Kawerau siege: Is it time to look at our gun laws?
While the Kawerau siege ended peacefully, the alleged shooting of four police officers has raised the issue of whether cops need better access to firearms, as well as questions about New Zealand's gun culture. Can anything be done to stop similar situations? SAM SACHDEVA reports.
As alleged Kawerau gunman Rhys Warren was taken into policy custody, after an armed siege following the shooting of four police officers, it didn't take long for relief over the lack of fatalities to develop into scrutiny of how the incident occurred. The Kawerau siege is the fifth police shooting in the last decade, and has raised some familiar questions without straightforward answers.
Do our police need guns on them at all times? Why are more criminals getting access to, and using, firearms? And what can be done to stop a similar shooting occurring?
* Easier gun access likely for police
The last major change to police firearms access came in 2012, when police were given access to a lock-box of firearms in every frontline car.
That decision followed two high-profile cases of police shootings: the Napier siege in 2009, when Jan Molenaar killed one police officer and seriously injured two others, and a 2010 Christchurch shooting where two police officers were injured and police dog Gage killed.
The Kawerau siege is not an ideal example for those pushing for easier police access to guns: the police shot were not unwitting constables taken by surprise, but members of the elite Armed Offenders Squad, sporting extensive training and body armour which saved their lives.
MORE GUNS NO VOTE-WINNER
Tellingly, the idea of police officers toting guns on their hips isn't a vote-winner, either with politicians or ordinary Kiwis.
Most political parties are opposed to routine arming of police, while public polls have consistently shown a majority opposed to cops carrying guns on general duties.
Even Police Minister Judith Collins, known for her hardline stance on law and order, thinks the current lock-box access goes far enough.
"If they feel they need to take their firearms with them, they should err on the side of caution and take them...that does not mean every single officer having to be armed at all stages, that's a different thing altogether."
Police Association president Greg O'Connor, a long-term supporter of greater police access to guns, says talking about the topic now would distract from the main issue - how criminals are getting guns in the first place.
O'Connor says no police officers are surprised by the Kawerau shooting, coming on the back of a notable rise in firearms-related incidents which police have faced in recent years.
"There have been so many near-misses, so many times police officers have been shot at...this time, four officers weren't lucky."
He says the real arms race is taking place between criminals, with police the "collateral damage".
Labour's police spokesman Stuart Nash says there are a number of unanswered questions about whether more guns are illegally getting into the hands of the wrong people, and if so, how.
"Until we actually understand the real problem, the size of the problem, is very hard to make policy prescriptions."
David Clendon, police spokesman for the Green Party, agrees, saying getting a better idea of the supply of guns "might lower the temperature a bit in terms of people wanting to see the police routinely armed".
UNIVERSAL GUN REGISTRATION?
Clendon also says there is a strong case to revisit the idea of universal gun registration, scrapped in 1983, to get a better handle on how many guns are being used and by whom.
"That does seem a pretty obvious vulnerability in terms of making it easier for improper, indeed illegal trading in weapons to go ahead."
However, Collins says similar regimes overseas have proven "very ineffective and very expensive", while doing little to stop criminals accessing guns.
"All that will do is add a huge amount of work to police...for very little outcome, because all the people who are legally in charge of firearms would go and register them, and all the criminals wouldn't."
Instead she favours a regime of firearm prohibition orders, currently being developed, which would allow police to search the homes of those with previous gun offences to ensure they did not have any weapons.
'INDEPENDENT GUN INQUIRY' POPULAR IDEA
Nash is calling for an independent inquiry into gun culture in New Zealand society - a move which he says would make clear the scale of the problem without a "purely law and order perspective".
He admits solutions may be hard to find, but says doing nothing is not an option.
Collins supports the idea of an inquiry, and says Parliament's law and order committee is currently discussing whether to look into how gangs are getting hold of guns.
"There are some people very keen on that. If that is something that happens...that's the sort of thing where it would be very helpful to everybody."
O'Connor also backs an inquiry, saying "nothing will happen until we acknowledge that it's an issue".
"People who simply never should have access to firearms, have got access to firearms."
DRUG LAWS 'COSTLY, NASTY BUSINESS'
Another issue which the Kawerau siege raises is the country's drug laws, and the dangers that police face in enforcing them.
In Napier, Christchurch and Kawerau, it was a cannabis search or operation which led to a violent outcome in each case.
ACT leader David Seymour, who recently called for a discussion about drug prohibition due to its role in funding gang activity, says the public needs to weigh up the costs and benefits of enforcing drug laws.
"Prohibition is a costly, nasty business at the pointy end...we have prohibition in Mexico where Mexico is effectively a war zone between these rival factions, and in New Zealand of course there [can be] an unseemly and violent end to enforcing prohibition here too."
'WE'RE NOT LEGALISING P'
While the potential harm caused by increased access to drugs was a valid issue, Seymour says legalising cannabis would remove the incentive for dealers and growers to use firearms.
"We don't get a lot of violence around the food industry, we don't get a lot of violence around the car industry, because if you're in the food industry or the car industry, you have the protection of the rule of law."
It's an idea that gets short shrift from Collins, who says New Zealand's drug laws are in place for a reason.
"Are we going to similarly not criminalise drugs like methamphetamine because people like the Head Hunters don't like police going in and taking out their clan labs? The answer is no."
NO EASY ANSWERS
Ultimately, as everybody seems to acknowledge, how to curb illegal access to guns is a question without easy answers.
As Collins says, "Ultimately you're saying, how can we stop crime? That's what we're trying to do all the time."
O'Connor warns politicians against seeking a quick fix, saying a long-term approach is the only one that will succeed.
"Everyone's looking for, 'Let's take a pill and we'll fix the problem' - no we won't."
But as Nash says, "burying our heads in the sand" is not an option if we are to keep frontline police safe in a job that brings a growing risk to their safety.