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Firearms In New Zealand: Where To From Here?

Firearms in New Zealand: Where to from here?

Chris Cahill, NZ Police Association President

This time next week, all going well, Parliament will have passed the Arms Legislation Bill as the second tranche of firearms reforms designed to make all New Zealanders safer. Together, the reforms will do this by taking the most dangerous of weapons out of circulation, tightening controls on the use and possession of firearms and registering all firearms.

When the gun buy-back began we had absolutely no idea how many firearms were in our communities. We now know that 60 thousand of the most lethal weapons have been handed over, paid for and destroyed.

As you are all aware, this process, which began nearly one year ago, was born out of tragedy, and we should never forget the 51 people who were killed, and the many more whose lives were forever changed by physical and psychological injuries.

The Christchurch mosque attacks were a shocking catalyst for firearms reform. What has set New Zealand apart from so many other jurisdictions in the aftermath of a mass shootings, is that the moment was seized. Immediate and decisive action was taken to ban the types of weapons that could cause so much harm.

This was a courageous step and one we as an association applauded, along with many of you here today.

For the initial Arms Amendment Bill, we saw our politicians, all but one, come together to do what was right. It was our ‘Sandy Hook’ moment and our elected officials acted.

When I was asked at the time whether I thought the bill was too rushed, I said it was actually more than 20 years late. Seven years after Aramoana, Justice Thorp recommended in 1997, the very steps that were taken in less than three weeks after the slaughter in the two Christchurch mosques.

I was not being flippant. I was stating the truth. Politicians have had many opportunities between Aramoana and Christchurch to do what was right. Now we are counting on them to complete the job next week.

As we all know, this second tranche of overdue gun reforms - the Arms Legislation Bill - is facing opposition in a number of areas that concern the association.

As expected, lobbying and politics have well and truly entered the fray.

In our submission on the bill now before Parliament, the association says the bill has a strong and workable regulatory regime that would allow law-abiding licence holders to legitimately use their firearms in their work and recreation.

Claims to the contrary, that the measures are onerous and a punishment for law-abiding New Zealanders, are unfounded and, I believe, disingenuous.

A UMR survey of New Zealanders found 70 per cent supported strengthening the gun laws, 16 per cent opposed and 14 per cent were neutral or unsure. Amongst Cantabrians, the support for reform was, understandably, 81 per cent. [1].

As Drs Marie Russell and Hera Cook established recently, COLFO - one of the most outspoken opponents of any firearms law changes, consists of organisational memberships across eight firearms interest groups totalling around 16,000 people. A far cry from claims they represent 250 thousand law-abiding gun owners who are angry at being made to feel like criminals.

In the political realm, we are, unfortunately, seeing what an election year can do with hot-button issues such as guns, especially when those guns are combined with gangs and drugs - as they certainly are currently.

It seems the thinking for opposing the Arms Legislation Bill goes along these lines: New Zealand has 250,000 registered firearms owners; ergo there are 250,000 votes up for grabs on the single issue of firearms reform.

The Act Party may well pick up a few votes on the strength of it being a dissenter on both firearms law reform bills, but from what we have seen in support for the changes, and in the measured manner in which firearms owners complied with the buyback process, it is hard to imagine this is the most important voting issue in most people’s lives.

For legitimate firearms owners, of course the obligation to hand in their newly illegal firearms was difficult, and I thank them for complying.

Were they compensated fairly? A Police survey across 19 buy-back events shows 78% believe they were.

Just over one hundred million dollars was spent on firearms and parts collected at 685 collection points across the country. Police went to private homes when there were large quantities of guns to collect or owners had transport difficulties, and 43 dealers operated a dealer channel and collected 6145 firearms on behalf of Police.

Police have told me they were extremely impressed by the attitude of those who took part, and that 93 per cent of those firearms owners reported the buy-back process to have been a positive experience.

Thanks to these gun owners, 60 thousand of the most lethal weapons are gone from our communities. They can’t be stolen from their lawful owners, they can’t be on-sold to criminals, and they can’t be used to inflict massive casualties.

We also need to question whether those who label the buy-back a failure because ‘only’ 60 thousand were handed in, know of guns that are now illegal, and still in the possession of licensed firearms owners.

Are there otherwise law-abiding people holding on to their firearms in the full knowledge that when police catch up with them, they risk losing their coveted licence forever? I find that very difficult to believe and I hope that is not the case.

Surely the umbrella firearms organisations who estimated the buy-back would cost hundreds of millions of dollars because of the number of weapons now deemed illegal now have a duty to encourage their members or others they know who are holding on to illegal weapons to comply with the law.

It is too late for compensation, but it’s better to hand in these weapons than to end up in serious trouble.

This untenable situation of not knowing how many guns are out there leads me to the key elements in the second tranche of the firearms law reform - the firearm registry and the licensing system.

It is alarming that New Zealand has been without a firearm registry since 1983, ostensibly because it was too cumbersome, inaccurate and expensive.

Thanks to technology - seen daily in driver licences, motor vehicles and many other online registrations - the argument of a cumbersome, inaccurate and expensive registry no longer wash.

