Hundreds of police cars carry gun safes, and central Auckland officers draw weapons from their vehicles nearly twice a week, Herald inquiries have found.

Commissioner Howard Broad is looking at giving police greater access to firearms.

In Christchurch on Tuesday, two officers were injured and a police dog was shot dead.

Constable Mitchel Alatalo was hit in the thigh and dog handler Bruce Lamb in the jaw. The dog, Gage, died at the scene.

The group were fired on as they carried out a drugs search in the suburb of Linwood.

As it happened, Constable Lamb had a firearm in a safe in his dog wagon, but did not take it with him.

Commissioner Broad's plan would see firearms stored in a greater number of vehicles rather than just in supervisors' cars.

Police Minister Judith Collins has approved the plan in principle, but yesterday she stopped short of full endorsement until she has seen the detail.

"I would need to see the policy in full, and police would be very keen to make sure any changes would have the general support of the public," Ms Collins said.

But police figures released to the Herald under the Official Information Act show 641 of the 2700 or so police vehicles that might be used to carry firearms already have gun safes.

They include pistol-only safes in dog handlers' vehicles, combined pistol and rifle safes in general-duties cars, bulk rifle and pistol safes in sergeants' vehicles and safes in rural officers' vehicles.

Police would not specify yesterday how many of the gun safes carry guns permanently - or how frequently - as it varies between districts.

In Auckland City, two sergeants' cars permanently carry firearms - including both rifles and pistols.

In the two years to the end of December, firearms were issued 194 times - an average of almost twice a week - and sometimes, several weapons were issued in one day.

On April 18, 2008, one sergeant's vehicle issued six pistols and three rifles.

Ms Collins said yesterday that she was "comfortable" with locked-boxes for frontline vehicles and did not believe such a move would lead to an arms race with criminals.

Police Association president Greg O'Connor said locked boxes for each frontline vehicle was the "minimum" that should be provided, and he called for all sergeants and senior sergeants to be permanently armed.

It was inevitable that all police would be routinely armed, he said. "Sadly, it will take more police shootings to get there. We are pleased there is some movement. However, this may not be enough."

Ms Collins said the work on police access to guns was not a knee-jerk reaction to Tuesday's shootings. It had been under way for months.

Human rights advocates and the Green Party have warned that giving police greater access to guns would be a slippery slope towards a routinely armed force, but the minister said that was not being considered.

"I have some real difficulties with that, and I would have to be convinced on the evidence that police and the public would be safer - and the evidence would need to be overwhelming," Ms Collins said.

Human Rights Foundation chief Peter Hosking said he had nothing against police having greater access to guns to protect themselves.

"But if there are more guns in police hands, then more guns appear in criminals' hands and they are more likely to be used. It's not a safer situation, it's a riskier situation," he told Radio New Zealand.

"More people die and that will be criminals, people with mental health problems, citizens will die, police will die."

FRONTLINE POLICE AND WEAPONS
641 of 2700 patrol cars nationwide have gun safes.
2 sergeants' cars in Auckland City police district permanently carry firearms.
6 pistols and 3 rifles issued from a sergeant's car on one day in April 2008 - the largest number ever.
194 times firearms issued in Auckland City police district in the two years to last December.

RISKS OF ARMING POLICE
* Weapons could be taken from officers.
* Likely increased use of weapons against the public.
* Mentally unwell officers could use weapons for self-harm.

Source: NZ Police