Gun law in New Zealand
The gun laws of New Zealand are contained in the Arms Act 1983 statute, which includes multiple amendments including those that were passed subsequent to the 1990 Aramoana massacre and 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings.
Nearly 300,000 licensed firearm owners own and use New Zealand's estimated 1.5 million firearms. Gun licenses are issued at the discretion of the police provided they consider the person to be of good standing and without criminal, psychiatric or drug issues; as well as meeting other conditions such as having suitable storage facilities. Several different categories of license are permitted, with the most common, "A Category", permitting access to sporting configuration rifles and shotguns.
Tighter regulation was imposed immediately after the Aramoana massacre in 1990, the Scottish Dunblane and Australian Port Arthur massacres in 1996. After the Christchurch mosque shootings in 2019, legislation to restrict semi-automatic firearms and magazines with a capacity of more than 10 rounds, and provide an amnesty and buyback of such weapons was introduced and passed by the New Zealand parliament by 119 votes to one.
- 1 Current firearms law
- 2 History
- 3 Notable groups
- 4 Statistical indicators
- 5 See also
- 6 References
- 7 External links
Current firearms law
Gun laws in New Zealand focus mainly on vetting firearm owners, rather than registering firearms or banning certain types of firearms. Firearms legislation is provided for in the Arms Act and its associated regulations, though stricter unofficial police and government policies also apply. About 250,000 people hold a New Zealand firearms licence, although only one in ten own a firearm.
Grounds to carry or use guns
Under New Zealand law, some lawful, proper, and sufficient purpose is needed to use, discharge or carry any firearm, airgun, or similar weapon. The person carrying, using, or discharging the weapon is obliged to prove the purpose was lawful, proper, and sufficient. This requirement applies even if the person can legally possess the weapon. Exactly what constitutes a lawful, proper, and sufficient purpose is not defined in legislation and must be proven on a case by case basis. Hunting game, pest control and agricultural uses, sports, collection, and theatrics are all normally acceptable purposes but personal protection and self-defence are not.
Personal protection of VIPs
It is established New Zealand law and public policy that allowing privately owned guns to be carried by people who provide personal protection to VIPs, whether foreign or domestic, is not appropriate. Armed protection, if necessary, should be provided by the New Zealand Police or the New Zealand Defence Forces. The New Zealand Police has a Diplomatic Protection Service (DPS) that trains and provides protection officers to protect VIPs. DPS protection officers, unlike most New Zealand police officers, are routinely armed while on duty. A temporary exception was made for the 1999 APEC Summit, hosted in Auckland. The Arms Act was specifically amended to allow authorised personal protection officers of foreign dignitaries to carry their own firearms. This exception expired on 30 September 1999.
While the Crimes Act 1961 allows a person to use reasonable force to defend oneself or another person against assault or entry into a dwelling house, that force needs to be proportionate to any force being used to effect the assault or entry and not excessive.:48–56 Preemptive action in anticipation of a threat or retribution after the threat has passed are both considered excessive force by the courts. Even police actions when confronting armed offenders that results in death or injury of anyone are thoroughly investigated by the police, the Independent Police Conduct Authority and, in cases of death, the coroner.
There have been a number of cases where a member of the public has been justified in discharging a firearm that injured or killed an assailant. In 2006 a gun shop employee shot a machete-wielding armed robber with a handgun that was hidden under the counter. The court dismissed the charges that police laid. In April 2009, a Chinese restaurant and takeaways shop owner shot a masked armed robber with the robber's own gun after wresting it off him. Police decided against laying charges.
The driver of a vehicle is deemed to be the person who is in possession of any firearm in that vehicle, unless they can prove otherwise. Firearms cannot be left in unattended vehicles. Firearms carried in vehicles must be unloaded and any magazine must be empty.
Possessing a firearm or other weapon that could cause bodily injury or intimidate with the threat or fear of violence is an aggravating factor in criminal offending and can be a criminal offence on its own. Police responses to such behaviour can have potentially lethal consequences as the Police Armed Offenders Squad are trained to shoot to kill, not disable, if less lethal options do not resolve a situation.
