According to Crown prosecutor Scott McColgan, "getting illegal firearms off the street, under any circumstances, can only be good". He was, therefore, keen for a manufacturer of methamphetamine to get a reduced prison sentence in return for handing over 15 illegal rifles and guns. Judge Roy Wade agreed, and William James McFarlane had his sentence cut from 16 to 14 years when he appeared recently in the Auckland District Court.
But Mr McColgan was only half right. There are circumstances when the price paid for getting illegal guns off the street is too high. This was one of them.
Any value to the community of this way of reducing long prison sentences hinges on the dent that is likely to be made in criminal arsenals. Unfortunately, all the evidence suggests this is bound to be minimal. The problem is too large. Former High Court judge Sir Thomas Thorp, after a nine-month inquiry in 1997, concluded that between 10,000 and 25,000 weapons were held for criminal purposes in New Zealand. In this context, putting 15 firearms into safekeeping seems small beer indeed. So much so that McFarlane seems to have got by far the best end of the deal.
Notwithstanding this, it seems the judicial system is prepared to cultivate a growing trend among underworld figures to surrender guns in return for reduced sentences. Perhaps it views this as just another form of the bargaining that customarily occurs. Those accused of crimes are often told they are likely to get shorter sentences if they, say, tell the police where the body of a murder victim is hidden or if they enter an early guilty plea. Offering up guns is a different scenario, and one that gives little real benefit to the community when the arsenal is small.
AdvertisementAdvertise with NZME.
It is probably fair to conclude that the number of weapons held for criminal purposes has grown in the 14 years since Sir Thomas delivered his findings. If so, the benefit of this bargaining chip declines even further. Equally, it points to the need for more concerted action against the gun problem, rather than nibbling away at it in this manner. As much was re-emphasised two years ago, when after a siege in Napier caused by the shooting of a police officer, 18 guns, including military-style semi-automatic weapons were found in the home of the gunman, Jan Molenaar.
The police had no idea Molenaar had this arsenal. Indeed, since the necessity for every firearm to be licensed was abandoned in 1982 and, instead, owners were licensed, they have had little idea of the location of any such cache. Licensed owners, let alone those unlicensed, can amass any number of guns or rifles. Matters became even more difficult for the police when an estimated 50,000 people, including Molenaar, did not respond to calls to renew their licences or surrender their weapons in 2002, following the scrapping of the lifetime licence in favour of 10-year licences.
The police have made sporadic efforts to pursue holders of expired licences. But resourcing shortfalls mean they can make little meaningful impact. Successive Governments have shied away from the problem. There have been no amnesties or financial inducements for people to surrender guns, let alone legislation requiring the registration of all firearms, as suggested by Sir Thomas. One attempt, in 1999, was thwarted when MPs wilted in the face of the gun lobby.
Virtually every other Western nation demands the registration of guns and rifles. New Zealand should be no different. It would not stop criminals getting firearms, but it would mean fewer guns in the underworld and the amassing of fewer lethal arsenals. It would also mean longer, not shorter, sentences would be the lot of criminals who accumulate arms.