Got the patches. Got the tasers. Get the guns?

Napier’s tragic siege will accelerate the provision of tasers to all frontline police. Whanganui can now ban gang patches in public. But why are tougher firearms controls so hard?

Everyone likes to think we should take a well-considered view of individual criminal acts that stir our blood. Events of the last week suggest there are times when careful consideration simply takes too long – and others when it is too short.

It is a moot point whether a taser would have stopped Jan Molenaar from executing Senior Constable Len Snee or wounding Constables Grant Driver and Bruce Miller along with his neighbour Leonard Holmwood. Nevertheless, when the Police Association called for an accelerated roll-out of the controversial tasers, the Prime Minister rapidly unveiled a budget commitment to provide them to all frontline officers in the next year.

As Jane Young affirmed in a recent Pundit column, there are some serious questions that should be answered before we conclude that the taser is a better, safer protective weapon than a firearm. Following a review by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Public Complaints Commission of 4,300 cases of taser use, RCMP officers are now only permitted to use a taser if they are in physical danger, or the public is in danger. The taser can no longer be used to shock people who are simply “actively resistant” to a Mountie’s orders.

The New Zealand Police guidelines on taser use are more permissive. Our police officers may use the shock weapon if an offender “poses a threat of physical injury” and protection or arrest “cannot be effected less forcefully”.

In a similar vein, too little time was given to considering either the inspiration or implications of the Whanganui gang patch law.

The spark that motivated support for the ban was the fatal shooting of two year-old Jhia Te Tua, who died from a shot fired randomly into a house during a clash between local Black Power and Mongrel Mob gangs. It would be a nonsense to suggest that her death could have been prevented by a ban on patches in public places.

Nevertheless, Whanganui now has the legislative authority to ban the wearing of gang patches in specified public areas of the city, although they are yet to define those areas and erect the necessary signposts. Then the city’s council has the problem of applying it in a defensible manner, before the thankless task of enforcing it falls to the police, who will then have to show why they supported it in the first place.

The Whanganui-specific law declares that Black Power, Hells Angels, Magogs, Mothers, Mongrel Mob, Nomads, and Tribesmen are subject to the patch ban. To expand the ban to other organisations, the Whanganui City Council must be satisfied that its members, associates, or supporters individually or collectively promote, encourage, or engage in a pattern of criminal activity – and define the offending insignia.

Whanganui’s mayor, the loquacious Michael Laws defends the patch ban on the grounds that it will diminish the gangs’ power to intimidate, to advertise their criminal activities, and recruit members. Gangs do not need patches to achieve any of those ends, as the city is likely to learn, unfortunately, at some considerable expense.

Gun control, however, has suffered not from rushed decisions, but from political stagnation. Too much time has passed since Sir Thomas Thorp tabled his recommendations for tighter firearm control in 1997. The Thorp review was conducted to examine the effectiveness of the Arms Act 1983, and the impact of amendments made after the 1990 Aramoana massacre in which 13 people, including one police officer, died under the firepower of an AK47 assault rifle wielded by David Gray.

Thorp noted that a United Nations draft report “put New Zealand towards the middle of the international scale of degrees of control save in the one respect of ‘a record keeping system for firearms’, where our abandonment of that type of control puts us in the minority of countries without such systems.” Thorp’s recommendations included the introduction of a weapon-specific system of firearms registration to complement the licensing of individual firearms users for periods of 10 years, which was introduced in 1992 to replace the previous system of lifetime licensing.

His major recommendations on the registration and tracking of individual weapons, and limiting the availability the more lethal classes of weapons frequently employed by criminals, were sidelined, largely on the advice of the police, who felt there were more important things to do at the time.

The last remaining relic from the Thorp report is a minor reform – providing control systems and record keeping for the export, import and manufacture of firearms – which has been gathering dust in our parliament for the last four years.

Of course, Sir Thomas carried out his review too early to identify the problem that would arise in 2002 when the first 10 year firearms licences came due for renewal. Jan Molenaar and no-one knows how many others simply slipped off the register and under the radar to build their caches of illegal arms.

Would adopting the comprehensive firearms controls advocated by Sir Thomas have averted the tragedy in Napier this month? He concedes in his 1997 report that, “there is no foolproof mechanism to prevent dangerous people from obtaining licenses, and unsuitable persons can and do get access to firearms even though they are unlicensed.”

However, the police could have been better informed about the risk of confronting Jan Molenaar if his recommendations had been adopted. At a time like this, they should not be forgotten.