Gun politics in New Zealand

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About 230,000 licensed firearms owners own and use New Zealand's estimated 1.1 million firearms.[1] As in Australia, but unlike the US and Canada, gun laws usually gain the support of both major parties before they are passed. Guns are not currently a major political issue, but have been immediately after the Aramoana massacre in 1990, and the Scottish Dunblane and Australian Port Arthur massacres in 1996.

Various governments, groups behind the Thorp report, and the New Zealand Police[2] have pushed for various forms of universal firearm registration. This has currently not succeeded but current manoeuvrings by the New Zealand Police are attempting to reclassify large numbers of 'A' category firearms as 'E' category (MSSA), which requires them to be registered. This has been done though even by their own admission[3] the New Zealand Police cannot reliably register the current MSSA firearms.

In March 2009 the New Zealand police bid to reclassify certain types of civilian semi-automatic firearms was overturned by the New Zealand High Court as a result of a legal challenge mounted by the New Zealand National Shooters Association (NSA) president Richard Lincoln.

Current firearm law[edit]

New Zealand's gun laws are notably more liberal than other countries in the Pacific and focus mainly on vetting firearm owners, rather than registering firearms or banning certain types of firearms.[4] Firearms legislation is provided for in the Arms Act and its associated regulations, though stricter unofficial police and government policies also apply[citation needed].

Categories of firearms[edit]

Firearms in New Zealand fall into one of four categories:

  • Pistols are firearms shorter than 762 mm (30 in).
  • Restricted Weapons include machine guns, selective-fire assault rifles, grenades and rocket launchers. This category also includes some non-firearm weapons such as pepper spray. Cabinet can declare things to be restricted weapons by regulation.
  • Military-Style Semi-Automatics (MSSAs) include semi-automatic rifles and shotguns that have one or more of the following components:
  • A Category firearms are those that do not fall into any other category, and are the vast majority of legally-owned firearms in New Zealand.

Registration is not required under the law but the police carry out a regime similar to registration for all but "A Category" firearms. Firearms in any other category require a "permit to procure" before they are transferred.

Except under supervision of a licence holder, owning or using firearms requires a firearms licence from the police. The licence is normally issued, under the conditions that the applicant has secure storage for firearms, attends a safety program administered by the Mountain Safety Council and passes a written safety test. The police will also interview the applicant and two referees (one must be a close relative and the other not related) to determine whether the applicant is "fit and proper" to have a firearm. The applicant's residence is also visited to check that they have appropriate storage for firearms and ammunition. Having criminal associations or a history of domestic violence almost always leads to a licence being declined.

A standard firearms licence allows the use of "A Category" firearms. To possess firearms of another category a person is required to get an endorsement to their licence. There are different endorsements for different classes of firearm but they all require a higher level of storage security, stricter vetting requirements and the applicant must have an end use for wanting the endorsement. Be it pest control for E cat, cowboy shooting and 3-gun for B cat, or just wanting to collect (provided one has adequate storage security) for C cat.

Each endorsement type has additional requirements

B Endorsement – Target (Competition) pistols

  • Applicant must be a current financial member of a pistol club, a financial member of Pistol New Zealand (or in some cases membership of an approved club) and have attended at least 12 club shoots in the last 6 months before they can apply
  • Applicant must be sponsored by their club
  • The endorsement holder must attend at least 12 club activities (either at their home club or to another recognised club) in a financial year
  • Normally limited to no more than 12 pistols registered to their licence
  • Pistols must be of an approved sporting type i.e. barrel length of more than 10 cm (3.9 in)
  • Pistols can only be carried to and from the range in a locked container with ammunition in a separate container or to a gunsmith
  • Pistols may only be shot on a Police approved pistol club range.

C Endorsement – Restricted Weapons Pistols can also be held on the C endorsement instead of the B. Common special reasons include:

  • Collecting (must provide evidence in the form of books, club membership, collection of A type firearms), Museum curator, Family heirlooms and Theatrical.
  • C category firearms must be stored in an inoperable condition
  • Can never be used with live ammunition, but blanks are allowed for movie making and re-enacting
  • Can only be taken to an approved display venue, re-enactment event or to another collector for sale.

