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Nz Gun Laws - Firing Up For Further Debate?

26 March 2013

Given the controversy about gun laws in the United States, it is interesting to note that New Zealand has not been without its own controversy on the subject.

The December 2012 shooting in the United States, in which 26 people lost their lives at Sandy Hook Elementary School, has placed increased pressure on President Obama to reform current laws in the USA, which are not considered stringent enough.

Concern has also been expressed about an unrestrictive approach to gun laws in New Zealand. Current law in New Zealand simply requires that the owner of a gun be registered but does not require the owner to register the gun itself. There are concerns that the current law allows gun owners to have possession of a large number of weapons but doesn’t provide any means to keep track of how many guns are out there, where they are stored and whether they might fall into the wrong hands.

Currently, owning or using a firearm 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 lecture and passes a written test.

The Police will also interview the applicant and two referees to determine whether the applicant is “fit and proper” to possess a firearm. The Police will visit the applicant’s residence to ensure there is appropriate storage for firearms and ammunition. If the applicant has criminal associations or any history of domestic violence their application is almost always declined. A standard firearms licence allows the use of “A Category” firearms. To possess firearms of another category requires a person to get an endorsement to their licence.

Recently, one major anti-gun lobbyist has called for stricter controls on gun registration in New Zealand. Professor Kevin Clements, the Director of the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at Otago University, is of the opinion that current gun registration laws are too loose and are leaving us open to abuse.

Talking in a Radio New Zealand interview Professor Clements stated that there is need for a complete inventory of the total number of weapons available in New Zealand. He also stated that the weapons need to be tagged to particular individuals or owners – so that we know where weapons are and who is responsible for them. There are roughly 230,000 licensed firearms owners in New Zealand, but it is estimated that there are 1.1 million firearms.

Gun laws became a controversial issue in New Zealand immediately following the 1990 Aramoana massacre in which 13 people were killed. The 1983 Arms Act (‘The Act’) had abandoned registration for most long guns, as Parliament felt it was prohibitively expensive and not particularly useful.

The philosophy behind the Act was to control users, rather than the firearms themselves. Police were required to conduct a background check before a licence would be issued, but once a person had a licence there was no requirement to register a long gun or obtain permits when they were sold.

After the Aramoana massacre, the Minister for Police announced that the Government would ban what were described as “Rambo-Style” weapons and substantially tighten gun laws in general.

The law was eventually amended in 1992 and the new laws 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 and controversially required all licence holders to be re-vetted for new licences which would be valid for only 10 years.

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

The Thorp Report commissioned by the Minister for Police in 1997 noted that there was just no sound base from which to deduce the numbers of firearms in New Zealand. However, the report did conclude that the most likely parameters for the New Zealand civilian armoury at the time fell somewhere between 700,000 and 1,000,000 firearms.

The report recommended various forms of universal firearm registration and the banning of various features, to be implemented through the Arms Amendments (No 2) Bill of 1999. However, there was huge opposition from firearms owners and after a strong weight of submissions against the bill, it was withdrawn.

The Government introduced a much reduced Arms Amendments (No 3) Bill which increased penalties for distribution, manufacture and use of illegal weapons. That bill has been in Select Committee since 2005, and the Government has not shown any signs of proceeding with it.

In August 2009, the Police bid to reclassify certain firearms, including single shot bolt action rifles, as Military Style Semi-Automatics (MSSAs). However, this was rejected by the High Court in Lincoln v Police [2010] BCL 194; 33TCL 11/2 in a legal challenge mounted by New Zealand National Shooters Association (NSA) President Richard Lincoln.

There has been further controversy about our gun laws recently, following an attack on a Police officer in Kawhia in early 2013, who had been carrying a pistol. The attack prompted renewed calls from the Police Association for the routine arming of Police. However, Police commissioner Peter Marshall disagreed and called for “cool heads and calm minds” stating that it was not a time for political point-scoring exercises.

 

Please email me at barbara.mcdermott@nwm.co.nz with your ideas for future articles.  Keep an eye out for next month’s column, where I will discuss another relevant rural legal issue.


Barbara McDermott is a partner of Norris Ward McKinnon, specialising in commercial and rural law.  With offices in Hamilton and Huntly, we have friendly, expert legal advisors ready to help you with your business and personal legal matters.   Find out more about us at www.nwm.co.nz