EDITORIAL:

Of all the issues the nation needs to address in the aftermath of the atrocity on Friday, the prohibition of military-style guns in civilian ownership is surely the low-hanging fruit.

Rapid-fire weapons such as the one that slaughtered worshippers in Christchurch mosques should not be in the hands of any private citizen. After what has happened, it will be surprising if gun enthusiasts offer any argument.

If only we had heeded warnings so often issued over the years. Just a year ago, the Police Association's president, Chris Cahill, asked why New Zealand's 7000 registered owners needed nearly 14,000 military-style semi-automatic weapons between them. Among other "restricted" firearms known to the police were 40,600 pistols and 4600 sub-machine guns and machine guns.

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Cahill also gave some disturbing Customs figures showing 50,000-55,000 firearms are legally imported to New Zealand each year. That is half a million guns over 10 years. He called yet again for the registration of firearms in this country, not just the licensing of owners. As he said, "I can obtain a firearms licence and buy 100, 200, or whatever number of firearms I desire and there is no record of the size of my cache, just a record of my licence to own."

If evidence was needed of how easily guns can pass out of licensed ownership, it was provided in June last year when the Whangārei District Court heard that a Northland woman and her daughter were shot by an unlicensed gunman who had bought 10 firearms on Trade Me using the name and licence of a Whangārei acquaintance. The latter admitted supplying firearms to him and also admitted unlawful possession of a military style semi-automatic.

The man accused of the mosque murders, Brenton Tarrant, was licensed to own firearms. He practised shooting his rifle at a gun club near Dunedin where he lived. Sensible as the licensing of guns as well as owners would be, it would not prevent someone obtaining all the necessary licences and committing mass murder.

Gun control will never be the complete answer to atrocities but it would help. A register of firearms owned by each licensed person would enable police to keep some track of them and to keep a closer eye on owners who are amassing quite a number of them. Too often mass murderers are found to have collected a sizeable arsenal in their home.

Innocent collectors and gun enthusiasts have no reason to oppose a register of weapons but they might still protest if sub-machine guns and the like are to be prohibited in private ownership. It is hard for the non-enthusiast to understand why they would want them.

But after this latest demonstration of their deadly potential they should be banned. No half-measures this time. Get them out of private hands.