This country has been spared a criminal fraternity that wields firearms as a matter of course. Indeed, according to police statistics, guns are involved in just 1 per cent of violent crime. Yet any comfort to be derived from this statistic must be tempered by data released recently to the Herald under the Official Information Act. This showed 325 illegal firearms were seized in police raids in the year to June. While that is the lowest haul in the past five years, it is still an alarming number and, along with other aspects of the present firearms regime, a cause for continuing concern.
Most of the guns seized by the police were stolen in residential burglaries or from collectors by organised criminals. According to the police's 2011 National Strategic Assessment paper, there is a large pool of illegally held firearms in the country, and guns of almost any type can be obtained relatively easily from within the ranks of criminals. The police, however, can only guess at the extent of the problem. So poor is firearm record-keeping that the number of guns reported stolen in each police district to fuel this black market is not even collated centrally.
In large measure, this shortcoming has its origin in the 1982 decision to abandon the registration of every firearm. Instead, owners were licensed. Before then, the number of guns was relatively tightly controlled. Subsequently, even licensed owners have been able to accumulate any number of firearms. The upshot is that the police have no accurate idea of how many guns - legal or illegal - there are in the country.
An incident three years ago illustrated the dangers of this situation. Jan Molenaar, who shot a senior constable in Napier, had an arsenal of 18 guns, including military-style semi-automatic weapons. He also did not possess a firearms licence, having not responded to calls to renew his licence or surrender his guns in 2002, following the scrapping in 1992 of the lifetime licence for a 10-year licence. The police officers who went to apprehend him had no idea he had accumulated so many arms. That, indeed, is the case for officers executing any search warrant or tackling any domestic dispute. They are in the dark about how many guns may be in a house.
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This dangerous situation should have been remedied following Sir Thomas Thorp's 1997 review of firearms control. He recommended that all firearms should be registered, not just handguns, machine guns, automatics and military-style semi-automatics. He also sought an independent firearms agency, and the reduction of the 10-year licence to three years. These proposals were incorporated in legislation, only for Parliament to buckle in the face of opposition from the gun lobby. The outcome is that New Zealand and the United States are virtually alone among Western nations in not requiring the registration of firearms.
Registration would not be a cure-all. Criminals intent on obtaining guns will always find a means. But fewer guns would fall into criminal hands, guns used in crime could be more easily traced, and fewer arsenals would be amassed by people with no legitimate reason for them.
Probably not too much should be read into the drop in firearms seized by the police over the past year. Rather than a problem on the wane, the statistic may just as easily reflect a lack of police resourcing or a shift of focus. Either way, the number of seized firearms remains a reason for apprehension. Parliament needs to act before the laxity of current regulations is underlined again by a tragedy involving unlicensed guns.