Want a gun, no questions asked?

PHIL DOYLE/Sunday Star Times

Liquor store owner Navtej Singh was shot dead with a .22 calibre - the same sort of rifle the Sunday Star-Times bought online last week, without a licence, for less than $100. Leigh van der Stoep and Tony Wall investigate.

It takes just a few minutes and not much cash to buy a gun on the internet. No questions asked, no licence required.

After the murder of liquor store owner Navtej Singh, the Sunday Star-Times decided to investigate how easy it was to buy the same sort of rifle that killed him. All we needed was a computer.

We found dozens of guns for sale on TradeMe from gold-plated AK-47s to clapped out old rifles.

While some are being sold by licensed gun shops, which insist on receiving a form signed by a police officer before putting the goods in the mail, other private sellers make no mention of licences.

We picked one of these, someone in Auckland selling a single shot, .22 rifle, and found the transaction ridiculously easy.

Yesterday there were nearly 550 shotguns and rifles listed for sale on TradeMe. About 10% of those listings appeared to be private sales, many of which made no mention of firearms licences. Registered dealers say police have done little to enforce what is one of the most lax systems in the world.

"It's terrible, we've been warning the police about this for some time now, and nothing has been done," Auckland gunshop owner Ray Carvell said.

Private sales of firearms are legal, but selling a gun to someone without a valid licence is punishable by up to a $1000 fine or three months in prison. The onus is on the seller to check the buyer has a current licence.

Anyone who buys a gun without a licence can be charged with unlawful possession of a firearm punishable with up to a $5000 fine or four years in prison.

A licensed gun owner observed the Star-Times' transaction from nearby and supervised the handling of the weapon after the trade.

Gun dealers have told the paper of cases where people without the correct licences have bought military-style semi-automatic weapons online.

Other online auctions, such as American-registered e-bay, have banned the trading of firearms. Another prominent Auckland gun dealer, who asked not to be named, said Australia banned classified advertising of guns 10 years ago because authorities "recognised back then this would be a problem".

Gun collector Steve Harman said: "This is the only country in the world as far as we know where you're allowed to do this. It's bloody disgusting."

But police seem to have washed their hands of the issue, telling the Star-Times "it's up to TradeMe" to ensure firearms sold on the site changed hands legally.

Police media relations manager Jon Neilson conceded police relied on TradeMe to alert them to unlawful trades even though the company would have no way of making sure sellers were sighting firearms licences when guns change hands.

TradeMe manager for trust and safety Dean Winter said he was "very, very disappointed" with this response and that it wasn't only the company's responsibility. "We have a fantastic relationship with police arms officers. They are aware of how stringent we are..." TradeMe sought advice from police regularly to update its policies and close possible loopholes.

He said TradeMe users listing a firearm had to complete an online declaration stating they had a relevant licence and the gun they were listing fell within the proper category. But the declaration does not ask for sellers' licence numbers and relies on people's honesty. Winter pointed out that it was an offence to lie on the declaration.

Carvell said: "We've got a system in place that is trusting people to do the right thing."

Only sporting rifles and shotguns category A firearms are allowed to be sold on TradeMe. The concerns that dealers hold are that AK-47 semi-automatic rifles can be easily modified to a more dangerous E-category by changing a cartridge.

Winter said TradeMe has tried to address this by not allowing the sale of gun parts that can be used to upgrade.

TradeMe had not received any complaints about illegal sales and would quickly review its policies if there was any suggestion of wrong-doing. Its firearms sales were monitored and regulations updated frequently, Winter said.

He was keen to identify the person who sold rifle to the Star-Times but the paper has chosen not to reveal this information.

Neilson said police could only enforce the law as it stood and any specific examples of possible wrong-doing would be investigated.

One dealer said the problem was with private sellers. Registered full-time dealers did not take chances and followed the law to the letter rather than risk losing their livelihood.

Police were not interested in investigating the wrongdoing of private sellers because it was too difficult and time consuming, he said.

"There's nothing stopping them from saying I saw his licence it's your word against theirs."

Carvell said TradeMe had a "moral responsibility" to ensure guns were not being bought on its site illegally and possibly used in crimes.

National Party police spokesman Chester Borrows was surprised and concerned to hear New Zealand was probably the only country in the world to allow such online sales.

There was growing interest in the firearms issue following recent high profile crimes involving firearms, he said. "I would expect the police to be looking at this, and the minister. National will be looking at this if we get in later this year."

SMOKING GUN

By TONY WALL

When I set out to buy a gun, I had visions of having to enter the criminal underworld, meeting some dodgy gang member in a dark alley.

But all I really needed was a computer.

I selected a .22 being auctioned in a private sale.

The seller said he didn't know how old it was (about 60 years old, I later learned), but it was reliable and good for possums, other small game or practice.

I won the auction it was the first and only weapon I bid for and arranged to meet the seller at his workplace. At this stage I had no idea if he would insist on seeing a licence before selling me the rifle. I have never held a firearms licence and have no idea how to operate a gun.

I drove to the man's workplace in an industrial estate in east Auckland. He seemed to hold some kind of managerial position, was well presented and friendly. He was Chinese-born. He explained that he liked to go hunting and was off to the mountains this weekend.

I handed over the cash the gun cost less than $100 and he produced the rifle from his boot. He told me I might like to have the sights adjusted. He didn't ask if I had a licence and I didn't raise the issue.

I took the rifle to a gun shop and handed it in. They test-fired it and it was in working order. If I had not handed it in, it would have disappeared from the system altogether because in New Zealand it is the owner, rather than the weapon, who is licensed.

I couldn't believe how easy it had been to buy a gun. As the guys at the shop said, how was the seller to know that I wasn't a violent husband, out to exact revenge on a spouse? They pointed out that although not a high-calibre weapon, the .22 was responsible for more civilian deaths around the world than virtually any other gun. 

KIWIS AND FIREARMS

New Zealand has one of the highest rates of gun ownership in the world per capita and police estimate there are about 1.1 million guns in the country.

Recent figures show Kiwis are increasingly taking up arms with three times as many getting gun licences in the last two years than previously. Firearms licences for gun owners were introduced in 1983 before that gun owners needed only to be registered along with their firearms. The Arms Act means no one under 16 can hold a firearms licence and possession of a firearm without a licence carries a maximum fine of $1000 or three months in prison. A 1992 amendment to the Arms Act removed the possibility of lifetime firearms licences and required gun owners to renew their licences every 10 years. This allowed police to assess whether the applicant was a "fit and proper" person. It also required the registration of all military-style semi-automatic firearms which were classed E and required a special licence.

A bill before parliament seeks to further update and clarify the issues of firearm registration and licensing. It will not consider registering all guns, something which had been earlier called for.  

Sunday Star Times