Terror in Chch

Analysis: Time for full overhaul of gun laws

ANALYSIS: It took a tragedy to change gun laws. With political and public sentiment onside, now is the chance for a clean sweep, writes Laura Walters

“We’ve got to make sure this is the last time we look back on our gun laws with regret,” Police Association head Chris Cahill says, following the Government announcement of bold law reform on Thursday.

In what can only be described as a swift and decisive move, the Government effectively banned all military-style semi-automatic weapons on Thursday – less than a week after the Christchurch attack.

The terrorist attack, which killed 50 people, was carried out with two weapons. The semi-automatic weapon had been legally obtained and illegally modified to hold high-capacity magazines.

But those who know the details of New Zealand’s outdated gun laws say the changes announced on Thursday cannot be the end. This is an opportunity to make the Arms Act fit for purpose.

“On 15 March our history changed forever. Now, our laws will too,” Ardern said on Thursday, co-opting a line New Zealand First leader Winston Peters used earlier in the week to explain his support of tighter gun laws.

Related parts used to convert guns, like those used in the shooting, into MSSAs will also be banned, along with all high-capacity magazines.

An amnesty will be put in place for weapons to be handed in, and officials are developing a buyback scheme, currently expected to cost between $100 million and $200m.

“On 15 March our history changed forever. Now, our laws will too."

Some experts believe the cost of the buyback could be higher due to no one really knowing exactly how many guns are in circulation.

Ardern said whatever the buyback cost, she was willing to pay the price to get these types of guns out of the public arena.

The law changes are expected to come in by April 11. They will be moved through the House under urgency with cross-party support, and a week-long select committee consultation process.

In order to stop the stockpiling of weapons, the Government reclassified all MSSAs, assault rifles, high-capacity magazines and semi-automatics that had the potential to be modified, using the Order in Council process as of 3pm on Thursday. This meant only those with an E-Category endorsement could buy the weapons, effectively banning them from the majority of the public.

(About 7500 people hold Category E licences – 485 are dealer licences – and 245,000 people hold firearms licences. There are believed to be at least 1.2 million guns in New Zealand, with some experts estimating the top figure could reach three million.)

Further changes coming

On Thursday afternoon, the Government went to pains to reiterate this was only the beginning.

Police Minister Stuart Nash said the next wave would be “sweeping”.

Nash was yet to see the final policy document, which would go to Cabinet on Monday. However, the second tranche was tipped to include a look at online sales, the purchase and storage of ammunition, issues relating to special-interest shooting groups, and the tightening of penalties and the wider licensing regime.

The Government says this is only the start of gun law changes. But will they go far enough in the end? Photo: Getty Images

Arden would not specifically say whether the Government was considering a firearms register – New Zealand, the US and Canada were in the minority without one.

The Police Association has been calling for this for years, but many in the firearms community, including gun law expert Nicholas Taylor, say a register will be difficult to administer and largely ineffective, as the horse has already bolted.

It always takes a tragedy

Like many countries, New Zealand has tried on numerous occasions to implement meaningful gun law reform.

The Arms Act was introduced in 1983. Changes in the past 26 years were more like tweaks.

Since the attack last Friday, politicians - on both sides of the House – had faced hard questions on why it had taken the death of 50 people to get change.

“You can’t not be disappointed. It shouldn’t take a tragedy for these things to happen," the Police Association’s Cahill said.

But he urged New Zealand to look to the future, and applaud the Government for the changes it was making now.

University of Waikato professor of international law Alexander Gillespie said this was how laws evolved

"We’ve got to make sure this is the last time we look back on our gun laws with regret."

Legislative change was usually reactionary, rather than precautionary – he cited climate change as an example.

“It’s frustrating, but unfortunately it’s the nature of the world we live in.”

The reactionary model was also applied after the 1990 Aramoana shooting, and Australia's 1996 Port Arthur massacre.

