Politics

Firearm prohibition orders must go wider than gangs

The National Party is pushing the Government to include firearms prohibition orders in its gun law reforms. Laura Walters looks at what these orders could include, and whether they would make a difference.

The Government's first tranche of gun law reforms bans the types of guns used in the Christchurch mosque attack, but the proposed legislation does little to address the long-running issue of getting illegally held guns off the streets.

Some gang bosses have said they won’t give up their guns. Meanwhile, other gun owners have joked online about dumping guns off the back of boats, rather than handing them over to authorities.

People illegally holding weapons has long been an issue in New Zealand and was at the core of the year-long select committee inquiry in 2017.

Currently, there are 250,000 licensed gun owners, and at least 1.2 million firearms. But the number of guns could easily be double that, and those in charge have no idea how many guns are held illegally. Police Minister Stuart Nash has raised this data issue multiple times since the Christchurch attacks.

In order to deal with this, the introduction of firearms prohibition orders (FPOs) has been thrown into the mix by the National Party, but there are problems with the scope of the party's proposed bill, the resources to enforce FPOs, and whether the Australian example used as a template goes far enough in the post-Christchurch climate.

Firearms Prohibition Orders

In order to keep guns out of the hands of people deemed to be dangerous, FPOs have been put forward by a range of interested parties, including police, a select committee inquiry, and now the National Party.

FPOs are used to pro-actively manage high-risk people and their possession of, use of, and association with, firearms.

In their briefing to Stuart Nash in 2017, police raised the need for gun law changes.

“Criminal activity combined with changing technology and marketing have highlighted additional gaps in the legislation which, when exploited, have public safety implications.”

The briefing spoke of former police minister Paula Bennett’s agreement to introduce FPOs for a small number “of the most serious and violent offenders” and said should Nash wish to continue with that work, it could be progressed through a stand-alone amendment to the Arms Act, or as part of a more comprehensive Arms Amendment Bill.

"They are going to hand the guns back and if they don't do it voluntarily, then the police are going to come after them."

It’s clear FPOs are on Nash’s agenda.

He has long talked about his plans to crack down on gangs, so there’s no chance he won’t be thinking about them in relation to gun laws.

Last week, he issued a stern warning to gangs when he and Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters announced the introduction of legislation to the House.

"They are going to hand the guns back and if they don't do it voluntarily, then the police are going to come after them."

Nash said he and Justice Minister Andrew Little were looking at how to increase the ability of police, or give police increased powers, to go after criminals.

However, the Christchurch attack has proven gun violence doesn’t always come from obvious places, and Nash will want to take his time to figure out how to capture other groups, including those of the far right, or others who have expressed extreme views. Going after ethnic and motorcycle gangs is too narrow in the current climate.

The National Party solution

Ahead of the 2017 general election, Bennett introduced a bill calling for gang members to be prohibited from gaining a firearms licence, extended search and seizure powers of those members thought to have guns, and increased penalties. This was picked up by now-National police spokesman Chris Bishop.

The bill fell at the first hurdle, when Government parties voted against it, based on advice from police. In a briefing, police raised a range of issues with the bill, which meant the proposed law would not have the desired outcomes.

The bill had insufficient provisions to stop gang members owning firearms, no actual change to current search and seizure powers, and the proposed penalties would draw attention to anomalies with penalties in the law. Police said there was instead a need to review all penalties in the Arms Act.

When the Government began the process of changing gun laws immediately after the March 15 attacks, Bishop dusted off the bill and threw it back into the mix, calling on the Government to include it into the first tranche of reforms.

Bishop wrote to Nash, imploring him to include his FPO bill in the law changes, saying "the Christchurch attacks have changed this country and it's the right time to take action".

The Government had no intention of taking National up on its offer, saying the first tranche was narrow and specific. Further issues would be dealt with in the second round on amendments.

Nash even accused Bishop of “grandstanding”, saying he knew why the initial changes were so specific, and urged him not to continue pushing the bill at this time.

“I think we had a spin job done on us as a country by gangs. These are not company motorcycle clubs - they’re bad in every way, they peddle misery, and actually if we’re going to be serious about guns, it can’t just be on the law-abiding hunters and the like, it needs to include gangs and some tough measures there.”

But National didn't drop its push for FPOs.

In the Finance and Expenditure Select Committee’s report to the House, National again raised the issue, saying it was disappointed the Government had not included the regime in the bill.

An FPO regime would widen the powers available to the police to search the homes and cars of serious, violent gang members for firearms. FPOs have been introduced in New South Wales and two other Australian states, National said in the report.

“We are very concerned that contemporaneously with the bill being introduced to the House, there were news reports that gang members would refuse to give up their (soon to be illegal) firearms.

“We believe this attitude demonstrates exactly why the police need the power to issue FPOs. If law-abiding and legitimate users of firearms like hunters, farmers, and shooters can give up their weapons, then so can gangs.”

National leader, and former Crown prosecutor, Simon Bridges, said it was a “lost opportunity”.

“I’m struggling to see really why the Government wouldn’t have gone along with that,” he said.