Categories of firearms
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 any of the following components:
- A folding or telescopic butt
- A bayonet lug
- A military pattern free-standing pistol grip
- A flash suppressor
- A magazine that holds more than 7 rounds; magazines holding up to 10 rounds may be modified to carry 7 rounds. The limit on rimfire is 15 rounds per magazine.
- A detachable magazine that holds more than 10 rounds, excepting rimfire magazines, which may carry 15 rounds.
- 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, and support a surprisingly wide number of types. For example semi-automatic AR-15 style rifles are permitted in this category provided they can only hold 7 or less rounds as well as meeting the other criteria.
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 the direct supervision (i.e. arm's reach) of a licence holder, a person who possesses or uses firearms needs to hold a firearms licence issued by the police. Firearms licences are issued for 10 years, but can be revoked at any time if police believe the person is no longer fit and proper to possess a firearm.
Visitors to New Zealand can apply from overseas for a 1 year visitor's licence based on their existing licence in their country of residence, though frequent visitors are encouraged to apply for a 10 year licence. Licence holders who possess or use pistols or military style semi-automatic firearms, as well as collectors, require additional endorsements. Firearms dealers and their employees need an annual dealers licence for their place of business. Only licence holders can buy, sell, or exchange firearms; permits to procure are needed for restricted firearms and licence holders must have appropriate and current endorsements. Importing or exporting personally owned firearms requires additional permits, and the importer or exporter must be a current licence holder with appropriate endorsements.
To become licensed, the applicant must be a fit and proper person over the age of 16. They also need to have adequate secure storage for firearms, attend a safety program administered by the Mountain Safety Council, pass a written safety test, pay the requisite fee, and supply passport-standard photographs with their application. Police also individually interview the applicant and two referees, one of whom must be a close relative and the other unrelated, to determine the applicant's suitability for a license. The applicant's residence is also visited to check for appropriate storage of firearms and ammunition and to ensure any other people living there are not a security risk.
Having criminal associations or a history of domestic violence almost always leads to a licence being refused. An application can be refused if the applicant has indicators of drug or alcohol abuse, criminal associations, a history of domestic violence, or a physical, mental health or disability issue that would prevent them possessing or using a firearm safely. Previous denied applications or revoked licences may also be cause for denial.
A standard licence allows the use of "A Category" firearms. To possess firearms of another category, one must receive an endorsement by meeting 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
- Applicant must attend at least 12 club activities (either at their home club or to another recognised club) in a financial year
- Applicant is normally limited to 12 registered pistols
- Pistols must be of an approved sporting type
- 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
- Applicant must provide proof of a need to own restricted weapons, such as for collecting and movie making
- Firearms must be stored in an inoperable condition
- Firearms cannot be used with live ammunition, but are allowed to fire blanks for movie making and re-enacting
- Firearms can only be transported to an approved display venue, re-enactment event or to another collector for sale
D Endorsement – Dealers licence
- Applicant must renew the endorsement annually
- Applicant must maintain a written record of firearm purchases and sales
- Applicant must maintain additional security requirements
- If selling restricted weapons, applicant must receive endorsements for restricted weapons
E Endorsement – Military-style semi-automatics
- A new class of restricted weapon that was created after the Aramoana shooting spree. At the time, anyone with an MSSA that wanted to keep it in that configuration was given a E endorsement (after going through the vetting and extra security requirements). 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 an individual working for a dealer to demonstrate a pistol, military-style semi-automatic, or collectable weapon without having to have the corresponding endorsement. Individuals with this endorsement may demonstrate these weapons, but cannot possess one for personal use.
Buying and selling
Anyone buying firearms or ammunition, whether privately or from a dealer, must 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. Previously, New Zealand allowed for the ownership of military-style semi-automatic weapons, which they refer to as MSSAs, and a legal loophole allowed many people to purchase them without a special designated license. The loophole exists as MSSAs are classified by their parts so slight modifications can mean an MSSA can be purchased with a regular licence (Rosie Perper).
