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A question of fairness over gun law reforms

Firearms owners overwhelmingly rejected the Government’s second tranche of proposed gun law changes in their submissions to select committee this week. Laura Walters reports on their opposition and the disconnect between what's fair and what might make New Zealand safer.

Groups representing Kiwi firearms owners are unanimous in their support of legislative changes that increase public safety -  but many say the second round of proposed gun law amendments are not that.

During two hours of select committee hearings at Parliament on Wednesday New Zealand Fish & Game Council, Federated Farmers, Hunting & Fishing, New Zealand Deerstalkers Association and New Zealand Game Animal Council all opposed the majority of the changes.

While the points in each submission varied slightly, there were common key themes: the changes targeted law-abiding firearms owners not criminals; they added excessive compliance costs and burdens; there was not enough evidence a register would have the desired effect; and changes could discourage legal and safe participation in hunting and outdoor activities.

The co-ordinated opposition by these groups sends a strong message, and the Government should be listening if they want the support and buy-in of the country's 250,000 licenced gun owners.

Police Minister Stuart Nash said the firearms community was thoroughly consulted regarding the bill, but those who submitted to Parliament on Wednesday did not feel this was the case.

In fact, it seemed they felt they were being punished for something they did not do.

This is not the voice of the small, but vocal, ‘extreme gun-lobby’, which was so strongly opposed the banning military-style semi-automatic firearms, in the immediate wake of the March 15 attack. These groups represent a significant number of firearms users.

Hunting & Fishing's Darren Jacobs (centre) said the bill was poorly designed, ambiguous, and did not achieve its intention. Instead, it placed further compliance on law-abiding gun owners. Photo: Laura Walters

Hunting & Fishing - the 38-store retailer - has been a reasonable middle voice throughout the discussion on firearms reform.

On Wednesday, chief executive Darren Jacobs said he was disappointed at both the design of the bill and the hasty process under which it was being progressed.

He said it was ambiguous, poorly designed, and it was difficult to ascertain how it would be implemented.

Plans for a gun register, where guns and parts would have to be registered in a national database, was idealistic and not practical to implement, as had been demonstrated overseas, he said.

Fish & Game chief executive Martin Taylor said he supported the intention of the bill to improve public safety but had "significant reservations with the mechanisms intended to achieve it”.

“We do not support a bill that increases compliance costs for law-abiding firearms owners. So on the balance, at the moment, I have to say we are sitting on the fence."

Will the changes make New Zealand safer?

The 1997 Thorp Report recommended many of the changes now contained in the proposed Arms Legislation Bill.

The report said a register would make it easier to track guns and reduce the risk of them falling into the hands of those who should not have them.

“Given the events of Christchurch on March the 15th, nothing could be considered an overreaction.”

Police Association president Chris Cahill said the majority of firearms illegally held by criminals, gangs and organised crime groups came into their possession by way of licensed firearms owners, usually through theft.

Cahill said there was nothing in the bill to prevent a fit and proper New Zealander from owning and enjoying the use of a firearm, and it was not overly restrictive.

“In fact, the majority of this bill is what the majority of New Zealanders would already expect to be in law, and would be in law, if Parliament hadn’t failed to listen to previous advice.”

Cahill said the changes were not an overreaction to Christchurch. “Given the events of Christchurch on March the 15th, nothing could be considered an overreaction.”

If anything, it was a delayed reaction, he said.

A question of fairness

What the debate essentially boiled down to was: it’s not fair.

Many submitters said it was not fair law-abiding firearms owners would be the ones bearing the burden of changes - and the rising costs.

Successive governments have kept 10-year registrations at $126, while the cost of administration rose, leaving an almost $10 million shortfall between the $14m cost of administering the Arms Act and the $4.1m in cost recovery through licence fees. Fees would increase with a move to five-year licensing, and the base cost of a licence is also expected to rise.

Submitters also opposed the imposition of further compliance burdens in the form of registering guns and parts, recording all transfers, and changing the way guns are transported.

In essence, it’s not fair that because some people commit gun crime, lawful firearms owners would bear the burden, they said.

But criminals, by their very nature, break the law, so a law relying on the compliance of criminals would be an exercise in futility.

“I’m not saying they cannot have the rights to own arms, but what I’m saying is that there has to be something in place to ensure that these people’s rights do not stop our own rights to live, to be alive, to be psychologically sound and to be unharmed."

On the flipside of the debate, those who supported restrictions made the point that it wasn’t fair that 51 people died as a result of the shootings on March 15.

Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand (FIANZ) president Mustafa Farouk talked about how the right to life should supersede the rights of law abiding firearms owners.

“I’m not saying they cannot have the rights to own arms, but what I’m saying is that there has to be something in place to ensure that these people’s rights do not stop our own rights to live, to be alive, to be psychologically sound and to be unharmed.

“So when we assess a situation and realise that by letting some people have this right, a lot of other people’s rights would be trampled, including their life, I think that person will understand his right is restricted.”

FIANZ president Mustafa Farouk makes the point that owning a gun does not trump the right to life. Photo: Sam Sachdeva

As with the first tranche of gun law changes, emotion and ideology were strong drivers of the viewpoints expressed in the select committee. And those on both sides were able to point to evidence to support their view.

It was clear many firearms owners who had backed the Government’s initial move to ban MSSAs post-March 15 have changed their position, and the Government would do well to engage with these groups, thoroughly consult through the select committee process, and clarify sections of the bill that firearms owners see as ambiguous.

In order for the changes to be enduring, and adhered to, there needs to be widespread support.

At the same time, Nash would do well to get on with his work on Firearms Prohibition Orders (FPOs), which do directly target criminals.

The proposed discussion document on FPOs is currently working its way through the Cabinet process, and is expected to be released for public consultation before the end of the year.

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