A study has found there could be four times the number of illegal firearms circulating than police estimate.

Their proliferation, however, and that of legally-held firearms, appears in the study to have little to do with the incidence of violent crime.

The work, undertaken by a University of Otago assistant research fellow with more than 40 years’ experience studying firearm use, is the first in the country to explore regional differences.

These include firearm ownership, rates of offending and firearm use over three decades.

Chaz Forsyth, who is also a police volunteer for inspecting small-arms ranges, says firearms featured in less than 1.5 percent of violent crime and under 0.2 percent of deaths.

His research, published in January as a PhD thesis, found most violent offenders nationwide use either cutlery or blunt instruments such as helmets, boots and fists.

Regionally-identified levels of socioeconomic deprivation has a far greater correlation with the incidence of violent crime than the availability of firearms.

Firearms were involved in 70 percent of suicides, however, whether by licensed or unlicensed owners.

With the exception of most of the Canterbury region, the South Island has the highest percentage of licensed gun owners per capita, at over 10 percent. It also has the lowest percentages of robberies anywhere in the country.

Forsyth believes the police’s new firearms registry, in which licensed owners are required to record all of their arms, won’t stop illicit guns falling into the wrong hands.

In fact, he says, it could have the opposite effect.

“My belief is with major changes in firearm laws, the number of firearms becoming illicit tends to increase sharply, for whatever reason – apathy, malice towards the new law or whatever.”

His thesis evaluated changes in contemporary attitudes and beliefs about firearms and firearm users across the country.

It focuses on urban and rural contrasts, the roles played by social and demographic considerations and changing societal perceptions.

It concludes unlicensed urban dwellers have a low understanding of firearms laws and uses in New Zealand and are influenced by negative media reports regarding firearm-related crime.

Negative perceptions about firearms tend to fade quickly, however, in the weeks following a reported incident.

His analysis attempts to connect various data sources to test the idea that the availability of firearms is not the sole determinant for their appearance in misuses.

He says according to the administrative data, there are about 250,000 licensed owners and users of firearms in New Zealand, mainly recreational hunters.

The number does not include non-licensed possessors of firearms.

“These data suggest there are between 1.2 and 1.6 million firearms in New Zealand with perhaps up to 200,000 more firearms held illicitly.”

A four-year-old police estimate put the number of illicit firearms in New Zealand at roughly 48,000.

The figure has not been updated since and a police spokesperson told Newsroom they had no way of estimating how many are in circulation.

Police record the residential addresses of all licensed firearm owners. It also approves the importation of all firearms, which must have individual identification markings.

A spokesperson says, however, that while people importing an item under a “permit to import” should notify police, information has not always been provided. 

“Some records were kept in different work groups as there has been no centralised database available.”

Ready, aim

Forsyth disputes the claim that adding full firearm registration will better equip authorities to make New Zealand safer.

“The problem is only the licensed people will be inclined to register their firearms, and those not so inclined have already indicated their unwillingness to comply with laws.

“So it is hardly reasonable to expect their compliance in this regard either.”

Since June 24, firearms held for any purpose must be registered. Photo: Jill Herron

He doesn’t believe there is a link between full firearm registration and downwards trends in criminal violence.

“Heaping new laws upon old, when the existing laws were neither properly operated nor enforced, seems like failure.

“Creating a new bureaucracy costing $1 million a week seems expensive when no information has been provided to show its cost-effectiveness, a normal practice before the spending of public money on things like roading improvements and public health is another surprise.”

He accepts it is near impossible to know precisely how many illegal firearms are in circulation as their owners kept a low profile and did not engage in research projects.

He has, however, studied trends in ownership and reactions to law changes over the decades, which have indicated drop-offs in records held of individual firearms.

These were likely to include military-style semi-automatics and assault rifles, which were banned in March 2019 following the Christchurch terrorist attack.

While an amnesty was held, Forsyth believes some could have disappeared into what is referred to as the grey or black world of illegal ownership.

Sir Thomas Thorp, a High Court judge who reviewed New Zealand’s gun-control measures in the late 1990s, believed 1.5 percent of all firearms in circulation went “off track” and Forsyth believes this remains an accurate estimate.

Thorp’s report recommended a host of improvements to the vetting system for prospective licensees and that military-style semi-automatics be banned except when essential for pest control.

He also felt the licensing system should be replaced with one that combined licensing and registration.

Locked and loaded

The new registry opened on June 24 and licensed owners must now log their firearms online or by phone, updating any changes of ownership when they happen. Dealers have two years to register their sales stock.

The police spokesperson says the system will strengthen firearms management.

“Many New Zealanders might be surprised that up until now we have not had a complete picture of where all the firearms in our community are; that is, what firearms each licence holder has.

“Additionally, we have had no visibility of how firearms have been moving around the community; that is, when people are buying, selling or passing firearms on to other people.”

Police claim the registry will help reduce the diversion of firearms to organised criminal groups.

“Intelligence shows diversion of legal firearms to criminals by licence holders is occurring.

“We know it is one way in which criminals are accessing firearms. The registry will give us a much better picture of suspicious-looking transactions – for example, if a licence holder purchases a series of firearms from many different gun shops in a short period of time.”

The registry will highlight such “real-time” intelligence, making it possible for police to follow up the activity to check its legitimacy.

It will also make it possible to trace the owners of registered firearms that are stolen when such weapons are recovered from crime scenes and offenders.

A sample police record of firearms reported stolen over 18 months from January 1, 2019, shows 1028 firearms were taken from licensed owners and 29 from unlicensed arms owners. The remainder were types not requiring a licence such as airguns owned by adults.

Police agree with Forsyth that government and academic indices of deprivation tend to show a correlation between that and violent crime, but declined to comment on his findings regarding a lack of connection between crime and the number of licensed firearms holders in a region.

While gun crime is rare in Otago, the presence of illicitly-held firearms was recently highlighted through a drugs investigation.

Three men were arrested in Central Otago in April following Operation Vintage, a bust described by police as one of the “most significant in the area in recent years”.

Twenty-one firearms and hundreds of rounds of ammunition were recovered by police and two of the men have been charged with unlawful possession of firearms.

Update: The bulk of firearms fatalities – 70 percent, Chaz Forsyth says – are suicides, whether by licensed or unlicensed owners, correcting the sentence saying firearms were involved in 70 percent of suicides … whether by licensed or unlicensed owners.

Made with the support of the Public Interest Journalism Fund

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