Up to 1983
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. As a largely agricultural society of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, long guns were a familiar tool for many people and outdoor pursuits involving guns, such as hunting, were often a source of food, and sometimes provided an income as well. 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 New Zealand 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 to 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.
Arms Act 1983
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 of guns 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.
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 a permit-to-procure when they were sold or lent. The Arms Code advises firearms owners to transport their firearms in a padded cover or hard case, so guns are now rarely seen in public.
Special restrictions applied to restricted weapons and pistols, which needed to be registered. However, the new sport of target pistol shooting became more popular, and pistol club shooters can own pistols with a special "B" endorsement.
Aramoana and the 1992 amendments to the Act
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 by 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.
In 2019 after the Christchurch mosque shootings John Banks said that he was "haunted" by not being able to persuade his cabinet colleagues to ban semi-automatic guns after the Aramoana massacre in 1990.
Thorp Report 1997
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 in May 1996 that the system was sound and that no major changes were needed.
The government decided in August 1996 to order an independent report, this one led by former judge Thomas Thorp. His report was released in June 1997 and was the most comprehensive and detailed review of the 150 years of firearms controls in New Zealand. Thorp's report explored how New Zealand had arrived at its existing legislation, its underlying principles, its effectiveness compared to other countries, its administration and cost. Thorp made numerous detailed recommendations in 28 different areas. His recommendations called for many new restrictions on legal gun ownership, including setting up a separate Firearms Authority to overhaul the licensing process, restricting ammunition sales to just the firearms owned, banning various firearms features, that licences be renewed every three years to keep track of changes of address and that all guns be registered (the last being particularly unpopular with firearm owners).
Criminologist Greg Newbold appraised Thorp's recommendations and concluded that while Thorp's report was a valuable snapshot of firearms and their use in New Zealand, it would be politically difficult to implement most recommendations and would depend on the additional resources the government was prepared to devote to implementing them, though he doubted their cost effectiveness in any case. Newbold also argued that none of Thorp's recommendations would have prevented any of the post-1990 massacres, because criminals would still have access to unlawful guns that were not subject to any controls, in any case only another massacre would generate enough political will to implement Thorp's recommendations.
Arms Amendment Bills 2 and 3 (1999 to 2012)
In April 1999, in anticipation of the APEC summit September of that year the Arms Amendment Act 1999 was passed, giving the power to authorise "any foreign personal protection officer" to carry "firearms, airguns, pistols, and restricted weapons, and such quantities and types of ammunition as are specified...", but this automatically expired on 30 September 1999.
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 March 2012, an order of the day for a second reading of the Arms Amendment (No. 3) Bill was discharged.
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. However, the High Court rejected this attempt in Lincoln v Police  BCL 194; 33 TCL 11/2. Parliament subsequently amended the Arms Act as a result of the court decision.
In 2015, a TV reporter demonstrated how to subvert processes to purchase a gun by mail-order. Police promptly changed their mail-order processes and commenced a criminal investigation.
In March 2016, after Police seized 14 illegally owned MSSA weapons in a raid in south Auckland and 4 officers were shot during an armed siege in Kawerau, Parliament's Law and Order Select Committee announced an Inquiry into issues relating to the illegal possession of firearms in New Zealand. In their final report the committee made 20 recommendations, of which the National government accepted 7 and modified another. The government introduced the Arms (Firearm Prohibition Orders and Firearms Licences) Amendment Bill to implement several of the recommendations shortly before the 2017 election but it lapsed with the change of government. It was subsequently drawn as a private member's bill but it failed to pass at the first reading. The Minister also directed Police to improve their administrative processes and consultation with the firearms community.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was the chair of an executive committee which in 2018 ushered through amendments to the Arms Regulations 2002, to allow Police to accept and process various applications concerning firearms licences and weapons transactions electronically. The Arms (Electronic Transactions) Amendment Regulations 2018 were published in the Gazette on 20 December 2018. Previously under the Arms Act, if someone wanted to become a gun dealer, get a firearms licence, import a restricted weapon, or get a permit to buy a military-style semi-automatic, they had to physically deliver an application to their nearest police station. The regulations also allow for a buyer of a restricted weapon to show that weapon to police by video call – whereas in the past they had to take it into the station.
