small subset of just over 40 homicides per year in New Zealand, guns remain a constant source of tension in the community, as testified by the 800 or so call-outs by Armed Offenders Squads per year. The final reason Parliament is concerned is that despite the best efforts of many police officers, many parts of the system for gun regulation are under-resourced, decentralised, over-stretched and in possession of gaps by which, even though it is a remote risk, a determined criminal or a terrorist could cause mayhem.

The guns that criminals possess can be divided into three categories, namely, standard types of rifles and shotguns, pistols, and military style semi-automatic firearms (MSSAs) which possess magazines that can hold in excess of seven cartridges. The British public lost their chance to own pistols following the Dunblane massacre, just as the Australian public lost their chance to own MSSA weapons following the Port Arthur massacre. In New Zealand, it is possible to own pistols and MSSA firearms, via a more rigorous licensing system than for standard firearms. It is because of the stricter licensing that we know that there are 36,000 pistols and 7800 MSSAs. All of these are registered with the police.

In terms of originating from an overseas supply, smuggling over the border is possible. The global trade in illegal firearms is estimated to be about NZ$1.5 billion per year. Although the overlap between an illegal trade in guns and drugs is clear in other parts of the world, a clear linkage is not evident in Australasia as our borders are not as porous as elsewhere. A more common route of direct offshore smuggling is the "ant trade" where guns are shipped over bit by bit and then reassembled; or ad-hoc items slip through the ports. Although Customs currently intercept about 200 attempts per year of unauthorised importation of rifles, shotguns or pistols, it is possible this pathway is larger.

All of the attempts to work out from where criminals get their guns are hampered by the fact that more than 95 per cent of all guns in New Zealand are untraceable.

In terms of guns originating from on-shore supply, the existing pool of firearms to draw from in New Zealand ranges between 900,000 and 1.2 million and growing, with police processing about 26,000 applications each year to import more firearms. The most common way for criminals to access this pool of guns is through crime. There are usually 12 to 24 apprehensions under the Arms Act per year of people selling or supplying firearms to unlicensed people. The worst of these involved people such as John Mabey and Peter Edwards, who sold hundreds of weapons to criminals. Despite this, the vast majority of licensed firearm owners are upright people, concerned about the problems they see proliferating around them.

One of the foremost problems is lax storage standards of firearms in some instances, and ineffective security systems in others. The need for best-practice, uniform, and consistently checked security standards over areas which are high-profile targets for criminals is uppermost. Similarly, the need for a gun buy-back scheme to try to soak up some of the 100,000 firearms which have drifted away from their original owners is also necessary. Although these older firearms are unattractive to organised criminals, this is not necessarily the case with young thugs.

All of the attempts to work out from where criminals get their guns are hampered by the fact that more than 95 per cent of all guns in New Zealand are untraceable. Despite being recorded when they enter the country, no records exist when they are sold to the consumer. Our inability to track and trace such firearms is so poor we are unable to sign United Nations protocols designed to combat organised crime and the illegal trade in firearms. If the lines between the categories of guns were robust, this would be bad enough, but as it is, the difference between the modern standard firearm and an MSSA is often nebulous, as the ability to convert one to the other can be as simple as changing the magazine. Even worse, there is no meaningful restriction on the size of magazines that can be purchased, nor even a requirement that they should only be purchased by people with the appropriate licences.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

• Alexander Gillespie is Professor of Law at the University of Waikato.

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