A father’s carelessness with a rifle in a remote part of the East Coast led to his son being seriously wounded. Photo / Gisborne Herald
An East Coast man waded into the sea desperately trying to find phone service after his carelessness with a loaded rifle he was not allowed to have seriously wounded his teenaged son.
The 16-year-old is
permanently maimed and no longer has one of his shoulder blades.
His father subsequently pleaded to possession of a firearm without a licence and careless use of a firearm causing injury.
Sentencing the man this week in Gisborne District Court, Judge Warren Cathcart imposed 17 months’ imprisonment but converted it to eight-and-a-half months’ home detention.
The decision to convert the sentence was a “close call”, the judge said as a message needed to be sent to others who might similarly injure people through illegal and misuse of firearms.
The man, who for legal reasons cannot be named, was tearful as the judge emphasised things “all could’ve gone horribly wrong” had the man not been able to get a rescue helicopter to the scene.
What made it worse, the judge said, was that while waiting for police and the helicopter to arrive, the man conspired with his son to concoct a lie about how the injury happened to prevent himself from getting in trouble.
“Why that was your focus was beyond me, I would’ve thought your focus would’ve been wholly on the 16 year-old boy who had just been shot.”
Father hid rifle behind a dune
The incident happened on March 2 this year when parts of the East Coast had been isolated in the wake of cyclones Hale and Gabrielle.
The man and his son were living remotely in a small bach only accessible by driving a four-wheel vehicle along a beach at low tide.
According to an agreed summary of facts, they had been to get supplies, including some old tyres which were were put in the rear compartment of the ute.
As they were making their way back along the beach, the man stopped to get a .308 rifle he kept hidden behind a dune.
It was loaded and he wasn’t permitted to have it. His firearms licence had been previously revoked for firearms offending.
He put it on top of the tyres.
They continued driving along the beach and as they did so the teen, who was in the rear passenger side seat, reached over the back to try to steady the rifle as it was bouncing around.
He accidentally touched the trigger and the gun went off. A bullet shot through the centre of his spine, went laterally across his back, and exited out his shoulder causing a large wound. The bullet carried on through the glass in the passenger side window.
The man stalled the ute. He got out and desperately searched for cellphone coverage, wading out into the sea where he managed to connect through to emergency services as the signal quickly faded.
While a rescue chopper was on its way, he and his son decided to say the injury was caused by something exploding in a rubbish fire, alluding to a bullet being inadvertently thrown into the fire.
The man even went back to his bach and made a fire to fit the story.
Both later made written statements to that effect.
The father said he threw the rifle into the sea although that was not able to be confirmed by his son and it was never recovered.
His son spent weeks in Waikato Hospital where he had reconstructive surgery. Judge Cathcart noted the teen’s affected shoulder blade couldn’t be saved and he lost normal functioning in his arm.
The man changed his explanation for the wound after doctors said the injuries weren’t consistent with the initial story.
Man only used rifle for hunting
Counsel Leighvi Maynard said police accepted the man only had the rifle for hunting. He and his son relied on it to get meat, especially at that time when the Coast was so isolated and grocery supplies were short.
The incident had caused significant emotional impact and trauma for the man and his wider family.
He and his son still had a relationship although the teen was now living with his mother in another centre.
While it was accepted the court needed to impose a sentence that would deter the general public, it didn’t need to impose one that would be personally deterrent for the man.
No sentence could match the lesson the man had plainly already received by the incident itself, Maynard said.
He conceded the man had previous firearms convictions but that he hadn’t been in court for any type of offence since 2012.
It was difficult to find similar cases and in many ways hunting ones didn’t equate, Maynard said.
He submitted the sentence starting point should be between 18 and 24 months imprisonment and that it could appropriately be converted to home detention, given there was no need for personal deterrence.
Judge Cathcart said the offending was serious by virtue of background, careless judgement and deliberate concealment.
“You put a loaded rifle in the back of your vehicle knowing your son was nearby and that you weren’t permitted to have a firearm.
“It was highly careless.”
The man had only been thinking of himself when he tried to cover his tracks by lying, the judge said. However, he accepted that was no doubt motivated by panic.
The judge agreed the hunting cases were not really comparable – they usually involved licensed firearms holders.
He noted that even then, one of those cases had resulted in a prison term despite being within range for conversion to home detention.
Setting a sentence starting point of 24 months’ imprisonment, the judge uplifted it by one month for his previous firearms convictions.
Although they dated back to 1992 and 1996, they were relevant as they were mainly for the man’s disobedience to his licence revocation by being found in possession of firearms on multiple occasions, the judge said.
There was six months’ discount for the man’s early guilty pleas and two months’ discount for remorse.