2019 Christchurch mosque shootings
In the wake of the mosque shootings in Christchurch, Prime Minister Ardern announced: "Our gun laws will change, now is the time... People will be seeking change, and I am committed to that." Ardern continued by stating, "There have been attempts to change our laws in 2005, 2012 and after an inquiry in 2017. Now is the time for change." Attorney-General David Parker was later quoted as saying that the government would ban semi-automatic guns, but he subsequently backtracked, saying that the government had not yet committed to anything and that regulations around semi-automatic weapons was "one of the issues" the government would consider. On 20 March 2019, Ardern announced that all military style semi-automatics and assault rifles would be banned. The first step in this process was taken on 21 March by reclassifying most semi-automatic firearms as "military style semi-automatic firearms" for the purpose of the Arms Act 1983, pursuant to section 74A(c) of the statute.
On 10 April, the Government passed the Arms (Prohibited Firearms, Magazines, and Parts) Amendment Act 2019, banning semi-automatic firearms, magazines, and parts. The Arms Amendment Bill was supported by all parties except the opposition ACT Party's sole MP David Seymour. In addition, the government announced an amnesty and buy-back scheme for prohibited firearms and components, which was later extended to 20 December 2019. As part of the buy-back program, the New Zealand Police organized a series of nationwide local collection events for gun owners to hand in prohibited firearms. By 22 July, over 2,000 guns had been handed in at buyback events in Auckland and Wellington over the past weekend.
On 22 July, Prime Minister Ardern announced a second series of gun reforms including creating a national firearms register, tighter restrictions on who can obtain a firearms license, and a ban on overseas visitors buying guns in New Zealand while still allowing them to bring personal firearms into the country. The New Zealand Police's union, the Police Association, has supported the establishment of a national gun register and welcomed the government's proposed reforms. Police Minister Stuart Nash announced that the Government would be drafting a new bill to codify these proposed reforms, which would be in August with a three-month select committee process to follow. In late August, a draft version of the Government's proposed new gun laws was leaked to the opposition National Party. National gun spokesperson Brett Hudson claimed that new legislation could lead to doctors "dobbing" in patients.
On 13 September 2019, Prime Minister Ardern and Police Minister Nash announced that the Government would be introducing an Arms Legislation Bill in late September. This proposed bill would create a firearms register in order to stop the flow of guns to criminal groups. It attracted criticism from the National Party and gun lobby groups, who claimed it would punish lawful firearm owners and gun clubs instead of criminals. According to Al Jazeera and Reuters, more than 19,100 firearms and 70,800 gun accessories have been surrendered to the gun amnesty as of mid September 2019. According to the Small Arms Survey, New Zealand has the 17th highest rate of civilian gun ownership with 1.5 million firearms distributed over a population of under 5 million.
The New Zealand Police administer and enforce the Arms Act 1983. New Zealand is one of the few countries in the world where police officers routinely go unarmed. They are issued Bushmaster XM-15 semi-automatic rifles, Glock 17 gen 4 pistols, and Tasers, which are normally carried in patrol cars and not on the officers.[relevant? ] However, the Police Association, which represents police officers themselves, has called for gun registration and routine arming of police because officers report they more frequently encounter criminals who are prepared to use firearms against police, or find firearms at crime scenes or during search warrants.
The New Zealand Police Association, the police union / service association, has repeatedly lobbied for greater access to firearms for police officers, as well as stricter regulations on licensed firearm owners.
The Council of Licensed Firearms Owners (COLFO) was set up in 1996.
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.
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.