Ardern’s decisive action on gun laws has drawn the world’s attention, making global headlines.

Gillespie said it was the kind of step you see from a global leader.

US senator and 2020 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders tweeted: “This is what real action to stop gun violence looks like. We must follow New Zealand's lead, take on the NRA and ban the sale and distribution of assault weapons in the United States.”

During the press conference on Thursday, Ardern acknowledged how long it had taken to get change.

“What’s important now is that the New Zealand public is galvanised, and I would hope that politicians are galvanised, behind these changes.”

Support from almost everyone

The changes do not include semi-automatic .22 calibre rimfire firearms, with a magazine which holds no more than 10 rounds; and semi-automatic and pump action shotguns with a non-detachable tubular magazine which holds no more than five rounds.

Since the announcement, and during the discussion since the attack, the wider gun community has backed the Government.

Federated Farmers and Fish & Game have come out in support of the changes.

"This will not be popular among some of our members but after a week of intense debate and careful consideration by our elected representatives and staff, we believe this is the only practicable solution," Federated Farmers rural security spokesperson Miles Anderson said.

Jacinda Ardern has announced a gun law reform package, and effectively implemented a ban, less than a week after the Christchurch terror attack. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Ardern and Nash said they recognised there was a balance needed.

And holding onto the goodwill of the hundreds of thousands of (mostly) farmers can’t be a bad thing for this Government, as the country heads into what will likely be a lengthy programme of gun reform.

Meanwhile, Cahill said he was pleased to see the small, but loud voice of the radical gun lobby - a group he has been at war with for years - had been taken out of play during this discussion.

But opposition from some in the gun community, with the likes of Serious Shooters director Richard Munt saying the move was a “knee-jerk reaction”.

“All I can say right now is this is wrong and aimed at the wrong people.

“I hope this can be sorted at the abbreviated select committee level, which right now, seems to be an abuse of process by the Government that seems intent on ramming bad legislation down our throat,” Munt said.

Lawyer Serge Roud emailed Newsroom to say the problem lay with the people using the guns, not the guns themselves.

These sentiments were echoed by many in online firearms forums and groups.

Chance for a clean sweep

The Government has stated this is only the beginning, with a second tranche of measures coming in the near future.

Experts who spoke to Newsroom said it was clear the focus right now was on the loopholes exploited to kill 50 people.

However, Cahill said following the second wave of changes, there would need to be a full review of the Arms Act.

This was recommended following the 1997 Thorp Report, but was yet to take place despite the act coming into force in 1984, and not being significantly changed since 1992.

Cahill said the law was cumbersome, difficult to understand, and full of loopholes.

Legal expert Nicholas Taylor agreed this would be a good opportunity to review the act, and look wider than just legally obtained weapons, being illegally modified.

The Government will need to strike while the iron is hot and it has public and political support.

Resources to back it up

All three experts agreed there were further issues to address regarding criminal gun use.

“There’s no magic solution that we can wave a wand and make it all go away,” Gillespie said.

But this set a foundation for building a new policy and a new approach.

Thursday’s changes would not address the issue of illegally-held firearms. People who held those types of weapons would be highly unlikely to hand them into police, even with the current amnesty.

And increased penalties would be unlikely to encourage gang members from handing in their weapons.

Taylor said these measures would help stop the problem getting bigger. But if the country wanted to deal with its gun problem, police needed the resources and capability to administer the laws, including identifying where illegal guns were held, and seizing them in a way that did not infringe on Kiwis’ human rights.

Nash's 1800 extra police would probably be a start.

Newsroom is powered by the generosity of readers like you, who support our mission to produce fearless, independent and provocative journalism.

Comments

Newsroom does not allow comments directly on this website. We invite all readers who wish to discuss a story or leave a comment to visit us on Twitter or Facebook. We also welcome your news tips and feedback via email: contact@newsroom.co.nz. Thank you.

PARTNERS