You can buy real-looking guns for just a fistful of dollars at a $2 shop.

The Herald did just that. The cheapest was $45 and looked like a real pistol. It doesn't fire bullets - but when cocked using the same action as a real automatic pistol, it will fire a small, plastic BB sphere.

When we took the gun to police, they explained it still had a deadly potential but instead of being potentially fatal for the target, it was the wielder of the weapon who faced the possibility of death.

A law change this week has police believing they have an answer to concerns about the replicas and their role as regular features in carjackings, robberies and incidents involving threats of violence. In 1999, Edwin Leo was shot and killed by police after he pointed an imitation Glock pistol at officers.


"I wouldn't expect any of my officers to know the difference," said Inspector Peter Gibson, at Auckland Central Police station, examining the Herald weapons. "We wouldn't know until we secure the weapon what sort of weapon that is. We would treat it as a real firearm."

Mr Gibson and arms officer John Gardam agreed the replicas had all the feel and look of real pistols.

"They're designed to look like a real weapon," said Mr Gibson.

At the Herald's request, Mr Gibson produced a genuine Glock pistol and a Bushmaster rifle, along with copies of both. He compared them, describing the look and weight as "very similar". Mr Gardam said some replica rifles needed to actually be examined before finding they were fakes.

The law change this week is hoped to create a chilling effect at the cheaper end of the market.

From December 11, police will have the right to control the import of the weapons by requiring anyone wanting to bring the replicas into the country to provide a "special" reason for doing so. It is expected numbers of new weapons will tumble as they restrict entry to New Zealand.

It will make no difference at the retail end. Dealers say the restrictions on importing don't introduce any new barriers to the sale of the weapons, which are available to anyone aged 18 or over and don't require a firearms licence.

They also say they have imported thousands of the replicas ahead of the law change to create a buffer stock to sell.


Gallery: Guns - real vs fake:

Inspector Joe Green, who will oversee the new permit regime, said the new law gave police authority to approve or refuse the importation of the replica weapons. Those wanting to import the weapons would have to state a "special purpose" for wanting to import them.

Among the examples of "special purposes" is membership of one of the cluster of sporting clubs which have developed around air soft guns to play paint ball-style games.

Other reasons include collectors, for dramatic uses or to replace broken air soft guns.

Mr Green said the law was targeting the cheaper replicas which police believed caused the bulk of the problem. They included those bought by the Herald - two replica pistols and a replica submachinegun for $190. The cheapest replica for sale in the shop was $5.

When police considered applications to import the replicas, they would look at the type of weapons being sought along with who wanted to import it.

He said the cheaper replicas would not be used by the sporting community - and would likely not get permits for import.

"The ones where parents go in and buy the thing and give it to their kids to play with down the street - eventually we expect that cheaper end will be lost, discarded or broken in three to five years."

The chokehold on imports was expected to filter through the retail chain and restrict supply, he said. The higher cost and restriction on imports to satisfy the markets which can afford the bigger price tag meant the weapons would be restricted by the market.

About 26,000 "soft" air pistols have been imported since 2009 at an average value of $43 a replica.

The imminent change was embraced by Stuart McIlwain, who lobbied for sports body Airsoft Sports New Zealand. The sport sees the guns fired at other players, more commonly in paintball-style combat. They have had as many as 150 attend national meets.

"The law will restrict access to the weapons. You don't want kids playing with them. You shouldn't see a 10-year-old walking down the street with an AK47."

Dealer Ron Young, at Young's Airgun Centre, said he was confused by the changes but believed it would not affect retailers. "It's so vague. There's not a day we don't sell an air pistol."

He said he was less concerned at the threat posed to those who used the replicas and went on to face armed police. "Shoot the bastard - big deal. He's a bad bastard. He's there to do a bad deed."

Toy weapons with real menace

In a $2 shop in Auckland, I bought three weapons that look like murder.

The plastic pellets the replica pistols fire are unlikely to damage anyone unless they are hit in the eye.

The threat the weapons pose is more subtle. It lies in the menace created by them being made to look like real guns. They come, though, at a fraction of the cost and with no licensing.

Anyone seeing the pistols in public would be right to call the police. If I'd carried the replica down the street, I would expect an armed police response.

Exactly that happens once a week, police say. It happened in 1999 when Edwin Leo pointed an imitation Glock pistol at police. He was shot to death.

The coroner said Parliament "might well consider banning or restricting their sale only to holders of an arms licence".

Fourteen years later, a law change is coming. It restricts importers to bringing in replica guns for "special" reasons only.

But retailers believe it will have no effect on the availability of replica guns, and I will be able to go back and buy three more guns next week.