Staring down $1b barrel?

Police could owe more than $1billion in compensation to tens of thousands of firearms users should a decades-old policy fail a court challenge, a lawyer says.

Since the early 1990s, police have been taking firearms and parts of guns off users before they will allow them to import certain types of weapons.

Gun users must hand over a similar firearm, or part, to their local police arms office before being allowed an import permit.

It's estimated that 10,000 people have had a firearm taken off them, and subsequently destroyed, meaning the police could face massive compensation claims.

An Auckland lawyer has filed an appeal against a decision he calls illegal and irrational, that requires him to surrender gun parts in order to be able to import new parts.

"If you go to a shop, you can buy 15 magazines. They say thanks for the money, but you try to import one and you get all these questions about why you want them," says the man, who does not want to be identified.

Police say the law requires a "special reason" to import certain types of firearms and the most common explanation is to replace worn parts, and therefore "the requirement to surrender the worn part is reasonable".

Specialist firearms lawyer Nicholas Taylor, who was recently involved for the defence in the Urewera four trial, said he believed the police had been acting illegally since 1996 because the 1992 Arms Amendment Act does not mention handing over property in order to get a permit to import.

"Parliament would never contemplate the police forcing people to give over their property to be destroyed in order to do something they are lawfully entitled to do."

He said the Arms Act contained compensation rights.

"Many statutes protect personal property so, if you have got something you have paid good money for and you are legally entitled to buy, then Parliament can't turn around and confiscate it and not compensate you.

"It's outrageous, really, and, in my opinion, unlawful. It doesn't matter how long it's been going on for, it's still unlawful."

Taylor said the problem was that a judgment had never been entered on the issue.

"If a judgment was in the favour of whoever took the case, the police would be looking at paying millions in compensation to all those people over all those years who have handed in rifles and magazines to be destroyed."

He believed court action had never been taken because gun owners were scared they would lose their licences if they challenged police.

National Shooters Association president Richard Lincoln said certain types of firearms, such as the semi-automatics often used in competitive shooting, were so highly sought that people were paying up to $10,000 for them, when in North America they cost as little as $200.

"Police have turned it into a sport that only the rich can participate in."

Lincoln said the association had calculated that, since the policy began in 1996, about $1b in property had been forfeited "under duress". Some association members had plans to file court proceedings later in the year.

In a 1992 case, the High Court in Christchurch stopped police from banning military-style semi-automatics, after the commissioner sought a ban without exceptions. The court ruled he had "acted beyond his powers" and was never authorised to impose the ban.

A police spokesman said the practice of requiring the surrender of parts of a weapon in certain circumstances had "been in place since the introduction of the Arms Amendment Bill 1992".

He said the amendment required that a permit to import a military-style semi-automatic or part could be issued only when the commissioner was satisfied there was a special reason.

"The rationale is that if such a weapon or part is so worn as to require replacement, and to stop the proliferation of these guns, the surrender of the worn part is reasonable."

Sunday Star Times