ANALYSIS: The Government has committed to tightening gun laws in the wake of the Christchurch massacre, but getting support for legislation while the radical arm of New Zealand’s gun lobby screams its opposition will be no walk in the park.
Following the death of 50 people at the hands of 28-year-old Australian citizen Brenton Harrison Tarrant, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern stood in the Beehive and said she would change the country’s gun laws.
Tarrant was in possession of five firearms. He held a basic, Category A New Zealand gun licence, and had likely used it to legally purchase the semi-automatic weapons. It is understood he then went on to illegally modify the AR15 semi-automatic with large magazines.
The ability to modify firearms has long been a weak point in New Zealand’s firearm laws.
Ardern said there was a “raft” of issues she would look at, and policy options would be taken to the Government’s Cabinet meeting on Monday.
A ban on semi-automatic weapons was mooted, and the Police Association has long been pushing for a register of firearms.
“While work is being done as to the chain of events that led to both the holding of this gun licence and the possession of these weapons, I can tell you one thing right now: our gun laws will change,” she said.
A perinnial issue
But changing gun laws in New Zealand isn’t that simple.
New Zealand has made numerous attempts to change gun laws in recent years. Ardern cited attempts in 2005, 2012 and 2017. There has not been a significant change in more than 26 years.
The issue of guns is constantly bubbling away under the surface, with debates rising to the top every time there’s a high-profile incident involving a firearm.
When this happens the responses are the same: police saw it coming, Police Association calls for tighter laws, the firearms community pushes back saying their rights as responsible gun owners were being eroded by the criminal minority – ‘guns don’t kill people, people kill people’ – and politicians promise to look at the laws.
In 2017, in their briefing to incoming Police Minister Stuart Nash in, police identified firearms laws as a priority issues.
Police and government could do more to ensure public trust in the firearms regime, the briefing said. It called for modernising legislation to make sure it fitted with firearms manufacturing developments, and improving the way police administered the regime.
“New Zealand has relatively high levels of firearm ownership for recreational, sporting and employment purposes.”
Police said there needed to be a balance between compliance duties on law abiding firearms users, with safeguards that protect New Zealanders from illegal firearm possession and criminal use.
Soon after coming into power, Police Minister Stuart Nash set up a committee to review the laws, focusing on penalties and consistency in enforcing the law. Police have reported back to Nash, following a series of meetings across the country.
In the wake of the mass shooting, the Government will move this work to the front of the queue.
The work by Nash comes after a year-long parliamentary select committee into the possession of illegal firearms reported back with about 20 recommendations in 2017.
As with a similar report by Justice Thomas Thorp in 1997, the majority of the recommendations were not adopted by then-police minister Paula Bennett, who is understood to be a keen hunter.
The radical arm of NZ’s gun lobby
While New Zealand might not seem a likely place for high rates of gun ownership, the country’s rural community includes a significant number of recreational hunters and shooters.
There are about 250,000 registered firearms licence holders, and estimates of the number of guns in the country range from 1.2 million to 3m – 15,000 of these guns were semi-automatic weapons.
Along with countries in North America, New Zealand is one of the few places where owners don’t have to register each weapon, except for certain categories of firearm.
Among those 250,000 gun owners, there is a vocal gun lobby – one which successive police ministers have been accused of bowing to.
In 2017, following Bennett’s decision to reject the majority of the report’s recommendations, Police Association President Chris Cahill said the minister had given into the pressure of a lobby which he believed represented fewer than 10,000 of the then-240,000 licensed gun owners.
“She has ignored the deliberations of the select committee, even on the common sense and obvious recommendations, to the point you have to ask why hold an inquiry in the first place,” he said at the time,
Cahill – who is often criticised by the lobby – said following the select committee report, politicians told him it was the most intense lobbying they had ever experienced.
“Without a doubt, the gun lobby in New Zealand is strong.”
The pushback over the proposal to tighten gun laws did not just come from New Zealand.
During the inquiry, the National Rifle Association (NRA) in the United States published press releases pushing back on the report’s recommendations, saying “the New Zealand Parliament would do well to reject the repugnant attack on law-abiding gun owners… and instead focus their efforts on more directly confronting the criminal misuse of firearms.”
The powerful US gun lobby group also accused New Zealand Police of “official obfuscation and intimidation” in regard to gun laws.
With about a dozen separate, active lobby groups and recreational shooting organisations, the Council of Licenced Firearms Owners took leadership in encouraging gun owners to submit to the select committee.
Mid-last year police began to clamp down on the importing of semi-automatic rifles, including the AR15 – the type of popular gun which was used by Tarrant in the Christchurch attack.
At the time, Gun City owner David Tipple said he was preparing to take the police to court over the tightening on imports.
The ability to organise and engage in policy was again displayed during the recent tahr cull controversy.
When Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage announced plans for a cull of 17,000 tahr in the South Island at the end of last year, the National Party launched a petition in to stop the cull.
The petition gained about 30,000 signatures – mostly from hunters. About 20,000 of those flooded in during the firt 15 hours after the petition was launched.