D Licence – Dealers licence

For those that make an income from firearms. To sell restricted weapons the dealer also needs to have the appropriate endorsements.

  • Renewed annually
  • Further security requirements
  • Must maintain a record (usually a book or register) of firearm purchases and sales.

E Endorsement – Military Style Semi-Automatics (M.S.S.A)

New class of restricted weapon that was created after the Aramoana tragedy. At the time anyone with an M.S.S.A that wanted to keep it in that configuration was given a E endorsement (after going through the vetting and extra security requirements). But presently few are issued. Common reasons for wanting an E endorsement are professional pest destruction, collecting, 3-gun and service rifle shooting. Those people that did not want the extra hassle and expense of the endorsement converted their rifles into 'A' configuration by removing the components that made it an 'E'.

F Endorsement – Dealers Staff Licence

This class allows a person working for a dealer to demonstrate a Pistol, Military Style Semi Automatic or a Collectable weapon without having to have that class of licence. They can demonstrate one but not possess one for personal use. This is not a well known endorsement

Buying and selling[edit]

Anyone buying firearms or ammunition, whether privately or from a dealer, needs to show their firearms licence. In addition, a permit to procure must be obtained prior to the transfer of pistols, military-style semi-automatics and restricted weapons. Sales can be made by mail-order, but a police officer must sign the order form to verify that the purchaser has a firearms licence.

History[edit]

Firearms first arrived in New Zealand with European traders and were traded in large numbers to the native Māori. This lead partly to the Musket Wars of the early 19th century. The first gun control laws were enacted in 1845, but early regulations were ineffective until the passage of the Arms Act in 1860, which required licences and registration of firearms and firearm dealers. Early laws were mainly targeted at Māori during the land wars in the Waikato and Taranaki, and were largely suspended at the end of the 1880s. By about 1910 the laws were ignored and unenforced, as crime and the threat of political unrest were minimal.

Strikes in 1912 and 1913, a Communist revolution in Russia, and large numbers of ex-military guns coming into the country after World War I were used as justification for a new law in 1920. The new law required the registration of all firearms and issuance of a "permit to procure" before a firearm was transferred. Semi-automatic pistols were banned and a special permit was needed for other pistols (e.g. revolvers), with the intent of discouraging the carrying of concealed weapons. Few changes were seen for the next forty years as crime remained low and the country avoided political violence.

Increasing gun crime in the 1960s led to greater police use of registration records, which were generally inaccurate or out-of-date. A project to check the register began in 1967, and found that 66 percent of entries were inaccurate in some way, with many guns not be found at all. Police thought that the register was largely useless, and that substantial resources would be needed to keep it up-to-date. It was believed that the government would be unlikely to provide the resources required to update the register and that it would be politically difficult to demand registration information from firearm owners. Various new laws were introduced in the 1970s and 80s, proposing more government checks, registration of shotguns (which had been abandoned) and individual licensing.

An internal police report in 1982 criticised the proposals, saying there was no evidence that registration helped to solve crimes, and that registration would use time and money better spent on other police work. This policy was adopted by the government in the 1983 Act.[5]

The 1983 Arms Act[edit]

The 1983 Arms Act abandoned registration for most long guns, as Parliament felt it was prohibitively expensive and not particularly useful. The philosophy of the new system was to control users, rather than firearms. Police were required to conduct a background check before a licence would be issued (though existing owners would be issued a licence automatically), but once a person had a licence there was no requirement to register long guns or obtain permits to procure when they were sold or lent.

Special restrictions applied to restricted weapons and pistols, which needed to be registered. Self-defence was no longer a valid reason to have a pistol (Although the Crimes Act 1961 states a person can use "reasonable force" to defend ones self and/or property and nowhere in this act states a person cannot use a firearm for such purposes while the arms act does not mention "directly in words" one cannot use a firearm for self-defence) but the new sport of target pistol shooting has become more popular and pistol club shooters can own pistols with a special "B" endorsement.

