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The statutory definition of an MSSA is laid out in the Arms Act. The Act, together with the Arms Regulations also specifies the controls over possession and use of MSSAs. The Act is administered by the New Zealand Police, according to policies documented in the Police Arms Manual.
Technically, an MSSA is any "self-loading" (i.e. semi-automatic) firearm, other than pistol, with any of the following features:
- Folding or telescopic butt
- Bayonet lug
- Free-standing military-pattern pistol grip
- Flash suppressor
- A magazine that holds (or looks like it could hold) more than 15 rounds of .22 rimfire or 7 rounds of any other cartridge.
Possession or use of any MSSA requires a firearms licence with either a "C" or "E" endorsement. The "E" endorsement allows MSSAs to be used with live ammunition; while the "C" endorsement is used by museum curators, collectors, film/TV/theatre armourers, etc. MSSAs are often colloquially referred to as "E-cat" firearms for this reason.
To be granted either endorsement, the applicant must demonstrate to Police good cause for possessing MSSAs. The application must be supported by 2 referees who are current endorsement holders, serving members of a firearms-related organisation, bona fide collectors or persons able to demonstrate a genuine long-term interest in firearms. The applicant must also demonstrate a higher standard of security for the storage of weapons than is required for ordinary firearms.
On 2 July 2009, the New Zealand Police issued a memorandum advising that the police had reviewed the criteria for classifying weapons as MSSAs; and in particular the interpretation of the phrase 'military pattern free-standing pistol grip' used in the legislation.
Under the new interpretation, many types of thumbhole stocks were now to be considered as pistol grips for the purposes of the Arms Act; any semi-automatic rifle with a grip having either the appearance or function of a military pattern free-standing pistol grip would be regarded by the police as an MSSA. Specifically, a semi-automatic rifle would henceforth be considered an MSSA if it had any of:
- an obvious pistol grip below the trigger guard allowing a full-hand pistol grip, irrespective of whether or not the pistol grip was connected to the stock at the base;
- any addition that connects the pistol grip to the stock or butt in an attempt to make it no longer free standing (such as adding a metal or plastic rod); or
- a second grip forward of the trigger.
This reinterpretation had the effect of re-classifying as MSSAs many weapons previously considered to be sporting-configuration firearms, including the Heckler & Koch SL8 and USC, and the Dragunov sniper rifle. Transitional arrangements were made by the police to allow owners of such weapons to either register them, obtaining the necessary firearms endorsements if required, or dispose of them. The transitional period ended on 31 March 2010.
The reinterpreation has met with resistance from some firearm owners. The National Shooters Association of NZ (formed largely as a result of the reinterpretation) laid a complaint on 12 August 2009 with the Independent Police Conduct Authority regarding the advertising of the change. In addition, proceedings were lodged by the Association's president Richard Lincoln at the High Court in Palmerston North on 29 June 2009, aiming to have the revised interpretation overturned. As at August 2009, neither of these proceedings were concluded.
In a subsequent hearing for an injunction to protect the litigant, Justice McKenzie ruled that the Police did not have the power to re-classify any firearm and that their opinion on the extended definition of pistol grips was "inconsequential" and that was a matter for the Court to decide. He also stated that the Court would not be constrained by any other 'opinion'
On 1 March 2010 Justice Mallon released a Reserved Decision upon the Judicial Review, stating that a Military Pattern Free-Standing Pistol grip was not what the Police HQ said it was and that the litigant's H&K SL8 firearm did not have a Military Pattern Free-Standing Pistol Grip.
The terms 'Military Pattern' and 'Free-Standing' were minutely examined by Her Honour and her finding recorded in the Reserved Decision.
The Police have ceased advertising their opinion and removed reference to the "Check Your Stock" campaign from their official website.
April 2011 Amendments
As of April 2011, an amendment to the MSSA section of the arms bill is being drafted. This bill aims to clarify the MSSA definition in regards to Airsoft and Paintball guns, as well as magazine capacities.
- Define a new category, "restricted airguns", as Paintball and Airsoft pistols/rifles either imitating MSSA's, or capable of fully automatic fire.
- Require an import permit for "restricted airguns".
- Specifically exclude "restricted airguns" from the category "especially dangerous airguns", i.e. PCP rifles.
- Allow the use of centerfire magazines with a capacity of 7 rounds that appear to be capable of holding up to 10 rounds.
- Fully automatic Airsoft and Paintball guns will be legal for import, purchase and use for any person (provided they are allowed to use an airgun in the first place). They will no longer be considered a MSSA rifle, will be legal to use in sport and will not require an E-category firearms license.
- Cheaply available imitation firearms, such as plastic airsoft pistols, will no longer be widely available, reducing the number of armed offenders callouts.
- Magazines and firearms designed to hold 10 centerfire rounds (an unofficial international standard, possibly influenced by restrictions in certain American states such as California) can be easily modified to comply with the 7-round A-category restriction by blocking the space required by the last 3 rounds (e.g. wielding a short piece of rod inside the bottom of a 10-round magazine).
- Arms Regulations 1992 (SR 1992/346)
- Police Arms Manual
- Police memorandum "Military Style Semi-Automatics firearms classification", 2 July 2009
- NSA NZ complaint to IPCA, 12 September 2009
- Richard Lincoln's "Save Our Butts" blog, tracking his proceedings in the High Court opposing the police reinterpretation
- Arms (Military Style Semi-automatic Firearms and Import Controls) Amendment Bill