Police Association President’s speech to Otago University firearms and public health seminar

NZPA | Wed February 14th, 2018

This morning, Police Association President Chris Cahill addressed a firearms and public health seminar run by the University of Otago. His speech was focused on how firearms impact on the health and safety of the Association’s members.

 

Address to Public Health Summer School, 14 February 2018

Chris Cahill

President, NZ Police Association

The Police Association welcomes the timing of this symposium because it is clear to us that New Zealand needs to have a co-operative, common sense conversation about firearms.

We need to avoid resorting to extremes which we see paralysing jurisdictions such as the United States. 

It has to be noted that the NRA has even inserted itself into our firearms debate labelling last year’s select committee recommendations as “onerous”, a “repugnant attack”, “burdening license holder’s rights”, ”extreme”, “misleading”, “invasion of privacy” and undermining the “right” to be armed.

There is no “right to be armed” and New Zealanders do not need such “assistance” as we tackle the public health ramifications of home-grown gun violence.

In our society there are many groups with legitimate interest in the availability, use and control of firearms.  The corresponding interest is how to prevent those guns reaching the hands of criminals.  

The Police Association exists to be the trusted guardian of the wellbeing of police and their families, so we have a 24-hours-a-day, 365-days-a-year stake in the impact illicit firearms have on the health and safety of our 11,000 plus members, and of course, the wider New Zealand community.

Being threatened with a gun should not be just part of a police officer’s job, but unfortunately it is increasingly so, on the front line in particular.

In our 2017 members survey one-in-eight constabulary reported being threatened by a firearm once or more in the last year.  That’s a 38% increase on the 2015 survey results.

On the front line the figure jumps to 21% threatened at least once in the last year.

As New Zealanders – from members of the public to policymakers – we owe it to those who are protecting us to take seriously their health and safety rights.

Advocating for public health is all about prevention of illness and injury.  

It is about promotion of healthy behaviour in every aspect of community life, including policing. 

The reality for our communities and for our police officers defies those who write off gun violence as “‘merely a phenomena restricted to gangs”.

Tell that to the Wellington taxi-driver shot in a late night debacle over a fare.

Tell that to Department of Conservation workers who have been shot at while on the job protecting our environment.

Tell that to the numerous dairy owners forced at gunpoint to empty their tills and cigarette shelves.

The Association’s beef is not with the majority of legitimate licensed firearms owners.

It is with the firearms threats our members face during routine policing because criminals have easy access to firearms.  We also question why so many firearms are imported every year.  

Customs OIA figures reveal between 50,000 and 55,000 firearms are legally imported into New Zealand annually.  That is more than half a million guns in the last ten years including high-powered hunting rifles, shotguns, pistols, semi-automatics, and restricted air guns.

The potential risks associated with some firearms are, to a degree, ameliorated through the endorsement system, but the numbers in these categories are still large. 

 The latest figures released by Police show they know of:

* 13, 331 MSSAs

* 40,605 pistols

* 1419 other restricted firearms, and

* 4,676 restricted sub machine guns (SMGs) and machine guns (MGs).

As a society we need to ask why, for example, seven thousand Kiwis need nearly 14,000 military style semi-automatic weapons between them? 

US research finds gun theft fuels the illegal weapons market and risk factors for having a gun stolen include owning six or more guns, owning guns for protection, carrying a gun in the past month and storing guns unsafely.

This is applicable to New Zealand where “issues of firearm safety, enforcement of storage laws and theft of firearms are factors which contribute to violence, injury and death of New Zealanders.”

When considering the public health ramifications of firearms we must focus on how criminals access weapons. Police told the Law and Order select committee the majority of illegal handguns have been burgled or ‘on sold’ by a licensed owner to someone without a licence. It seems pretty obvious that can be limited by 1: adhering to the highest standards of firearms safe storage, and 2: don’t sell guns to unlicensed people. 

According to some licensed dealers, the private firearms-sales business is thriving and often lands a better price for the seller. These dealers consider registration of individual weapons and a gun amnesty could counter what they describe as the “huge problem of private sales”.  

