Criminals in this country have never used firearms as a matter of course. That fortunate state of affairs has tended to shroud the fact that New Zealand and the United States are virtually alone among Western nations in not having registers to try to ensure every gun is tracked.

The danger inherent in this is implicit in the Police Association's alarm about an apparent change in criminals' attitude and behaviour. Firearms, it says, are becoming "ridiculously easy" for offenders to obtain, and are being used almost daily in confrontations with the police.

The union wants an official police inquiry into where the guns are coming from, and says the issue has been neglected by the top brass. Police on the street, it says, are "in no doubt that the number of weapons out there is on the increase and gun-toting crimes are becoming the rule rather than the exception". This, it adds somewhat needlessly, is "an additional risk that police don't need".

For a long time, it has been apparent criminals can obtain guns relatively easily. Some may be imported illegally and some are traded, but the major source is theft from the residences of firearms licence-holders. The richest pickings are from the arsenals of collectors.

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The outcome is that the police have no real idea of how many firearms - legal or illegal - there are in the country. So poor is the record-keeping that there is not even a national register of seized guns. All the Police Association can see is that offenders seem to have ready access to firearms.

Police Commissioner Mike Bush notes, in response, that data for 2010 to 2014 showed gun-related crime averaged just 1.3 per cent of all recorded violent crime. Firearms-related offending has, he says, "remained consistently very low". The association says that does not tally with the present-day reality of frontline policing.

Either way, the data does not accurately reflect the peril to police officers arising from their limited knowledge of the location and ownership of guns. When they attend a domestic dispute or execute a search warrant, for example, they may well be in the dark about the firearms present in a house.

They were far more aware when all firearms had to be registered. But that system was abandoned in 1982, and individual owners were licensed. Before then, the number of guns was relatively tightly controlled. Since, licensed owners have been able to accumulate as many guns as they want.

There have been calls to reintroduce a register, most notably after Sir Thomas Thorp's review of firearms control 18 years ago, but Parliament has not followed through.

The Police Association's concerns are strong enough to warrant the issue being revisited. The safety of police officers is paramount, and it should not take a tragedy to trigger action.

A firearms register would require considerable resourcing, and would not prevent some criminals obtaining guns. But fewer would end up in their hands, the guns used in offending could be more easily traced and fewer arsenals could be amassed. Knives or other weapons, not guns, would more likely be the weapon produced in any confrontation with the police.