Aramoana and the 1992 Amendments[edit]

After the Aramoana massacre in November 1990, John Banks, the Minister for Police, announced that the government would ban what he and others described as "Rambo-style" weapons and substantially tighten gun laws generally. The law was eventually passed in 1992 and required written permits to order guns or ammunition mail-order, restricted ammunition sales to firearms licence holders, added photographs to firearms licences, required licence holders to have secure storage for firearms at their homes (which would be inspected before a licence was issued), and controversially required all licence holders to be re-vetted for new licences which would be valid for only 10 years.

The law also created the new category of "military-style semi-automatic", which like the Federal Assault Weapons Ban two years later in the United States, mainly covered the appearance rather than the functionality of the guns. These required a special endorsement, security and registration in the same manner as pistols, but could be used wherever A-category guns could.

The Thorp Report to today[edit]

After two shootings by police in 1995, the government ordered an inquiry into police procedures for storing and using firearms. Before the review started, massacres overseas at Dunblane and Port Arthur led the government to expand the scope to gun control generally. The police reported that the system was sound and that no major changes were needed.

The government decided to order another report, this time led by former judge Thomas Thorp. The report was released in 1997 and called for many new restrictions on legal gun ownership, including banning various features, and particularly unpopular amongst firearm owners, that all guns be registered.

The National government in 1999, its last year in office, introduced an Arms Amendment (No. 2) Bill to implement the recommendations, and the bill was supported by the new Labour government. After the strong weight of submissions made against the bill when it was in select committee the government was persuaded that the changes were unneeded and would be difficult to implement. Due to the opposition, the bill was withdrawn. The government then introduced a much reduced Arms Amendment (No. 3) Bill which increased penalties for distribution, manufacture and use of illegal weapons. It has been in select committee since 2005, and the government has not shown any sign of proceeding with it.

In August 2009, the Police decided that any firearm, including single shot bolt action rifles, with a free-standing pistol grip that could allow the firearm to be shot inaccurately from the hip would be defined as an MSSA.[6] However, the High Court rejected this attempt in Lincoln v Police [2010] BCL 194; 33 TCL 11/2.

In 2013, the Police have set up a hunting safety campaign titled "No Meat Is Better Than No Mate".[7]

Notable groups[edit]

Enforcement[edit]

The New Zealand Police administer and enforce the Arms Act 1983.[8] They are issued M4 rifles, Glock pistols and Tasers, which are normally carried in patrol cars and not on the officers.[9]

Lobby groups[edit]

The Sporting Shooters Association of New Zealand is a part-time lobby group that is usually only active at elections and when there are government calls for gun control laws. It is smaller than COLFO. Opinions vary on how "radical" vs. how "soft" these two organisations are.[citation needed]

The National Shooters Association is a nationwide civilian gun owners association that took the forefront in a 2009 legal challenge against unauthorised police interference with gun regulations. Its executive is largely made up of former members of the Practical Shooting Institute, a predecessor group which had similar success bringing court action against Police interference in 1990.

The two major anti-gun groups in recent years have been the Coalition for Gun Control, and Gunsafe NZ. Neither is still active, but were led by activist Philip Alpers and Mike Meyrick, a former police officer and lawyer.[13]

Positions of political parties[edit]

The main parties, Labour and National, generally treat gun control as a bi-partisan issue. Both support the passage of the Arms Amendment (No. 3) Bill[citation needed].

The ACT[citation needed] and Libertarianz parties advocate the ownership of guns for self-defence.[14]

The Outdoor Recreation party was formed in 2001 to support hunting and sport fishing. It failed to gain any seats in 2002, and again in 2005, when, with the United Future party, it contested the election.

The Progressive Party and Green Party both support an increase in legislative restrictions on public access to firearms.[15][16]

The New Zealand First Party supports the right of New Zealanders to own and use firearms safely and responsibly for hunting, sport, pest control, target shooting, and other lawful purposes. The Party does not support calls for universal gun registration, preferring the licencing of individual users. New Zealand First believes restrictions on firearms ownership by type should be dictated by functionality rather than appearance.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

External links[edit]