A drug dealer tried to buy an ounce of methamphetamine from a Killer Beez gang member in exchange for a pistol and $3000. The text messages led police to discover a pipeline of illegal guns, described as the "tip of the iceberg".
A methamphetamine dealer has been caught illegally acquiring guns for supply to the criminal black market by getting friends with firearms licences to visit gun stores on his behalf.
Gordon Mark McRae, of Taupō, used a proxy to buy five rifles, cut them down to handgun size and sold them to other criminals, in some cases in exchange for drugs.
A second sale was thwarted by the gun store and police who had McRae under surveillance.
The previously unreported case provides a rare insight into how firearms are ending up in the hands of criminals and is only the "tip of the iceberg", one veteran detective told the Herald.
A large pool of guns is thought to be circulating in the black market and frontline police are growing increasingly alarmed about the heavy firepower that gangs have at their disposal - and their seeming willingness to use it.
"We are coming across firearms every single day," the detective said.
Police have made investigating illegal firearms a top priority this year and the Government is introducing a national firearms register as part of its wider gun law reforms after the Christchurch terror attacks.
However, little is understood about the extent of the black market in guns or the supply channels through which the criminals obtain the illicit weapons. McRae's case provides a clear example of how some of those guns are being procured.
The 34-year-old has pleaded guilty to unlawful possession of a firearm, conspiracy to unlawfully possession of a firearm, offering to sell a pistol, supplying firearms to unlicensed individuals and supplying methamphetamine.
He is due to be sentenced in the Rotorua District Court next month.
The two associates who purchased the firearms on McRae's behalf have been charged with supplying firearms to an unlicensed person, which carries a maximum penalty of two years in prison.
The apparent escalation in criminal possession of firearms is reflected in police statistics.
Ten years ago, 1735 people were charged with 2828 firearms offences and 860 firearms were confiscated.
Last year, those figures had increased to 2399 people charged with 4552 offences and 1862 firearms seized.
And although New Zealand's criminals have long carried firearms to intimidate one another, police and underworld sources say criminals are now more willing to use them.
This apparent escalation is put down to the arrival of motorcycle gangs deported from Australia, where turf wars are far more common.
The establishment of new players has ratcheted up tension with existing gangs, particularly over control of the lucrative methamphetamine and cocaine trade, but those crimes often go unreported unless the violence spills into the public, or the consequences are fatal.
"We see that as a very undesirable shift in our criminal landscape," said Police Commissioner Andrew Coster in announcing Operation Tauwhiro in February to target firearms in the hands of criminals.
"While this is predominantly an issue between gangs and organised crime groups, people are dying and that's not okay. And, understandably, that causes fear in our communities. People should not have to live in an environment with this level of violence around them."
Tracing the origin of firearms seized in police raids is difficult and time consuming, often without success. Earlier this year, the Herald on Sunday revealed a specialist firearms investigation squad was established to focus solely on identifying the illegal supply chains.
"The focus will be on people who are diverting guns, converting guns and stealing guns for organised criminals," Detective Superintendent Greg Williams said previously.
"Diverting was essentially gun shopping" by licensed firearms holders who then sold them on the black market, said Williams, while "converting" firearms was the current trend of modifying starter pistols to fire live ammunition.
The "diverting" of firearms by McRae - through his licensed friends - was discovered by Rotorua police investigating the drug dealing by the Killer Beez gang.
In a series of text messages, McRae tried to buy an ounce of methamphetamine - selling for around $9000 at the time - from a Killer Beez member in October 2020. He offered a .38 calibre pistol and $3000 in exchange for the drugs.
The offer was rejected, as the Killer Bee thought he was losing $1200. But from the text evidence, detectives from the Rotorua CIB worked backwards to discover the source of McRae's firearms.
The previous month, the police officers learned, McRae had persuaded his friend with a firearms licence to buy five Alfa Magnum revolver carbine rifles from the Gun City store in Hamilton.
He paid $8978 in cash, earning a $422 discount for buying in bulk, and handed the firearms to McRae.
These were "cut down" by having the barrels and stocks removed, essentially turning the rifle into a smaller handgun, which are easier to conceal and wield.
McRae's second attempt to buy five more of the rifles for $9000 at the North Shore Gun City in December was then thwarted.
Gun City owner David Tipple declined to discuss specifics of the case other than to say his staff are vigilant about suspicious sales, in the knowledge the firearms could be for someone else.
"This kind of 'clean-skin', or straw man purchase, has become the focus of every major firearms dealer in the country," Tipple said.
For years, the Police Association has warned of firearms falling into the hands of criminals and the dangers faced by frontline staff.
President Chris Cahill said the investigation of McRae highlighted the clear gaps in the gun law which should be closed by the coming establishment of a national firearms register.
The register was passed into law 12 months as part of law reforms following the March 15, 2019 terror attack in Christchurch, and expected to be working within two years.
While a firearms licence was needed to purchase a gun from a dealer, who was legally required to keep records, there was previously no way of knowing how many guns someone owned - or who they sold them to.
This has led to a large pool of black-market firearms, estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands, from which criminals can easily source weapons.
Cahill said the new national firearms register, in which individual firearms will be recorded against licence holders, will not immediately eliminate the existing problem.
But going forward, Cahill believes it will be harder for criminals like Gordon McRae from buying and selling firearms.
"Those guns will have to be registered to the people who purchased them. We're going to have a much better ability to track what's going on."