29 Apr 2019

Theft heightens police concern on securing guns before disposal

11:42 am on 29 April 2019

Police are having to reassure the public of their ability to secure guns safely ahead of the large scale buyback of prohibited firearms.

A selection of firearms which are now prohibited, on display to media at a police press conference.

A selection of guns that have been made illegal in the wake of the Christchurch terror attack. Photo: RNZ / Ana Tovey

Last Thursday, 11 guns were stolen from a secured area at the Palmerston North Police Station, one of which was an illegal weapon.

Police have arrested Alan James Harris, and he has appeared in court charged with burglary. By last night eight of the 11 guns had been found.

As a result of the theft, Police Commissioner Mike Bush has ordered an immediate nationwide audit looking at the security of firearms at police stations.

Deputy Commissioner Mike Clement is leading the police effort to take possession of thousands of banned firearms.

Mike Clement who is leading the work for police on the gun law changes spoke to the Finance and Expenditure Select Committee in Parliament about the styles of guns to be banned

Deputy Commissioner Mike Clement Photo: RNZ / Ana Tovey

The guns became prohibited after the government passed swift law changes following the Christchurch terror attack.

By Saturday morning, 385 illegal guns had been handed in, and more than 2000 people had filled out online forms saying they had a firearm to hand in.

Mr Clement told Morning Report the three guns which have not yet been recovered were believed to still be in the Palmerston North region and he urged anyone who had them to hand them in as they were "too hot to handle".

He said there would be an audit of police processes because although there were secure facilities at all police stations where firearms were held, regrettably in this case that standard was not met.

"We've said right from the outset that the least of our preferred options is that those firearms are handed in to and kept at police stations because even though we do have secure facilities at police stations, the reality is they were never built or intended for thousands or tens of thousands of firearms."

Mr Clement said the burglary of the 11 firearms in Palmerston North was a result of human error.

"Regrettably in this case for a reason we haven't got to the bottom of yet, those firearms weren't in the intended strong room, which the process requires."

Mr Clement said although guns handed in to police stations under the amnesty will be accepted, it is not the best option and police will be advising the government by mid-May as to the best way to deal with guns handed in as a result of the amnesty and buyback scheme.

He said a message went out to all of the police stations across the country after the guns were stolen in Palmerston North.

"Be very sure that your processes are working, you've got the facilities, use them."

Palmerston North police station

Photo: RNZ / Ana Tovey

Among the 11 weapons that were stolen at least one was a now banned firearm and several others had been handed in for destruction.

Police Minister Stuart Nash admitted he was concerned about what happened in Palmerston North, and he has sought fresh assurances that all stations can safely secure firearms.

Mr Clement said gun owners need to be patient and hold onto their firearms while the police work out how to safely store, and then destroy, the weapons.

"I think there'll be a variety of options available, but what I would restate is the fact that people should be patient while we work out what the process is going to be," he said.

"We will work out a process whereby people can keep their firearms secured as they currently do, under their existing licence and with the protection of the amnesty, and we will work out our processes for collecting those firearms from them."

Police have a number of options on the table for how guns will be collected. Mr Clement said one option would be to book in with owners, and for officers to then collect the guns in person.

He said at this stage police favour the idea of community pick-ups, as has occurred in Australia, so police would pick up the guns from gunholders' homes, or arrange for security hubs where the firearms could be dropped and would be secured properly and then put in to safe storage, where they will be tracked until they are destroyed.

Gun control expert Rebecca Peters

Rebecca Peters Photo: Supplied

International gun control advocate Rebecca Peters said Australia's gun buyback saw police go from town to town, but not door to door. They would set up in a town for about a week, inviting people to bring their guns and dump them into secured trucks.

"Basically people just handed them over, over the counter, and they stuck them in kind of rubbish bins behind them," Ms Peters said.

"When the rubbish bins filled up, they tipped them into the truck.

"Sometimes, the owner who was handing in the gun wanted to know that it was really going to be destroyed, so in some places they used a saw, on the spot, and just cut through the gun."

Ms Peters said police stations tried not to store masses of weapons, instead sending them straight to a steel mill to be melted down.

She said it was a worry that guns could be stolen from a police station in New Zealand, and said when the buyback starts, it should be a priority to destroy the guns as quickly as possible.

Mr Clement said the police are seeking advice from their Australian counterparts about how best to operate the buyback. Once decisions have been made, a large advertising campaign is expected to inform owners of how to hand in their guns.

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