“I think we had a spin job done on us as a country by gangs. These are not company motorcycle clubs - they’re bad in every way, they peddle misery, and actually if we’re going to be serious about guns, it can’t just be on the law-abiding hunters and the like, it needs to include gangs and some tough measures there.”

Former police minister Judith Collins also supported FPOs, she said it would give reassurance to law-abiding citizens the law was being enforced in relation to all people who hold or own guns.

When asked whether white supremacists should also be subject to FPOs, Collins responded: “Them as well, whatever, any of them.”

Would FPOs work?

While police are supportive of FPOs in principle, the briefing to Nash regarding Bishop’s member’s bill shows there is more work to be done in this area in order to achieve the outcome of keeping guns out of the hands of people with a violent history.

An FPO regime that includes revoking a licence would also need to have a streamlined process in order to stop firearms being transferred into the illegal civilian armoury, while police went through the necessary steps.

University of Otago public health senior lecturer Hera Cook said keeping Kiwis safe from gun violence was not about focusing on gangs alone.

The gun lobby had used gangs and criminals as a red herring for a very long time in an effort to focus any further regulation away from themselves, she said.

Cook said the effectiveness of any FPOs or new regime would depend on the ability of police to enforce it.

Issues surrounding resourcing of police who deal with vetting and administering gun laws has been raised repeatedly since March 15, and again at select committee hearings last week.

Former police national manager of firearms licensing, and head of the firearms security council, Joe Green, said one of the biggest downfalls had been police administration and vetting. This was a view Police Association head Chris Cahill also held.

Superintendent Mike McIlraith, the head of the arms act administration and the officer in charge of the Arms Act Delivery Group, sat at the back of the select committee room during these submissions, silently taking notes. He did not offer his view on police enforcement and administration. Earlier in the week, he was one of the officers who gave a demonstration of how quickly a Category A semi-automatic could be converted into the type of weapon used by the Christchurch shooter.

National's Judith Collins and Chris Bishop are pushing for FPOs to be included in the first round of gun law changes. Stuart Nash says they know this isn't happening, and continuing to push the point is "grandstanding". Photo: Sam Sachdeva

University of Waikato law professor Al Gillespie said an FPO regime was not a bad idea.

But it was dependant on its focus on who are "the most dangerous gang members", he said.

The criteria of National's bill - that a person would be prohibited from owning a gun if they had a “serious offending history” as in “convictions for firearms offences and serious violence” - was basic common sense, he said.

"The point, however, should be that anyone with convictions for firearms offences and serious violence should not have legal access to any firearm, full stop. It should not just be restricted to those who were members of gangs, as the current National Party bill was focused."

Gillespie said he doubted FPOs would do much to deter the hardened criminals from obtaining the firearms they wanted, because most of their pipelines would be from illegal sources. However, an FPO regime could help stop the stockpile from growing further.

Ultimately, the only way you deal with this is stiffer penalties for possession (and the new Arms Amendment Bill) was going in the correct direction for this, he said.

Government’s next steps

The Arms (prohibited firearms, magazines, and parts) Amendment Bill would pass its third reading on Wednesday, and without an FPO regime included.

But Nash will consider this in his second wave of reforms.

It’s likely any FPOs would go wider than what Kiwis would traditionally consider to be gangs, and would include a significant debate on what constituted ‘fit and proper’.

Currently, police take gang membership or affiliation into consideration when applying the test of whether someone was ‘fit and proper’ to own a gun. But the court has decided being a gang member or associate alone is not enough to preclude someone from holding a firearms licence.

The definition of ‘fit and proper’ may change, prohibiting some groups from gaining a licence, but the Government will likely want to look at including the likes of white supremacists, and others who have expressed extreme views online.

In New Zealand, owning a gun is a privilege, not a right as in the United States, so it would be easier for lawmakers to restrict a wider group of people from owning weapons.

Nash and his officials will also be looking at things like shortening the length of licences from 10 years, the purchase and storage of ammunition, the regulation of online sales, and the much talked about gun register.

Prohibition orders will likely need to go further than New Zealand ethnic and motorcycle gangs, looking at people who hold extremist views. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

New Zealand is one of the few countries – along with the United States and Canada – to not have a register for firearms. And while there are arguments for and against a register, it seems more than likely the Government will push for some kind of regime where firearms are tracked.

Shortening licences has been considered before, but the plan has been passed over due to administrative burden, especially when a high percentage of people have their licences successfully renewed after 10 years.

Any specific changes to vetting, the implementation of FPOs, or a gun register needs to be matched with adequate resources and training, including further coaching on unconscious bias.

In the meantime, Nash has been essentially telling reporters to read between the lines on how police are dealing with gangs and guns, when he mentions the Labour-New Zealand First coalition agreement to add 1800 extra police, and “commit to a serious focus on combatting organised crime and drugs”.

Police are already using their increased organised crime resources to go after gangs, and current powers under search and surveillance laws to seize any illegally held weapons, without a warrant.

Nash is expected to introduce a discussion document on the next wave of reforms in the next couple of months.

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