Armed and dangerous
Gangs and other criminals in New Zealand are stockpiling illegal weapons to be used against each other and police.
Two shotguns, two military-style assault rifles, a silenced rifle, a handgun and thousands of rounds of ammunition . . . this nasty, but not unusual, collection of illegal firearms was hidden in a warehouse in Auckland until detectives from OFCANZ (Organised & Financial Crime Agency of New Zealand) unearthed the cache after a tip-off late last year.
The weapons didn’t belong to a gun collector or anyone with any remotely legal reason for having them. They were linked to an outlaw motorcycle gang, just one of the many gangs in New Zealand that have taken to hoarding guns and ammunition.
It’s part of an escalation in the number and range of illegal firearms being found in the hands of criminals. There is hardly a drug bust, or gang raid, these days that doesn’t turn up illegal weapons alongside the drugs, fake documents and wads of cash.
Firearms are also increasingly being found in vehicles stopped during routine traffic patrols and have been turned on officers by irritable and unpredictable offenders.
Last year, after a car chase in Hamilton, the driver emerged from his crashed vehicle brandishing a handgun and threatened to kill a dog handler at the scene before fleeing in a police vehicle.
Earlier this year, near Tauranga, an armed man attempted to carjack three cars and bullets were fired at three police officers following the pursuit of a fleeing vehicle.
Police are well aware of the proliferation of illegal weapons in the community. Hundreds are seized each year and about 900 firearms are stolen each year, only 600 fewer than reported stolen in Australia a year.
Above: CCTV footage shows the attempted armed hold-up of an Armourguard cash transit van at a South Auckland service station in June.
New Zealand also has a very high rate of armed robbery of armoured vehicles, compared with Australia, where both police and security guards are armed. According to security firm Armaguard, there are about six times as many armed attacks on New Zealand security vans as in Australia.
In November last year in Kaikohe, three members of the Rebels gang were arrested for armed robbery after they pointed a gun at a security guard. A shotgun, a rifle and a semiautomatic were recovered during the operation. Detective Sergeant Chris Fouhy said it was a reminder to all that gangs were involved in more than just drugs and stolen property. “They are prepared to put lives at risk,” he told the New Zealand Herald.
This year, for the first time, New Zealand Police were involved in Operation Unification, an Australasian wide two-week campaign aimed at getting illegal guns off the streets and encouraging the public to report firearms in the possession of unlicensed holders.
Coincidentally, on the eve of the campaign, on June 12, 15 legally held firearms and 5000 rounds of ammunition were stolen from a Bucklands Beach home in Auckland.
Over the two weeks of the operation, 47 weapons were recovered by police, including six each in drug-related busts in Wellington and Eastern District. A loaded, pump-action shotgun was also found in the roof of a house and air pistols were found in two gang-related incidents.
Above: Modified firearms such as those sold to gang members earlier this year by an Auckland man who legally bought the weapons before customising them to the needs of the criminal fraternity.
Easy to get a gun
According to the 2011 National Strategic Assessment paper, “Firearms of almost any type can be obtained relatively easily from within the criminal fraternity without needing to source illicit firearms from overseas.”
This year, an Auckland man admitted legally buying 74 rifles and shotguns over an 18-month period and “pimping” them to make them smaller and easier to carry and, therefore, more attractive to outlaws, who don’t generally have easy access to pistols in New Zealand. The modified weapons, sold to gang members and other criminals, had the barrel or stock cut down and grips and silencers were added. The offender was sentenced to six years’ jail.
Although the average New Zealander is unlikely to ever see one of these illicit weapons, the possession and stockpiling of firearms by reckless and potentially violent groups or individuals is an ongoing concern for all police officers. Frontline officers will encounter them in the course of their work.
In 2009, Constable Jeremy Snow and a colleague were investigating a suspected car break-in in South Auckland when they were fired on by an offender who turned out to be involved in Auckland’s drug trade. Constable Snow was shot four times, his life saved only by his police notebook that stopped a bullet entering his chest.
It was a close call for Constable Snow and an example of the clear link between the drugs trade and possession of firearms.
Assistant Commissioner Malcolm Burgess said in June: “We regularly receive reports of gang members using firearms for standover tactics and inter-gang rivalry, often as part of protecting illegal drug syndicates.”
Incidents such as that involving Constable Snow show that if officers encounter drug-related activity, and they are unprepared, they are at risk.
Becoming the norm
In Northland District, where 40 firearms were stolen last year, Inspector Marty Rush, at a residential address and later a shot was fired at a passing vehicle. Police said the incidents were related and were a dispute between two groups with gang associations.
A worst-case scenario involving illegal weapons became gruesome reality in 2011 when Jan Molenaar shot and killed Senior Constable Len Snee during what started out as a routine search warrant at Molenaar’s home, where, unknown to police, he had 18 guns, including semi-automatics.
The estimate used to be that there were about one million firearms in New Zealand. That’s just a guess now. New Zealand is awash with firearms. More than 200,000 were legally imported between 2000 and 2009 alone. Every criminal who wants a firearm can easily get one.
Over the past year, Police intel units have been attempting to build a more accurate picture of the number of illegal firearms held by organised crime groups, based on information from Armed Offenders Squad callouts and confidential informants.
The number of incidents is “unrelenting”, according to Police Association President Greg O’Connor. Every incident highlighted the fact that criminals in New Zealand were armed. “Those who claim that arming police would spark an arms race with criminals need to realise that criminals are already armed.” Although they were generally arming themselves for protection against other criminals, rather than against police, they still posed a serious threat to the lives of police officers or members of the public who were unfortunate enough to run into them.
In its recently released policy document, Towards a Safer New Zealand, the Police Association reiterates its support for the general arming of New Zealand police to promote officer safety. This includes planning and training for a new policing environment in which there is greater carriage and use of firearms by general duties police.
Left: Police armourer Ross Hewitt with illegal weapons, including semi-automatics, seized by police.