1 Nov 2015

Fired up over firearms

From Insight, 8:12 am on 1 November 2015

The burglars knew exactly what they wanted and where to go to get it

They ignored valuable farm equipment but honed in on a wooden gun cabinet hidden away inside a cupboard.

Listen to Insight - NZ Awash with Guns?

This was one of the many firearm thefts that are carried out in New Zealand every year.

Gun theft

There are no official figures on the number of firearm stolen each year Photo: 123RF

It was a typical farmer's garage with piles of stuff everywhere, but this dairy farmer, who wants to remain anonymous, could lay his hands on anything he needed at a moment's notice: he had 16 guns, ranging from antique weapons through to modern hunting rifles, locked away. Now he has none.

"I had the boat outside and I guess when they saw that go, they knew I had gone as well."

Three people are thought to have arrived at the deserted property on a fairly quiet road near Morrinsville. One of them kept guard, sitting on a chair outside (the farmer suspects this, anyway, because the chair was moved), while two others broke a back door to get into the double garage.

They used an axe-type grubber to smash their way into the gun cabinet.

"They didn't get it open easily because they wrecked it all and wrecked the locks."

"They ignored the house and went straight to the garage, so they knew that was where the guns were located," says the farmer.

There are about 1.5 million guns in this country, but no one really knows what type or where they are: New Zealand licences the firearm owners, not their weapons.

Rifles standing upright in rack with flouro price tags

A gun shop in Te Awamutu Photo: RNZ / Andrew McRae

Police say they are not as concerned about the number of firearms in the country, as they are that they are properly secured.

In the farmer's case, his guns were securely locked away, but not in the latest metal, multi-lock cabinets now available and recommended by police.

Officer is pictured sitting at his desk in uniform

 National manager for police response and operations, Superintendent Chris Scahill Photo: (Supplied )

Police have no official figures they can release on the number of guns reported stolen, as gun theft is not an offence separate from theft, although they do say they have rough working figures they use for guidance.

There is no clear gun theft trend, either up or down, according to police national manager for response and operations Superintendent Chris Scahill. 

New Zealand has one of the highest number of firearms per person amongst developed countries.

The Police Association, the union representing most police staff, is not at all happy with New Zealand's gun laws.

President Greg O'Connor says it is too easy for criminals to get guns and he wants to know why.

"This has been highlighted by recent attacks and confrontations between members of the public and police officers," he says.

Attacks on police traditionally involved knives and blunt weapons, he says, but now offenders have firearms.

Senior Sergeant, Greg O’Connor.

President of the Police Association, Greg O'Connor Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

Mr O'Connor wants a ministerial inquiry into gun laws and says it needs to happen before there is another mass shooting like the 1990 Aramoana massacre, when David Gray shot and killed 13 people, before he was shot by police.

He says an inquiry would quickly show if the 1983 Arms Act was working and whether it needs tightening up. It could also uncover how many illicit firearms are in the country, he says.

Mr O'Connor thinks it would be a no-brainer that restrictions would follow, limiting how and where people can buy guns.

"You have got dealers trading out of houses in the back streets of Counties-Manukau and all of their trade is done online."

When talking to gun owners who are concerned an inquiry would impact on their firearms use, he asks them one question: "How many people do you know that have firearms that you deep down know shouldn't?"

Mr O'Connor says they usually instantly think of one or two people they know should absolutely not have a firearm.

Paul Clark outdoors with gun after shooting a deer

Paul Clark, chairman of Colfo Photo: ( Supplied )

But that argument is challenged by Paul Clark, the Chairman of Colfo, the largest voluntary shooting-related organisation in the country. He questions the need for an inquiry when New Zealand does not have a high rate of gun-related crime.

"Most of the people who own firearms are responsible." he says.

An inquiry would be of little value, he believes.

"I just think better enforcement of the existing laws, in terms of more money and resources coming from the police budget, would most probably achieve far more, more positively than a commission of inquiry."

Vern Wilson Gunsmith and Gunshop sits on the main street of Waikato's Te Awamutu. It's something of a paradise for keen hunters, seemingly stocking everything anyone could possibly want or need for the great outdoors.

Dave Gibson manages the store and says the "horse has bolted" when it comes to tracking individual guns.

He says it would have been better to have stuck with the old system where the authorities knew the location of every gun but now it is too late.

Still, Gibson will not sell a gun to anyone he thinks is not a suitable owner.

"There is the odd person who has come in and we thought, 'nah, they were a bit nuts'."

Man with impressive moustache stands in from of shop gun rack

Dave Gibson manages a gun shop in Te Awamutu Photo: RNZ / Andrew McRae

Police are reviewing gun licensing, looking at the training available to potential gun owners and the minimum age at which people can own a gun.

Superintendent Chris Scahill says raising the age limit is something police, and society in general, probably need to look at.

But, the Police review is a work in progress, he says, and will be implemented in stages.

"It won't happen all at once, but it will happen."