Where do all the guns come from? We don’t know for sure, but there is a gaping disparity between the number of firearms recovered by police and the number of firearms reported stolen.
Official Information Act figures released by Police show that the number of guns reported stolen or lost between January 1, 2015, and August 21, 2021, was: 5370 stolen and 168 lost – a total of 5538. Only 1698 of the stolen weapons had a recorded serial number of some type. Only 310 weapons were recorded as recovered, so 5228 remain stolen or lost.
During the same period, Police recovered 10,402 guns from searches – 4864 more than were reported stolen – of which at least 8551 are of a type that must be licensed.
It is an offence to fail to report the loss or theft of firearms.
So, where do all these firearms come from and what accounts for the gaping disparity between seizures and reported thefts?
Possible sources include unreported thefts, illicit supply, importation and self-manufacture.
Many non-firearm thefts are not reported to Police or are only reported as a requirement of an insurance policy. There is an active disincentive – possible prosecution and loss of licence – to report a loss arising from negligence or non-compliance with licence conditions. If no one knew you had the firearm that was lost or stolen, then detection for the offence of failing to report the theft is highly unlikely without self-reporting.
The existing regime of not registering firearms has a significant flaw that enables a private individual with a firearm licence to supply a gun to anyone else with virtual impunity. Although the law requires a private vendor to check that they are transacting with a firearms licence holder, there is no mechanism to ensure that they actually do this. Neither party is required to record or register the transaction.
This system relies entirely on trust with obvious business opportunities for the unscrupulous. It is easy to buy an old rifle or shotgun for as little as $40-$50 through Trade Me, which could then be on sold for considerable profit to an unlicensed person.
A variation is the “straw buyer” who buys weapons on behalf of the unlicensed. For example, in 2020, Ricky Galliers and Christopher Philpott bought weapons on behalf of meth dealer Gordon McRae, their offending only being detected due to McRae being subject to a surveillance operation.
From January 1, 2015, to June 30, 2020, Customs intercepted 5156 firearms and 8484 parts of unspecified types of firearms. Resulting prosecution activity is unknown. Despite significant border enforcement, drugs and other contraband are still successfully imported, and some weapons must be successfully illicitly imported.
The nature of self-manufactured weapons makes it difficult to know how prevalent they are. Shinzo Abe, a former Japanese prime minister, was assassinated in July this year with a home-made firearm. Three-D printing will enable some, possibly most, firearms components to be made. Self-manufacture still requires access to appropriate materials and skill, and existing component parts are useful in the process.
The registry will require the recording of ownership of licensed weapons and transactions relating to those weapons. Under the new regime, the penalty for failing to report a loss is significantly increased from $500 to $10,000. Weapons must be marked with identifying numbers. Failure to comply with the registry requirements carries other significant penalties.
The registry specifically addresses the issues of unreported thefts and sales.
It is likely to close loopholes regarding sales and will enable better detection of “straw buyers”.
The increased penalty for unreported theft may result in greater reporting of thefts and encourage more responsible storage. Reducing the availability of weapon parts or old weapons for modification may assist with preventing self-manufacture, but registration is unlikely to be useful in respect of illicit importation.
The registry will rely on self-reporting initially. As licence holders are overwhelmingly law abiding, a high degree of compliance should be anticipated, but registration will not be complete. Unreported weapons will still be available, and further measures such as an ongoing amnesty campaign should be considered.
Registration will not instantly nor fully address illicit firearms ownership, but is likely to make obtaining a firearm significantly more difficult for the unlicensed.