Gun registry ‘crucial’ to any reform

A gun safety expert says a firearm registry is the most important gun control measure this country does not yet have. Marc Daalder takes a close look at gun control in New Zealand. 

Since countries the world over began regulating firearm ownership in the 19th century, there have been three central pillars of gun control policy common to almost every nation: seeing ownership as a privilege instead of a right, a licensing system for owners, and a registry of weapons.

New Zealand never followed through with all three. While no judge in the country would ever overturn precedent to insist firearm ownership is a right, the nation has generally had either a registry or a licensing system - never both.

Now, as Parliament prepares to debate the Arms Legislation Bill and create what gun safety expert Philip Alpers sees as a holistic gun control regime, that seems set to change. A last minute change of mind from New Zealand First, however, could once again threaten New Zealand's long-struggling efforts to achieve those three basic elements of gun control.

History of register troubling

From 1920, when an Arms Act was passed in response to widespread firearms ownership among WWI veterans and the perceived threat of communist revolutionaries, the country had a registry but there was "only very limited licensing of shooters", according to a report on gun law reform commissioned from High Court judge Sir Thomas Thorp.

The early registry was plagued with problems. In the 1920s, firearms owners objected to it. "There had also been growing discontent among farmers and sporting shooters who considered registration to be irksome and unnecessary," Thorp wrote. 

By 1973, the registry was plainly inefficient. It was decentralised and on paper, making it difficult to keep updated and difficult to search. That year, it was largely scrapped and proposals over the next decade resulted in the Arms Act 1983. By then, it was thought a stricter licensing system could form the foundation of New Zealand's gun control regime.

After the Aramoana massacre, in which 13 people were killed by a legally-purchased weapon, Philip Alpers agitated for stricter gun laws, including a registry. New regulations came in, but a registry never did.

In 1997, the Thorp report recommended a dual licensing/registration system. Thorp wrote that "submissions to this review included a considerable number of statements by shooters questioning the wisdom of that decision" to get rid of the registry in 1983.

Thorp was convinced a registry could be made to work in the 21st century, recommending "simple, modern, cost-effective systems which will provide shooters, dealers and arms controllers with on-line access to all licensing and registration data". Despite this, a registry never came into effect.

Strong opposition to registry

In contrast to what Thorp reported in 1997, the gun lobby today is uniformly opposed to a registry.

"A register is a weak and illogical answer to extraordinary events like the Christchurch shooting or to a surge in firearm use by everyday criminals," Council of Licensed Firearm Owners (COLFO) spokesperson Nicole McKee said in January.

However, Alpers cautions against seeing the gun lobby as representative of all licensed firearms owners. "When I say the gun lobby - the great majority of New Zealand shooters are are very, very responsible people. There are many, very well-established reasons to legitimately own a firearm in this country," Alpers said.

Nonetheless, firearms owners have been made worried by police mismanagement of buyback data. McKee said Jacinda Ardern and Police Minister Stuart Nash are "defending an indefensible system and planning to turn this breakable database into one listing the location of every firearm in New Zealand".

"A register will cost tens of millions to set up and run, yet will almost certainly be hacked or mistakenly accessed, and would not contain the estimated tens of thousands of 'crime guns'.'"

McKee also said such control measures won't work because criminals won't register their weapons. "Being registered doesn’t stop a gun being used in crime, and criminals don’t register their firearms anyway. It is illusionary to think that the criminals who are driving these statistics will play any part at all in a firearms registry."

Non-compliance with the buyback will also lead to an incomplete registry, McKee said. "It’s even worse than that: the firearm ban failed to recover 100,000 firearms. Those will now never be registered."

This opposition also raises the question that COLFO hasn't explicitly addressed: will the registry still work if licensed firearms owners refuse to comply with the registry?

Alpers defends feasibility

Alpers says this question highlights the irony of the gun lobby's self-identification as "law-abiding firearms owners". "Isn't it ironic - they are relentlessly self-described as law-abiding and yet, along comes a law they can't abide and they just say they'll have mass disobedience. It's extraordinary. You wouldn't get that thing happening with licensed car drivers."

Moreover, Alpers argues, the registry doesn't need 100 percent compliance to be effective. He cites Australia, where the number of new sign-ups to the registry each year is larger than the number of imported weapons, indicating that previously non-compliant firearms owners have begun participating in the system.

"It doesn't matter if all of them are not registered. Eventually, more and more of them get registered," he said. "In Australia, people who once believed the old crock about gun registration equals confiscation are now realising there's nothing wrong with registration. They want to use their guns. They're bringing them out of the woodwork, they're putting them in the register."

Australia's "grey market" - the secondhand market for legally-manufactured and -purchased weapons that are not registered - is steadily shrinking. "That surfeit of firearms in Australia is slowly being mopped up and that will happen with registration [in New Zealand] as well," he said.

Once they have a chance to see that the registry didn't lead to a totalitarian crackdown, they'll be more willing to sign up. In effect, the registry's own efficacy will be self-evident after enough time.

Alpers also points to work he has done setting up gun databases in countries like Somalia, Liberia, Nigeria, Samoa, Vanuatu and Fiji. "If those countries can install firearms registries, so can New Zealand," he said.

"There are people who say that it's too complicated, that we couldn't possibly do it. For God's sake, the entire European Union registers every cow. In India, there are 1.4 billion people and 80 percent of households rely on butane LPG for their home cooking. All of those gas bottles are registered - millions and millions of them.

"We know how to do these things."

Registry likely to be effective

The registry's efficacy is something Alpers doesn't doubt in the slightest.

"People talk about [Australia's buyback] as though it was the be-all and end-all of what happened in Australia but, in fact, registration is going to have the longest-term effect on gun safety in Australia of any of those reforms," he said.

There are two reasons for this: it helps protect police and it helps protect victims.

"It gives police far more knowledge about what's going on," Alpers said. "The highest risk of death to police attending a domestic violence incident is gunshot, from the perpetrator. Australian police can now drive towards a house, check out the registry, and find that that person does have a large number of guns.

"Not only do they take a precaution when they get there but they also know how many guns to take away. If there's apprehended violence in that household, then they're obliged to take the guns away. How do they know how many to take away?

"There are several tragic examples of police turning up to a house before registration, seizing all the guns that the victim knew about, seizing all the guns they could find - let's say six guns - and then two days later the seventh gun is used to kill the family. It's that keeping tabs on where the guns are and who's got them that is utterly crucial to law enforcement."

COLFO has said it is concerned that the information won't be 100 percent accurate. After it lobbied for a measure to allow firearm owners to take their guns out of the house for up to 30 days - for hunting trips or competitions - without having to alter the registry, the lobby group now says that exact change renders the gun law toothless.

"The new rule allowing 30 days before you have to register a change of location destroys the only reason for this Bill – that police know if firearms are at locations they visit in their line of work. The 30-day rule makes that assurance worthless – and dangerous," McKee said.

However, Alpers says the information in the registry will still be reliable enough to inform police actions. "Information-based policing has been a buzzword for many years now, but registration is the perfect example of that."

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