We also know the illicit firearms market is partly fuelled by organised criminals buying guns after successfully ‘turning’ collectors and licensed owners, “straw purchasing” on behalf of criminals and illegal importation of firearms and firearms parts.  

Under the current legislation 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.

Now you might say that Chris Cahill guy seems a fit and proper person and its fine for him to have tens or hundreds of guns, perhaps even a new MSSA which I saw currently advertised as the “civilian version of the standard issue rifle for the People’s Liberation Army of China!”

But, what about the patched member of the Headhunters who legally amassed 30-thousand-dollars of high powered and semi-automatic rifles over three years.  By the time Police went to revoke his licence and take his guns, he had already on-sold them.

Who knows where they ended up.

Way back during Sir Thomas Thorpe’s 1997 review of firearms control, he too noted how pressures on Police to respond to other priorities led to an under-resourcing of the Arms Office.

Our research also shows New Zealand authorities have no clear idea of just how many guns are out there and how many of them are illicit.

In answer to an OIA on the accuracy of firearms recording in the National Intelligence Application computer system (NIA) Police revealed

· there is little knowledge of the requirement to record seized or surrendered firearms;

· many firearms officers claimed they didn’t know about the national recording standards;

· multiple paper records and recording systems lead to inconsistencies, inaccuracies and make it difficult to collate accurate statistics.

This unacceptable level of inaccuracy should worry everyone in this room because it emphasises that we simply do not know the extent of what is essentially a hidden New Zealand arsenal.

In a further OIA last November, Police explained that with no requirement for registering firearms and no obligation to provide Police with firearms serial numbers, we can only estimate how many guns there are in New Zealand and Police says that estimate “will not be accurate”.  Police is also unable to reveal how many firearms have been stolen because individual weapons are not tracked.

For nine years Canadian police chiefs and police associations urged their government to maintain the country’s long-gun registry.  They argued knowledge of who possesses firearms helps prevent tragic events virtually every day in Canada.  An investigation by Mcleans magazine referred to “3.4 million reasons against scrapping the gun registry”, because that was the number of times the registry was consulted by police in 2009 alone.

Police considered the registry “a very basic step in Canadian police work” offering valuable information including whether a licensed gun owner is at a call-out address, and if so, how many guns and what type are registered to that address.  The threat level to officers could then be adjusted accordingly.

It was about balancing the loss of information the police obviously wanted, “against the benefit of relieving honest gun owners of the minor inconvenience and expense of registering.”

Indeed Montreal’s Premier – owner of two hunting rifles – couldn’t understand the registration fuss, declaring he’s “not at all traumatized by the fact of having to register” his guns.

The federal police organisations lost their fight, but Quebec fought on and 16 days ago, after years in the courts, 28 years after Canada’s deadliest mass shooting at a Montreal polytech and on the first anniversary of the Quebec City mosque shooting, the province’s very own long-gun registry came into effect. 

The Quebec Superior Court rejected the gun lobby’s final bid to stop the registry ruling that “the Quebec law is essentially about public safety.”

New Zealand missed an opportunity to prioritise public safety when the last government rejected all the meaningful recommendations to mitigate illegal firearms put forward by the Law and Order select committee last April.

Large numbers of gang members and professional criminals have long had access to firearms but they were generally well-hidden and they were expensive.

Now, the once natural instinct of criminals to hide their guns has all but vanished, indicating guns are no longer so expensive or difficult to procure.  Firearms of almost any type can be obtained relatively easily from within the criminal community. 

Put bluntly, criminals know that the current system which licenses the owner and not the firearm is easy to exploit, poorly policed and poorly monitored. As a result there are too many firearms and too many of the wrong type in the wrong hands in New Zealand.  

Whether we like it or not, we live by the truism that law enforcement has to be right all the time; to cause harm law breakers with a gun need to be ‘lucky’ just once.

I see daily reports of the front-line reality of illegal firearms. 

The three officers shot at with an MSSA in Morrinsville last year could so easily have been seriously injured or killed. 

