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Police have stripped six gang members of their firearms licences this year in a test of new powers under changes to the country’s gun laws.
Under the tweak to the Arms Act which came into force last December, the police can consider whether someone is a member of, or affiliated to, a gang or organised criminal group when determining whether they are a “fit and proper” person to hold a firearms licence.
In the past, the police have had mixed success when trying to strip someone of their licence solely on the grounds of their gang membership.
The issue was raised in February when Act MP Nicole McKee – a former spokeswoman for a gun lobby group – revealed in Parliament that 12 people on the National Gang List could legally own guns.
At the time, Police Commissioner Andrew Coster told the Herald that police planned to test their new powers and revoke firearms licences from some of the 12.
Six gang members now have firearms licences, Police Minister Poto Williams has confirmed to Simeon Brown MP, the National Party spokesman for police.
Although he commended the police for taking action against the six individuals, Brown said it was “completely unacceptable” that six other gang members still had valid licences at a time of increasing violence with firearms.
He had introduced a Bill to make it illegal for gang members to get a firearms licence, among other changes to gun laws such as the introduction of Firearms Prohibition Orders (FPO), which had gone through Parliament’s select committee process.
Brown’s proposal was voted down last month by the Government, which in May announced its own plan to introduce FPOs as part of a crackdown on organised crime.
Individuals subject to an order cannot own, use, access or be around firearms and breaching the conditions will be a criminal offence.
“This Government is very clear that violent gangs and other criminals cannot continue to threaten, intimidate and exploit our communities,” Police Minister Poto Williams said in May.
However, the proposed law change has not been introduced to Parliament yet. A spokesperson for the Minister said this would happen “by the end of the year”.
Brown said the Government was putting “politics ahead of public safety” by voting against his bill and being slow to introduce its own FPOs.
“The fact that six gang members still hold valid firearm licenses shows that legislation is still needed to make it illegal for gang members to hold a licence.”
Of the six individuals on the National Gang List who no longer have a firearms licence, a police spokesperson said four licences had been revoked this year, one renewal application was refused and the other was in the “refusal process”.
Asked why six people on the National Gang List still had their licences, a police spokesperson said it is not a definitive list of gang membership and its primary purpose is not to count gang membership numbers or to be a reporting tool.
“The NGL is continually being verified and updated. Gang membership is fluid and difficult to quantify. Maintenance of the NGL requires substantial information collection and verification activity by both local and national staff.
“This means that the information held is only as accurate as the day it was collected, and the NGL is likely to be inexact, thus it should only be understood as indicative data.”
In an interview in February, Coster conceded that stripping someone of their firearms licence solely on the basis of gang membership – with no other criminal convictions or anti-social behaviour – would be “contentious”.
“The difficulty here is that being a member of a gang means there are strong expectations of loyalty that go with wearing a patch,” said Coster.
“And one needs to seriously ask the question, whether having access to firearms in circumstances where your loyalties are to the gang, means you’re a fit and proper person to have firearms.
“We will make our assessment, and ultimately the question of where the public interest lies will be decided by the courts.”
As yet, none of the six gang members who no longer have licences have appealed to the District Court to overturn the police decision.
Five years ago, police stripped the licence of Wade Victor Innes on the primary grounds that he was a patched member of the Bandidos gang.
This revocation was upheld by a district court judge but not just because of his gang membership.
Innes also repeatedly failed to tell police of his current address, a breach of the licence rules, and did not hand his licence over to police as required.
He was also evasive about the whereabouts of his firearms. The judge drew the inference that Innes could supply firearms to unlicensed members of the gang and dismissed his appeal because of the “cumulative effect” of his breaches, as opposed to solely because of his gang membership.
The apparent escalation in criminal possession of firearms is reflected in police statistics.
Ten years ago, 1735 people were charged with 2828 firearms offences and 860 firearms were confiscated.
Last year, those figures had increased to 2399 people charged with 4552 offences and 1862 firearms seized.
And although New Zealand’s criminals have long carried firearms to intimidate one another, police and underworld sources say criminals are now more willing to use them.
This year there have been a number of high-profile shootings between rival gangs in tit-for-tat turf wars and personal grudges.
Tracing the origin of firearms seized in police raids is difficult and time consuming, often without success. This year, the Herald revealed a specialist firearms team was established to focus solely on identifying the illegal supply chains.
“The focus will be on people who are diverting guns, converting guns and stealing guns for organised criminals,” Detective Superintendent Greg Williams said previously.
“Diverting” was essentially gun shopping by licensed firearms holders who then sold them on the black market, said Williams, while “converting” firearms was the current trend of modifying starter pistols to fire live ammunition.
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