Previously influential groups that are generally no longer active include the Coalition for Gun Control, and Gunsafe NZ. These groups were led by activist Philip Alpers and Mike Meyrick, a former police officer and lawyer.
A new lobby group, Gun Control NZ, was launched in May 2019 in response to the Christchurch attacks.
Positions of political parties
New Zealand's main political parties, Labour and National, generally treat gun control as a bi-partisan issue. Both supported the passage of the Arms Amendment (No. 3) Bill.[clarification needed]
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 Green Party supports an increase in legislative restrictions on public access to firearms. The Greens' policies include the full ban of private ownership of all semi-automatic firearms and the reintroduction of a national firearms registry.
The New Zealand First party supports the rights of New Zealanders to own and use firearms safely and responsibly for hunting, sport, pest control, target shooting, and Home Defence (Castle doctrine). The party does not support calls for universal gun registration, preferring the licensing of individual users. New Zealand First believes restrictions on firearm ownership by type should be dictated by functionality rather than appearance.
The Thorp inquiry found that reliable information was not available to answer basic questions about the number and types of firearms owned, used, traded, sold by the army, lost, stolen, or destroyed; people owning and using firearms legally or illegally; surrendered, revoked or refused firearms licences; relicensing compliance; crime committed with firearms; and the cost of administering licensing and enforcement.
Firearms licence holders
This section relies largely or entirely on a single source. (March 2019)
Nearly 250,000 people currently hold a New Zealand Firearms licence. In 1997, Thorp found that in 1982, prior to the introduction of lifetime licences, police had estimated there were about 300,000 firearms owners who could apply for a lifetime firearms licence under the 1983 Act. By 1991, there were 327,000 lifetime licence holders who were required to reapply for a 10 year photographic licence or surrender their lifetime licence. Thorp estimated that by 1998 only 204,000 would do so, given a 60% call-in compliance rate, which suggested between 90,000 and 120,000 licence holders had not responded to the call-in notices, likely because of difficulties in contacting them. Poor record keeping by police of surrendered lifetime licences prior to 1994 further complicated matters.
The number of people who own or use guns in New Zealand is not known. Anyone over the age of 18 can own or use an air gun or antique firearm; these do not need to be registered provided the gun is not a restricted weapon. A range of firearms that are used as agricultural or construction tools do not require a firearms licence. Holding a firearms licence does not imply a person owns the gun they possess or use; the firearm could be owned by a business or organisation, club, dealer, or another licence holder, or be part of a deceased person's estate and held on trust for safekeeping. Thorp noted that a 1989 survey found that 9% of licence holders did not own a firearm. A survey conducted for Thorp's 1997 review found 20% of New Zealand's households had a gun, with about 1.8 gun users per household. These statistics provide an estimate between 350,000 and 400,000 New Zealand gun users.
There are an estimated 1.5 million firearms in the New Zealand civilian armory, although this figure may simply be extrapolated from estimates made by Thorp in 1997 and could therefore be an overestimate.
In 1997, Thorp estimated there were between 750,000 and a million firearms in New Zealand, He also believed about three-fifths were rifles and about two-fifths were shotguns, though the exact ratio is uncertain because different surveys used provided different estimates. Details of the majority of firearms are often known only to their owners.
The number of unlawfully held firearms is even more uncertain. Thorp estimated that there were between 10,000 and 25,000 firearms owned by people with criminal intent, along with possibly another 100,000 "grey guns", held by unlicenced individuals, but not intended for criminal purposes.
Since only pistols and military style semi-automatic firearms need to be registered with police, their numbers are more certain, though changes in legislation mean that if a firearm was not registered at the time, it might remain unregistered.
Apart from the Thorp report, most statistical information about firearms numbers, licensing and trading is only available from the New Zealand Police. Although the police publish some information in annual reports or when reporting to Select Committees, most information is made available only as a result of requests for Official Information. In June 2018, police announced that they would proactively publish responses to Official Information Act requests that contained data or information about firearms that might be of wide public interest.
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