Following Nash’s announcement that he would be reviewing the Ams Act, National Party police spokesman Chris Bishop launched a series of dozens of town hall meetings to talk about firearms use and control.
He is midway through what’s expected to be up to 30 meetings.
A meeting in Invercargill earlier this month drew more than 100 people, and according to a Stuff article the Southland crowd was upset with moves to increase firearm regulations, saying it would unfairly punish recreational hunters.
Cahill said there was a genuine place for the voice of responsible gun owners in the debate over gun laws, but not the radical minority.
Immediate opposition to stricter laws
Almost immediately following Ardern’s comments on Saturday, firearms owners began posting online in opposition to tightening laws.
On the Kiwi Gun Blog Facebook page, one person said it was time to quietly organise and work together to stop changes to the laws.
Others said Ardern was punishing reasonable gun owners over what had happened.
Meanwhile, others rushed into shops and online stores to purchase weapons – largely semi-automatic weapons – in anticipation of a ban.
The owner of Auckland gun shop Serious Shooters, Richard Munt, said Ardern’s announcement was a “knee-jerk reaction.
This usually led to poorly-written legislation, and never addressed the original problem of criminal activities with firearms going unpunished.
“All it affects is legal, law-abiding citizens, never criminals,” Munt said.
But there was also a group of gun owners who said there was no need for military-style semi-automatic weapons in New Zealand – a stance the Police Association supported.
Dunedin Clay Target Club president Grant Dodson said as a target shooter, land manager and recreational hunter, military-style semi-automatic rifles and tactical shotguns had limited usefulness as they were designed for military combat use.
“For target shooting and general hunting situations, conventional sporting style bolt action or semi-automatic firearms are much better suited,” he said.
The only exception would be for mass pest control, such as shooting feral goats from a helicopter.
It took a tragedy
While there have been numerous attempts to change gun laws in the past, the issue has always been a political hot potato.
Nash was no doubt gearing up for a struggle to get any law changes past coalition partner New Zealand First.
In the past, New Zealand First has opposed law changes, with Ron Mark being an avid shooter and gun owner.
Following the 2017 inquiry, the party said the recommendations in the report “target legitimate ownership of legally held firearms by licensed users, importers, and dealers, and recommends further restrictions on them by way of laws and regulations relating to them and their firearms”.
However, this tragedy may be what is needed to finally get the political will, and unity, to pass tighter gun laws.
A similar thing happened following the Aramoana massacre, where then-police minister John Banks stood in front of media and vowed the same thing would never happen again.
But Serious Shooters’ Munt said those changes did not address the underlying issue of criminal access to firearms.
The Police Association’s Cahill said the real tragedy was it took an event like this to get change.
“But that’s human nature,” he said.
Police who were working on the frontline understood the risks, but until now, politicians hadn’t properly understood what could happen, he said.
New Zealand had to learn from this “stark and horrible example”.
What’s on the table?
It was early days in terms of policy, and more would be known after the Government’s Cabinet meeting on Monday,.
However, Ardern said she was considering the banning of semi-automatic weapons, similar to Australia.
Australia banned semi-automatics back in 1996, following the Port Arthur massacre.
“We can’t ignore the galling fact he came to New Zealand to buy firearms he couldn’t get in Australia,” Cahill said about Tarrant.
When Australia banned semi-automatics, they ran a buyback, amnesty-style scheme. This would likely be discussed in New Zealand, but there will continue to be opposition from those who use semi-automatics for recreational shooting and hunting.
The Government is also expected to reconsider a firearms register.
Those who oppose a full gun register say it hasn’t worked in the past, and the genie is already out of the bottle – it would be near-imnpossible to find all the guns in the country and register them, especially those in the hands of criminals and gangs.
The counter-argument is the current regime hasn’t worked either, so stricter administration should be considered.
Ardern’s Government is also expected to look into how to restrict the purchase of magazines, and equipment used to modify weapons. This will include further scrutiny of online purchases.
The National Party has been quiet since Ardern made her statement on gun laws.
Bishop has deferred all questions to party leader Simon Bridges, who says it’s too soon to weigh in on politics and policy surrounding the mass shooting.
However, he said he was confident New Zealand would be able to have a mature and constructive debate on gun laws in the near future.
1983: Arms Act established
1984-5: Financial deregulation and removal of tariffs
1990: Aramoana shootings
1992: Arms Act
1997: Thorp Report: Comprehensive review of the Arms Act. The review raised concerns over MSSA weapons
2001: Internet penetration reaches 50 percent of New Zealanders
2005: Arms Amendment Bill No.3 introduced
2010: Arms Amendment Bill No.4 gets policy approval. Drafting instructions provided in 2011 and 2013
2012: Government discharges No.3 Bill
2012: Arms (Military Style Semi-automatic Firearms and Import Controls) Amendment Act passes. Restricts imports, and bans pistol-type grips on semi-automatic guns
2013: First 3D printed firearm fired
2013-2016: No progress on drafting Arms Amendment Bill No.4
2016: Law and Order Committee begins Inquiry into Illegal Firearm Possession
2016: 66 percent of New Zealanders shop online
2017: Law and Order Committee report recommends 17 legislative amendments
This story has since been amended.