Will National take a bullet for gun control?

The government's announcement of tougher penalties for knife crimes is a preamble to the bigger, harder issue – gun control. Will it have the courage to tackle our gun culture in this political climate? And what about online sales?

Isn't it curious how quickly we forget? Fourteen months ago today, police were exchanging shots with Jan Molenaar in Napier and sending LAVs up to his front door. The next day the 51 year-old was found dead and eventually police discovered 18 guns in his house. A nervous public started debating gun control.

Yet the discussion fizzled as the government ordered reports and refused to engage while the matter was before the courts – the usual political stalling tactics.

Time has been bought and – perhaps this is a good thing – the steam released from the debate. Best of all, while the politicians have delayed and the police have reviewed, we haven't seen any more Molenaar-like gun violence. But the latent debate is about to re-commence. The police report on gun control that was ordered by Police Minister Judith Collins after Molenaar's siege is due on her desk soon.

The minister's office tells me the police are looking at "a range of options" in considering improved gun control, so really, everything's on the table.

No matter what the police recommend, the core question will be this: while the government has hinted at its willingness to take on the drinking culture in this country, will it also dare to tackle our gun culture? Or will potential accusations of "nanny state" convince it to lower its sights?

This week Justice Minister Simon Power took on knives, saying that he was determined to stop knife-crime escalating. Tougher laws, he says, will mean more public safety. And presumably what's good for the knife-goose is also good for the gun-gander, right?

What the government will come up against, of course, is just how much we love our guns in this country. A little more than four million of us own an estimated 1.2 millions guns. Well, to be precise, those guns are owned by 225,000 licenced gun owners. Police have no idea how many unlicensed guns there are out there, but 50,000 people who owned guns in 2002 have failed to renew their licence and haven't handed over their guns. Former Police Minister Richard Prebble has told me he suspects the number could be as high as a few hundred thousand.

When Molenaar embarked on his 50-hour siege people started remembering the landmark Thorp report from 1997, completed after the Aramoana tragedy. It recommended three main changes:

  • an independent registry for guns, not just licences for gun owners. It's the system they have in Australia, Canada and Britain. We licence drivers and register their drivers, why not do the same for weapons?
  • a buy-back of military-style automatic weapons. Really, there's no need for them. They're not hunting weapons and are way more powerful than anything needed for self-defence.
  • and third, gun owners should have to re-apply for their licences every three years rather than every ten.

Justice Thorp used both barrels in his report, saying "police have not been able to adequately enforce compliance" and "there is a need for radical reform of the firearm laws". But the pro-gun lobby is strong in this country and the good judge's intentions were thwarted..

The Thorp recommendations still sit on the shelf as we wait for the Arms Amendment Bill to finally get dealt with by our politicians. Will the police report have the wisdom to recommend implementation? Can Commissioner Howard Broad offer improved gun control as a parting shot? Will Police Minister Judith 'Crusher' Collins risk her popularity with the 'lock 'em up, but love your gun' crowd?

It's probably one of those political issues that only the party least inclined to act can dare tackle. Y'know, how left-wing governments can get away with more free-market reform and right-wing governments can be kinder to minorities without suffering the damage of political stereotyping. Labour is assumed to be a party of do-gooding liberals, therefore takes care to look tough on guns and crime. On the other hand National, assumed to be farmer-loving tough nuts, may just have the political cover to make some changes.

Its problem, if it is so inclined, is that the ETS has already created tensions between this government and its farmer base, and its need to stay on side with rural New Zealand may undermine any gumption it has to act.

One area where it could take aim, however, is the sales of guns online. Collins has already said that the law on gun sales needs updating. Stings by media from the Sunday Stary Times to 60 Minutes have shown journalists buying guns off TradeMe without a licence. Piece of cake.

New Zealand is out of step internationally in the way it allows people to buy and sell deadly weapons online. As far back as 1999 E-Bay decided to pull guns from its site, yet TradeMe continues to deal in all manner of guns as if they are no different from porcelain miniatures or second-hand furniture.

It would be an easy start for the government, and may just make us a little safer. If it can promise to limit the sales of knives, why not guns? Or are we just going to forget the lessons of Aramoana and Napier, until it happens again?