It is pleasing to see the majority report-back from the select committee included assurance that the registry would be sufficiently easy to use, that licence holders with access to the internet would be able to update the registry online, and, for those without digital access, a paper system will accommodate them. The new registry will be an updated extension of the current online platform that Police use for permits for prohibited firearms, magazines, pistols and restricted weapons.

The association has been outspoken in its support of registration of firearms and associated activities and believes the value of registration was demonstrated in the accuracy with which Police were able to pinpoint for collection the 15,037 E-Cat firearms during the buy-back, simply because they were registered.

Of those weapons, 10,009 were handed in during the buy-back, 4211 are in progress and Police are following up on 817 outstanding.

As well as providing accurate data on how many guns there are in New Zealand and who owns them, the very nature of firearms registries promotes a change in the behaviour of those who use them.

When people know they are going to be held to account for however many firearms they register, their behaviour changes.

The practical application of this behavioural phenomenon includes:

- Incentives to ensure storage is appropriate for the number and types of firearms registered, because Police will have records of the number of firearms an owner has

- Owners are more likely to report thefts of firearms when they occur, because they will have to account for the whereabouts of those firearms at their next licensing/renewal firearms inspection

- Owners will be more inclined to report stolen firearms, rather than risk being implicated in any crime those firearms may subsequently be used for

- Owners will be discouraged from importing or on-selling their firearms to unlicensed persons (straw purchasing) because a registration system carries a much greater risk of detection for them

- A registration system makes it much more difficult for those who have committed crimes to obtain a firearm and commit further crimes

- A registry means stolen firearms can more easily be identifiable, and while this may be of limited use as a deterrent to criminals, identifying the source of a stolen firearm used in a serious crime will often result in valuable evidence linking an offender to that crime.

It is also good to note that with a firearms registry, it will be much easier for law-abiding firearms owners to recover firearms that have been stolen from them.

For the association, one of the most significant benefits of a registry is that, when called to an address, police officers will be forewarned if any firearms are registered to an owner at that address. This is a major safety factor for our members who are called to thousands of incidents a year, particularly family violence incidents. When they arrive, they often have no idea whether they will be confronted with a firearm.

We also note extensive research in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand linking registration of firearms with reduced incidents of suicide by firearm. Registration promotes safer storage requirements. Because suicides are often impulsive acts, measures such as locked storage of unloaded firearms, with ammunition stored elsewhere, can prolong the period between the initial decision and the suicidal act. [2]

In election-year political point-scoring there seems to be a deliberate effort to perpetuate the line that this legislation "does nothing about genuine criminal activity in gangs and does everything about layering cost, administrative burden and regulation on people who already follow the rules." [3]

The bill specifically includes new powers to stop a gang member ever getting a firearms licence, which, technically, they can do today.

However, in all my years in policing I have never heard of a patched member being considered fit and proper when it comes to owning guns. Those who are licensed before moving into a gang will eventually have their licence revoked, but focusing on how the Arms Legislation Bill will or won’t crack down on gangs is a distraction. What we need to concentrate on is how to limit, and ideally prevent, dangerous gang members and other criminals accessing guns by stealing, trading or buying them.

Put simply, if we limit the number of guns that can be stolen, traded or bought off-grid, it’s logical that you limit the supply for criminals, and that benefits us all.

Police have told the government there are weaknesses and loopholes in the current system that are being exploited by both a small number of licensed owners, who may in general be law-abiding, and by people intent on using firearms for criminal purposes.

There is scant evidence of illegal importing of firearms. Instead, Police says "firearms are flowing from licensed firearm owners into the hands of unlicensed people, some of whom intend to commit crime and cause harm." [4]

In the past five years, 4240 firearms were reported stolen across the country - and that is just the number Police know of. [5]

And where do you suppose these firearms have gone?

Operation Gun Safe data shows in the last year, 2165 guns have been seized, recovered or surrendered, and 88 per cent of them were non-licensed.

In that time there have been 323 incidents in which firearms were presented at either police, the public, or both: 302 at members of the public, 18 at police and five at both. Of those last 23 incidents, the firearms were discharged ten times.

That is an unacceptable risk to us all.

In the past few months we have seen an escalation in gang activity, and firearms have been front and centre of much of that.

Be in no doubt Police is seriously focused on gangs. Just yesterday they raided the Mongols property in Burnham and seized 10 firearms, ammunition, about 50-thousand in cash, and drugs.

Effective policing of gangs needs to be strong, but considered, rather than knee-jerk. Experience has shown that gangs find ways to work around the law, such as recruiting facilitators and specialists, including lawyers, accountants, chemists, hackers and others who can access goods such as firearms. [6]

At the association’s 2019 annual conference these complex arrangements and realities were addressed by our speakers from Police’s outlaw motorcycle gang unit, asset recovery team, serious and organised crime team, and the FBI.

They all confirmed the professionalisation of gangs in New Zealand as a growing issue. Tuesday’s sentencing of the Comancheros gang lawyer to just under three years on 13 counts of money laundering is the way to fight them. The gang’s vice-president was also taken down in this raid and six other Comancheros will go on trial later in the year. [7]

Former Minister of Justice Jim McLay once said, "the problem of gangs will not be solved by throwing a law at it". [8]

I would like to add, however, that our gang problem can be addressed through solid, focused law such as the Arms Legislation Bill, Firearms Prohibition Orders, and, as Police Financial Crime Group manager Iain Chapman said, "full and robust attention from police."

