More than 52,000 firearms worth $22 million were imported into New Zealand last year, according to new figures.

While the row over arming police in New Zealand escalated last week, the Herald can reveal how many guns were legally brought into the country in 2018.

Gun lobbyists say legal importation isn't the problem with arms in New Zealand, but rather smugglers and the weapons that circulate among gangs and criminals.

Customs figures, obtained under the Official Information Act, show a total of 52,627 guns were imported last calendar year - about par with the last four years.


The figures do not include $2m worth of handguns or other military-style weapons imported last year.

And while the data includes thousands of air rifles and pistols, half were actual guns (26,384).

A total of 11,265 were categorised as sporting rifles with another 7021 sporting shotguns.

There were more than 5000 .22 calibre rifles and another 848 under the description, 'other firearms etc which operate by explosive charge'.

Customs records show that 208,777 firearms, worth $113.5m, have been imported since the start of 2015, with 7822 coming into the country already this year.

Police have previously said they believe there are around 1.5 million guns in New Zealand. There are around 250,000 licensed firearms owners.

But the New Zealand Police Association says authorities have "no idea" how many guns are in Kiwis hands.

Police Association president Chris Cahill said the number of guns coming into the country every year was concerning, especially given that "we know they will end up in criminal hands".


"It's a helluva lot and we just keeping adding to the arsenal," he said.

"Everywhere I go, every cop tells me the same story: that they are finding firearms on a very regular basis.

"We do know that the majority of those firearms come from legitimate license holders who have had them stolen. But the problem is we have no idea how many firearms people have."

Air rifles and pistols aren't the biggest concern of police, Cahill accepted, but he said they can still be dangerous.

Undercover police officer Sergeant Don Wilkinson was fatally shot by John Skinner with a powerful air rifle in 2008.

"Some of these are lethal, and there seems to be a hell of a high number of them [coming into NZ] as well," Cahill said.

The Police Association has long campaigned for a national firearms register, something that Police Minister Stuart Nash doesn't support.

Nash said he wasn't concerned by the number of firearms coming into New Zealand every year.

However, he has asked police to give advice on modernising the Arms Act to ensure it is "fit for purpose and appropriate for the 21st century."

"I appreciate that for many there is a need to access firearms for legitimate purposes, be it recreational sport or hunting," Nash said.

"Our priorities remain ensuring that firearms are used lawfully and safely, and that police administer the law in an effective and consistent way."

David Tipple, owner of New Zealand's largest firearms dealership, Gun City, has previously refused to tell the Herald how many firearms his company imports every year.

"I don't see the point in the discussion," he said earlier.

New Zealand's firearms legislation and firearms crime record, Tipple says, is "to be admired by the rest of the world".

"We have a lot of firearms. New Zealand has one of the highest rates [of gun ownership] per capita in the world and we're good with it - it's not doing any harm," he said.

The Council of Licenced Firearm Owners (COLFO) said the latest Customs data showed that about in one-in-10 licensed firearms holders got a new or additional explosive firearm last year.

Vice-chairman Michael Dowling said he added about five firearms to his personal collection every year.

"The figures seem realistic to me," he said. "They don't seem over the top and are not peaking in any way."

His group's concerns were more around a lack of resources and manpower for Customs to help prevent the illegal importation of guns.

Canterbury District Commander Superintendent John Price made the decision last week that all frontline officers would carry firearms while an alleged gunman was loose.

The call came after three firearm incidents in the region in a week, all directed at police staff.

National Police Commissioner Mike Bush backed the move which was put in place until the environment officers were working in was no longer "critical".

The temporary move to arming Christchurch police sparked widespread public debate about whether police should routinely carry weapons.

However the arrest at the weekend of a man wanted in relation to two shootings saw the directive to frontline officers withdrawn and the status quo resume.

Guns and NZ

• 52,627 guns imported last year

• $24m value of weapons, including handguns and military-style weapons

• 1.5m police estimate of the number of guns in NZ

• 250,000 licensed firearms owners

Source: Customs