It requires remarkable bravery to put on the police uniform and go to work every day knowing you might be staring down the barrel of a gun.  It is astounding how many are located in routine policing, searches of vehicles, suspects and properties, or, aimed at officers

I‘ll give you a brief synopsis of what our members face nationwide. I think you will get the picture.

Te Atatu – officers called to a fight and property search revealed 4  AR15 firearms, 226 .223 calibre rounds, 148 .22 calibre rounds plus 2 kilos of meth and approximately $2.65 million in cash

Papakura – a burglary 4 12-gauge shotguns, 3  semi-auto shotguns. 1 .308 rifle, 4000 rounds of 12 gauge ammo

Massey –  an AR15 with 60 .223 rounds and pistol located in storage unit

Waitematâ – search of an “A’ Cat licence holder’s property after several of the 42 firearms he’d purchased in the last year were seized from offenders, including gang associates

Bay of Plenty – a callout to an incident located 1 x bolt action Mauser rifle, 1 x semi auto Remington .308 rifle and scope, 1 x semi-auto Winchester,  1 x lever action Glenfield 3030 rifle and ammo

Whanganui - a 2.2 semi auto sawn off aimed at a police officer by an aggravated robbery suspect

Palmerston North – police confronted at an address by male with a loaded cut-down firearm

Levin – a warrant search of property located 4 rifles, 4 pistols, a shotgun and 540 rounds of ammo  

Christchurch  a traffic stop netted a heavily modified semi-auto .22, 2 sawn-off shotguns - the .22 pistol was placed behind the driver for easy access

Milton – a near miss when the trigger pulled on a firearm pointed at an officer thankfully malfunctioned 

Dunedin – a licensed owner burgled of several MSSAs, five rifles, 23 handguns and 25,000 rounds of ammo

Invercargill – a routine traffic stop revealed 5 illegal firearms, four of which were loaded with rounds in the chamber ready to fire.

That Morrinsville near miss and the tragic fatal shootings of two women in Whangarei last year made the news. Most firearms incidents like those I have just listed do not because police officers do their jobs so well.

On balance it is not entirely a bad thing that we don’t have a gun-focused news diet.

However the Association believes it is potentially problematic if, as a result, politicians and the public become complacent in a country that might be small on population, but is big on guns.

I am often told there is no use in registration of firearms because criminals don’t register their firearms.

I think we can agree on that.

However my point in advocating for a registry is to build it gradually and without onus on legitimate firearms owners by extending the ‘permits to procure’ process and, during licence renewals and safety storage inspections, the inspecting officer records serial numbers of all firearms present.

Surely a small country that registers its cars, boats, dogs, births, deaths and marriages can co-operate on accounting for lethal weapons – who has them, who has on-sold them, who has lost them or had them stolen. These weapons would be far more traceable than is the case now, and we would gradually build a more definitive picture of New Zealand’s hidden arsenal.

I don’t buy the seductive simplicity of the argument that registration is an ‘onus’ on law abiding gun owners.

This argument fits neatly into what is called the Lawbreaker Paradox that:

Law-abiding citizens obey the law;

Criminals are, by definition lawbreakers so they don’t obey the law;

Laws impose restrictions on the behaviour of those that follow them;

Therefore, laws hurt only law abiding citizens.

Illicit firearms possession and violence is an everyday issue in policing and simply sticking with the status quo is not working.

The select committee could have begun the change in critical areas such as recording serial numbers.  It defies logic that it is too onerous for Police to record serial numbers of firearms when they are already interacting with an owner through licences or inspection.

This time last year the Council of Australian Governments published its National Firearms Agreement.  It is based on the premise that “firearms possession and use is a privilege that is conditional on the overriding need to ensure public safety, and, that public safety is improved by the safe and responsible possession, carriage, use, registration, storage and transfer of firearms”.

That is a pretty sound definition of where firearms fit within a public health perspective. 

New Zealand could do well taking a good look at this agreement through the lens of public health on this side of the ditch.

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