One other matter the association is concerned about with respect to the changes made to the Arms Legislation Bill at committee stages, is the backtrack on the length of a firearms licence.

The bill proposed reducing the length of the licence from ten to five years, but after pushback, and I dare say some inter-party ‘negotiations’, the ten-year licence is reinstated with a few tweaks including five years for a first licence, or renewal of a lapsed license.

We advocated for a five-year licence because it allows for regular and accurate assessment of a licence holder’s patterns of behaviour, living and security arrangements, and whether there are any circumstances that may exclude the firearms owner from meeting the "fit and proper person" criteria.

So much can change in a person’s life and circumstances over a ten-year period. Some people change addresses multiple times in that many years. If it could be ten years before Police know if a gun is lost or on-sold, it adversely impacts on the integrity of the registry.

Some submissions expressed concern that the bill was going to keep the current licence fee but halve the duration of the licence period.

Let’s be real here. At $126.50 for a ten-year licence, firearms owners are paying just $12.65 a year for the privilege of owning a gun. A 5-year licence system at the same rate would still be only $25.30 a year.

Taxpayers, the majority of whom do not own guns, subsidise the administration costs to the point that firearms owners contribute only half of what it costs to administer the licensing system. I would like it if the government paid half of my gym subscription, but that is not a reality.

One final point about asking taxpayers to stump up for firearms administration.

In the second reading of the Arms Legislation Bill, suggestions were raised about establishing a separate entity to administer firearms law.

The argument goes that it is inappropriate to have Police as the enforcer of the law and the writer of the law because that blurs the separation of power.

I would say that the last thing we need is to fund another government agency to administer our gun laws. Who do proponents of this idea suggest should pick up the tab?

Summary:

I am sure we will all be watching closely during the final stages of the Arms Legislation Bill next week.

The association welcomed the overwhelming public and political support for the Arms Amendment Act passed last April. The Arms Legislation Bill has been subjected to much more politicking, and, yes, the association has taken part in that because it is our role to argue for measures that enhance the safety of our members in their jobs. That, in turn, makes our communities safer places.

I accept there is "give and take" at this level of legislative reform. What the association asks is that the commitment made last year to improve public safety through tighter controls on the use and possession of guns is delivered next week.

References

[1] Gun Control NZ, 2019 Gun Laws and Changes, UMR, accessed 24/01/20 @ https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5cd8faed049079488855da64/t/5d82d04950158d4686ac09e4/1568854091167/UMR+survey+on+gun+laws.pdf

[2] Edmond D Shenassa, Michele L Rogers, Kirsten L Spalding, Mary B Roberts, (2004) Safer storage of firearms at home and risk of suicide: a study of protective factors in a nationally representative sample, J Epidemial Community Health 20014;58-84-848.doi:10.1136/jech2003017343 http://jech.bmj.com/content/58/10/841 See also: American Public Health Association (2018), Reducing Suicides by Firearms, Policy Number 20184; Hutching, Gerard, (2017) Access to guns helps fuel farmer suicides - study, Stuff, May1, 2017, https://www.stuff.co.nz/business/farming/92078704/access-to-guns-helps-fuel-farmer-suicides; S Chapman, P Alpers, K Agho, M Jones (2006) Australia’s 1996 gun law reforms: faster falls in firearms deaths, firearm suicides, and a decade without mass shootings, www.injuryprevention.com

[3] Arms Legislation Bilol - Second Reading, 19/02/20, (Brett Hudson) p.3/21 @ https://www.parliament.nz/en/pb/hansard-debates/rhr/combined/HansDeb_20200219_20200219_32

[4] NZ Police, (2019) Interim Departmental Report: Arms Legislation Bill, p.7, https://www.parliament.nz/resource/en-NZ/52SCFE_ADV_91272_FE24632/88f77a1644d7910ce6a61f60c1092d9b1cef37e8?fbclid=IwAR3GaWWcXNgISiLTGX5NxFzx7xWoNIagqa3l8Ymdr-88jDEWdJYoGfXTVt8

[5] Matthew Tso, 26/02/20, More than 4000 firearms stolen - cops are victims, too, accessed 27/02/20 @ https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/119811686/more-than-4000-firearms-stolen--cops-are-victims-too

[6] Anne Lim, 2017, Gangs and Guns: Is a Blanket Firearms Ban on Gangs Justified? University of Otago, Te Wharē Wānanga o Otāgo, p.38, accessed 24/02/20 @ https://www.otago.ac.nz/law/research/journals/otago672754.pdf

[7] Auckland lawyer, Commancheros gang senior jailed for ‘sophisticated’ money laundering scheme, accessed 25/02/20 @ https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/crime/119776106/auckland-lawyer-comancheros-gang-senior-jailed-for-sophisticated-money-laundering-scheme

[8] ibid p.38 (Llim)

 

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