Police plan to revoke the firearms licences of gang members to test new powers given to them under recent changes to the country’s gun laws.
Under the tweak to the Arms Act which came into force just before Christmas, the police can consider whether someone is a member of, or affiliated to, a gang or organised criminal group when determining whether they are a “fit and proper” person to hold a firearm licence.
In the past, the police have had mixed success when trying to strip someone of their licence solely on the grounds of their gang membership.
The issue was raised again in Parliament last week by new Act MP Nicole McKee – a former spokeswoman for a gun lobby group – was able to confirm that 12 people on the National Gang List could legally own guns.
Police Commissioner Andrew Coster told the Herald that staff has already taken action to strip the licences from some of the 12 individuals, which he anticipated would end up in court.
“In the past, we’ve had a patchy response from the courts as to whether simply being a gang member was sufficient to revoke or decline someone’s licence. With the new legislation coming into effect, there is now a specific provision relating to that,” said Coster.
“That’s the question we will need the courts to answer. That’s what we want to test, but it’s by no means clear cut.”
Coster was unable to give a breakdown of how many of the 12 licences would be revoked. This was because police staff were still working out whether the dozen licence holders on the National Gang List were, in fact, still gang members.
Someone’s name will be added to the list when sighted by police wearing gang patches or colours, said Coster, but not necessarily removed if they leave the gang.
“The fact your name is on the list doesn’t necessarily mean you are an active gang member today,” said Coster in confirming the limitations of the data first raised by gang researcher Dr Jarrod Gilbert.
“That is a really fair point. That list was created for intelligence purposes, not to give us an accurate statistical picture of gang membership or activity. We’ve got some work to validate whether all 12 are still gang members.”
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Some of the individuals had held a firearms licence for decades and only recently had gang associations, said Coster, while others had gang links for years but got a firearms licence more recently.
In opposing many of the changes to the gun laws since the Christchurch mosque shootings, the Council for Licensed Firearms Owners (which McKee represented until being elected as a list MP for the Act Party) has often said law-abiding gun holders have been penalised instead of gangs.
But COLFO opposed the specific gang provision in the “fit and proper” criteria for a licence.
“The vagueness of the language in regard to gang association, means that many people, who should be licensed will not do so because they will believe they could be caught by this provision,” COLFO wrote in submissions on the draft legislation.
“Having a family member in a gang should not prevent you from being part of the licensed system. COLFO strongly supports reducing criminal access to firearms, but providing a loose arbitrary test like this will not prevent their access. It will only decrease compliance.
“People who are discouraged from applying for their firearms licence are likely to obtain firearms on the black market.”
Coster conceded that stripping someone of their firearms licence solely on the basis of gang membership – with no other criminal convictions or anti-social behaviour – would be contentious.”
“The difficulty here is that being a member of a gang means there are strong expectations of loyalty that go with wearing a patch,” said Coster.
“And one needs to seriously ask the question, whether having access to firearms in circumstances where your loyalties are to the gang, means you’re a fit and proper person to have firearms.
“We will make our assessment and ultimately the question of where the public interest lies will be decided by the courts.”
If successful in revoking licences on the basis of gang membership alone, Coster is hopeful of creating new case law.
Five years ago, the police stripped the licence of Wade Victor Innes on the primary grounds he was a patched member of the Bandidos.
This revocation was upheld by a district court judge but not just because of his gang membership.
Innes also repeatedly failed to tell police of his current address, a breach of the licence rules, and did not hand his licence over to police as required.
He was also evasive about whereabouts of his firearms. The judge drew the inference that Innes could supply firearms to unlicensed members of the gang and dismissed his appeal because of the “cumulative effect” of his breaches, as opposed to solely because of his gang membership.
Coster’s comments about the planned revocations of gun licences come a few days after he announced a six-month nationwide operation to target firearms and organised crime groups.
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