Government

Police refuse to set gun buyback targets, extend deadline

Without targets, the Government will have a difficult task in defining whether the gun buyback is successful. Some say it’s impossible.

Police have confirmed they have not set any specific operational targets for the gun buyback scheme.

Instead, police say removing “as many prohibited firearms off the streets and out of circulation as possible” constitutes success.

This confirmation from police comes two months into the six-month collection scheme, with fewer than 2500 out of 14,000 now-banned military-style semiautomatic (MSSA) firearms - the type of gun the shooter used to kill 51 people in Christchurch on March 15.

The number of guns collected is expected to ramp up as the buyback progresses, especially now 37 gun dealers were able to accept weapons.

But the low number of MSSAs being handed over is adding to the criticism of the scheme.

It also coincides with police reminding licensed MSSA owners of their obligations, and another round of press releases and public notices telling people to drop off their weapon.

In a statement to Newsroom, police said they had not set any targets for the number of people attending events, or the number of guns, parts and ammunition collected.

“NZ Police’s role is to facilitate the collection of prohibited firearms, parts and magazines for the Government’s buy-back scheme and amnesty, something we are committed to doing in partnership with the firearms community.”

A key part of success was how the buyback and amnesty engaged the firearms community.

“Every such removal is deemed a success to police and subsequently to wider New Zealand."

While the number of collected MSSAs was low relative to the overall number, the total number of gun owners who had surrendered weapons reached 13,800 last week.

“Our overall measure of success is to facilitate the removal of as many prohibited firearms off the streets and out of circulation as possible,” police said.

“Every such removal is deemed a success to police and subsequently to wider New Zealand."

Police, the minister, and the gun control lobby say it was untenable to try and put a target on the events, given uncertainty around the number of firearms in circulation.

Accepted estimates of the total number of guns ranged from 1.2m to 1.5m.

Meanwhile, police said using the Thorp methodology, it’s estimated between 56,000 to 173,00 of those weapons were now illegal. This differed from the 60,000 to 300,000 range provided to Stuart Nash in a ministerial briefing paper.

The murky numbers also made it hard to know what success looked like.

“In the absence of that number, it makes it awfully difficult for them to claim success, and I would argue awfully difficult for New Zealanders to feel as if this programme would have made them safer, unless they receive in the upper-estimate of what is out there."

National Party police spokesperson Brett Hudson said the Government would have “enormous difficulty” quantifying success, adding that they could have worked harder to come up with more accurate figures by referencing import permits.

“In the absence of that number, it makes it awfully difficult for them to claim success, and I would argue awfully difficult for New Zealanders to feel as if this programme would have made them safer, unless they receive in the upper-estimate of what is out there."

On the flip-side, it was also hard to claim the buyback had failed.

As Newsroom’s Marc Daalder wrote last month, Simon Bridges’ simple division was not sufficient to label the scheme “a fiasco”.

Bridges claimed the buyback was behind schedule, and dividing the upper limit of the estimates by the number of scheduled collection events meant 1000 guns needed to be handed in at each collection to deem it a success.

The truth of the scheme's success so far was probably somewhere in the middle.

Gun Control NZ co-founder Hera Cook said her conversations with gun owners showed some people were still unsure of details relating to culling and weapon modifications, which led them to hold onto their guns.

Often the loudest voices in the gun debate were those at the extremes, and the majority in the middle weren't always well-represented in the public debate.

Research from Victoria University researchers – published on The Conversation - showed gun owners were average Kiwis (mostly male, Pākehā, middle-class and rural), and while they trusted other gun owners to do the right thing, there was not a high level of trust of either the pro-gun lobby or the Government.

Stuart Nash says the buyback still has a long way to go, but he is confident everything is going to plan. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

A third of gun owners surveyed said they did not trust the pro-gun lobby, and gave the gun lobby an overall average trust rating of 2.7 out of 4 in terms of representing their best interests. That same cohort gave the Government a trust score of 2.6.

This reiterated the importance of police and dealers proactively engaging with the large (240,000-strong) firearms community through the buyback.

The Government had one chance to get it right, with both police and Nash saying there would be no extension beyond the December 20 deadline, regardless of the outcome at that point.

The buyback would also lay the groundwork for engaging with firearms owners regarding the second tranche of gun law reforms, which were finalised last week.

The second round, including the creation of a firearms register, was more complex than the first set of law changes, and more contentious, with the National Party opposing the bill in its current form.

Cook said regardless of the lack of clarity around numbers and targets, and the criticism that invited, the buyback was an important first step towards gathering good data, getting dangerous weapons out of circulation, and better understanding the position of the average Kiwi gun owner.

In recognition of the murky numbers and complex scheme, the Auditor-General was also carrying out an assessment of the buyback, and would report back in February.

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