Incidents involving illegal firearms have led to a parliamentary inquiry. Phil Taylorlooks at how guns get into the wrong hands and what can be done about it.

It takes a shocking incident to set off the kind of alarm that results in an inquiry into gun laws. Massacres in Aramoana, Otago, and in Australia and Scotland, resulted in reviews here in 1990 and 1997.

A law and order select committee now under way was sparked by two incidents last month that, although neither resulted in deaths, were disturbing. Four officers were shot, one seriously injured, by a gunman near Kawerau, while in Auckland police investigating a methamphetamine operation found an arsenal of 14 military assault-grade AK47s and M16s in the ceiling of a Takanini house.

The Police Association, which represents rank-and-file officers, had already voiced concerns about the proliferation of firearms in criminal hands. Police figures show a steady rise in the number of illegal firearms seized, with 1504 confiscated last year - a 50 per cent increase on four years ago.

Although frontline officers are encountering guns more often when investigating drug and gang-related crimes, knowledge about how they get into the hands of criminals is anecdotal.

Advertisement

That is the central question that parliament's law and order select committee will try to answer.

Stuart Nash, Labour's police spokesman, said the Kawerau shootings prompted him to speak to Police Minister Judith Collins who agreed that more needed to be known about how criminals got these guns. The select committee inquiry is the result.

Both Collins and Nash have said it should not penalise law-abiding gun owners, but try to determine how the black market in guns operates and whether laws, procedures and equipment to combat it are sufficient.

"It is time to have an inquiry," Nash said. "It's unfortunate that sometimes it does take a catastrophe [to prompt one]."

The last significant changes to gun laws followed the 1990 murders by Aramoana gunman David Gray. The law change added a new class of restricted weapon - the E endorsement for Military-Style Semi-Automatics (MSSA) - which requires extra vetting and security measures.

The committee has already been briefed by police top brass. Superintendent Chris Scahill, national manager response and operations, said police welcomed the inquiry into ways in which the current firearms regime might be strengthened so criminal access to firearms could be reduced. According to the latest figures police released to the Herald , shotguns were the most common illegal firearm seized. During the 2014/2015 period, 272 full-length and 79 cutdown shotguns were confiscated, as well as 44 pistols, 23 military-style semi-automatics and 47 cutdown rifles. There is no legal purpose for a cut-down firearm.

Peter Edwards
Peter Edwards

Police believe the source of most illicit firearms in New Zealand continues to be residential burglaries, according to their 2011 National Strategic Assessment paper, earlier released to the Herald under the Official Information Act.

"While there are knowledge gaps around the extent to which illicit firearms are imported, there is no evidence of any organised criminal links to large-scale imports ... or to the international firearms black market," the report said.

IN THE past year Customs has intercepted 119 firearms and 267 firearms parts. They are seized if an importer has not applied to police and been granted the required permit, a spokesman said.

According to the police's 2011 report: "Research indicates there is already a large pool of illegally held firearms in New Zealand and that firearms of almost any type can be obtained relatively easily from within the criminal fraternity without needing to source illicit firearms from overseas."

It predicted that though firearm offences would remain low, demand for illicit firearms by criminals may increase. Trends indicated this would be linked to cannabis cultivation and methamphetamine manufacture.

John Mabey
John Mabey

There is no centralised system where information regarding stolen firearms is collated, but a police spokesman said work was under way to look into how this may be achieved.

A frontline drug enforcement detective told the Herald that finding weapons when executing search warrants had become the new normal. "We find guns more often than not," he said. In a recent instance, a loaded Magnum handgun was found by the occupant's bed. In a series of recent raids in Northland, guns were found in all but one instance. Half were licensed gun owners who were growing cannabis. The guns were unsecured.

"Most of the illegal guns we come across are from burglaries or from rogue licensed owners," said the drug enforcement source.

Rogues such as Peter James Edwards. Edwards, who had a class A licence that enabled him to buy rifles and shotguns in a sporting configuration, made a business out of buying guns and pimping them for criminals by cutting down the barrel or stock and adding pistol grips and silencers.

Pistol-size firearms are prized by criminals because they are easily carried and concealed.

Over 18 months, Edwards, described in court as unemployed, bought 74 firearms including 69 from Gun City's Auckland and Christchurch stores, plus more than 16,000 rounds of ammunition, a large number of parts including pump-action pistol grips, and pistol grips.

He pleaded guilty to supplying firearms to unlicensed people, supplying a pistol and supplying methamphetamine. Edwards sold methamphetamine to his daughter, starting on her 19th birthday.

He was sentenced in 2014 to a total of five years and 10 months in prison. It was revealed in court that he had 53 previous convictions in Western Australia. He had failed to declare any previous convictions on his gun licence application.

Edwards claimed not to know the names of anyone he sold to, and would not help recover 64 firearms that were missing and believed to be in the hands of Head Hunters gang members and associates.

Jan Molenaar
Jan Molenaar

Another who didn't want to help police trace the firearms he sold to criminals was John Mabey.

"He probably has a greater fear of those associated with the guns than anything we can bring to bear," Inspector Greg Nicholls told the Herald after Mabey was sent to jail in 2009.

Mabey gained a gun licence at a young age and later added a "collectors' endorsement" that entitled him to have restricted weapons such as pistols and submachine guns and military-style semi-automatics.

He fell into debt and decided to sell his collection on the black market. When notified that police planned to check his collection, he faked a burglary in which he claimed his entire collection of restricted firearms had been stolen. He maintained the fiction for two years before admitting he had faked the burglary.

Only 11 of 121 of Mabey's restricted guns have been recovered. Glock and Beretta pistols were found in the possession of a drug maker and seller who had fired at police officers during a routine traffic stop.

A Browning pistol was found in the possession of a methamphetamine cook. A Luger pistol was found in the home of a Mongrel Mob member. Methamphetamine was involved again.

The bottom line for the public is that 110 guns classified as the most lethal from Mabey's lifetime collection are almost certainly in the hands of criminals. Rogue sales of these kinds are nearly impossible to trace and can be lucrative. A licensed gun owner can buy a class A gun for $2000, modify it and sell it, illegally, for four or five times the amount.

BETTER REPORTING of unusual weapons purchases is an area that a second police source said should be improved. Licensed gun dealers have to keep records of individuals who buy firearms, but these are not passed to the police unless specifically requested under the Arms Act.

The lack of a database means "red flags" are not often raised with police when large or otherwise suspicious purchases are made.

"There is no way of identifying who is buying too many guns. There might be an innocent explanation for why someone buys firearms five times a year, but when someone buys 69 guns in a short space of time ... hang on, that's not right."

The drug enforcement source said sentences for gun crimes were not usually a deterrent and fell well short of what the law currently allowed.

"I can't off the top of my head recall someone having received a prison sentence for illegal possession of firearms alone."

He suggested the law could be tightened to restrict sales of accessories that can be used to transform an A category firearm into an E category, an aspect currently at the discretion of gun shop operators. A licensed gun owner himself, he said any law change had to be carefully targeted so as not to affect the vast majority of law-abiding gun owners.

In Australia, the trend of gun law reform has been to restrict ownership of military-style automatic and semi-automatic firearms and to increase infringement penalties. There, both the person and the guns are registered. The large majority of firearms murders there between 1989 and 2012 involved illegal firearms. However, of the 150 offenders, 12 per cent were licensed owners and only 2 per cent had used a registered firearm, which might raise doubts about the value of stricter licensing.

Studies there have concluded that firearms get on to the black market via theft, rogue trading and the reactivation of firearms listed as de-activated.

They did not find evidence of extensive illegal importation.