Sweeping gun law changes off the back of terror attack

The Government has delivered a sweeping raft of planned changes to firearms laws to focus on the people holding the weapons. Laura Walters reports.

Following the March terror attack, the Government moved immediately to close loopholes and ban the firearms that could do the most harm. Now, it’s turning its attention to the people with their fingers on the triggers.

Last month, Cabinet signed off on a raft of major high-level changes to firearms legislation, including the introduction of the long-talked about weapons register.

The bill, which is currently being drafted and is expected to be introduced in the next couple of months, will be based on the assertion that it’s a privilege to own and use a firearm in New Zealand, and with that privilege comes an obligation to demonstrate a high-level awareness of responsibility and safety.

The far-reaching changes include a register for licencing every firearm and every firearm owner, and licence holder.

New Zealand is an outlier in its lack of a firearm register, and many who oppose a register for guns themselves say it would be too costly and nearly impossible to put the horse back in the stable.

Federated Farmers were quick to respond to Monday's announcement, saying the organisation supported most of the tighter safety measures, but a register was contentious.

The rural organisation had previously opposed the compulsory registration of all firearms, based on the complexity and cost of this process, questionable safety benefits and the low likelihood of success, Federated Farmers security spokesperson Miles Anderson said.

However, Police Minister Stuart Nash has publicly talked about his preference for a register, even if it takes years to create and populate.

A register, comparable to the NZTA vehicle licensing system, would be built by police over the coming year, and would take about five years to populate. Data would be gathered each time a gun was sold or bought, or when a firearm user or owner came into contact with police, potentially through minor misdemeanours.

Licences would be changed from a 10-year duration to only five years, with the fee expected to rise from the current $126.50.

It costs police about $13 million a year to administer the firearms regime, and about $4m is recovered through fees. Changes to fees would take place after public consultation at a later date.

Tightening the rules

Rules for what it takes to get and keep a licence would also be tightened under the proposed new regime.

There would be stricter requirements in order to gain a licence in the first place, and checks would be more stringent.

Once a person had gained their licence, there would be an ongoing obligation of responsibility and personal safety, including a new regime of warning flags or “indicators”.

These warning flags include someone encouraging or promoting violence or extremism, doing something that posed a national security threat, committing a crime involving violence or alcohol, or being subject to a protection order. Warning flags also include serious mental health issues, or suicide attempts.

"The changes announced today have been decades in the making. It is now up to this Parliament to deliver in the interests of public and personal safety."

If any of these warning flags are detected, police would have a series of options, depending on the case. The options include asking the licence holder for further information, or issuing an improvement notice.

Police would also be able to temporarily suspend a licence and seize a firearm while working through the issue.

Currently the system is “all or nothing”, making it difficult for police to immediately address the risk, as revoking a firearms licence is often a lengthy and difficult process.

The proposed legislation would also include tighter rules for who could gain and retain a firearms dealer licence. 

And a licence would be needed to buy magazines, parts and ammunition.

Taming the wild west

The new laws would also require gun clubs and ranges to be licenced and regulated by police.

Currently, many of the clubs and ranges sit outside any regulation. In some cases they are subject to council consent while some pistol clubs held memoranda of understanding with police, but in other instances there is no official oversight.

The proposed regulations would recognise there are different types and sizes of gun clubs and ranges, but in all cases there would be a minimum standard of licencing for the person running the club or range and those using it.

"We owe it to other members of the community, such as victims of family harm or aggravated robberies, to tighten our gun laws. We also owe it to the men and women of frontline policing."

In the days following the March 15 terrorist attack, there was a lot of chatter and media reporting about the Otago club where the shooter had trained.

Since December 2018, he had practised shooting at the Bruce Rifle Club, south of Dunedin, with the same sort of military-style, semi-automatic weapon used in the attacks.

In an Official Information Act response to Newsroom in May, police said they did not hold any correspondence relating to the Bruce Rifle Club from before the attack, and the only information on file was in relation to the “individual licence holding needs of club members”.

Complaints or concerns relating to gun clubs are recorded in the police system, against the address and/or the individual involved, not the gun club, meaning there is no easily accessible data relating to concerns or problems at specific clubs or ranges.

Police said under the Arms Act, New Zealand Police only have oversight of pistol clubs, which did not include this club. Oversight was maintained by councils.

The proposed law changes include regulation of firearms advertisements. Photo: Laura Walters

There would also be a tightening for high-end tourists looking to come to New Zealand for a hunting trip.

Currently, tourists can buy guns in New Zealand, but that would be outlawed under the proposed changes. Any visitor wanting to use a gun would have to be fully licenced, meet all the registration requirements, and either use their own gun or lease a gun off a provider in New Zealand.

And the bill will have a provision to include controls on firearms advertising.

While those specific regulations are not expected to be included in the bill, they could include things like where guns could be advertised, whether they could be targeted at children as is currently the case with Gun City ads, and the requirement to include safety warnings or notices.

Other changes included establishing a formal group to give independent firearms advice to police, which would include people from within and outside the gun-owning community; an increase in penalties and new offences; and enshrining in law that owning a firearm is a privilege not a right.

Jacinda Ardern said the terror attack on March 15 highlighted the flaws in the licensing system.

Current gun laws date from 1983 and were "dangerously out of date", she said, adding that successive governments have known the country's gun laws were too weak, but attempts to change them had been unsuccessful.

"The changes announced today have been decades in the making. It is now up to this Parliament to deliver in the interests of public and personal safety."

Police Minister Stuart Nash said the Government owed it to the victims and survivors of the mosque attacks to make these changes.

"We owe it to other members of the community, such as victims of family harm or aggravated robberies, to tighten our gun laws. We also owe it to the men and women of frontline policing."

The bill is currently being drafted, and is expected to be introduced at the end of August or shortly afterwards.

From there it is expected to go to the Finance and Expenditure Select Committee – as did the first piece of legislation – where it will undergo public consultation and select committee scrutiny for about three months.

Meanwhile, the gun buyback and amnesty is underway, with more than 2000 people showing up to events so far, and 3200 weapons and 7800 parts handed in. So far, compensation payments worth $6.1m have been processed.

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