NZ buyback plans far from watertight

John Maxwell

New Zealand shooters are now part way into their buyback of semi-automatic and some other firearms, a process Australia undertook in 1996 and which we recall none too fondly. Both buybacks stemmed from similar outrages, shooting massacres conducted by unhinged individuals armed with semi-automatic rifles, both governments seizing the chance to rid the community of such firearms.

It’s worth comparing how Australia did it more than two decades ago with how New Zealand is doing it now. There are similarities . . . and differences. New Zealand introduced its buyback in the wake of the Christchurch massacre in which an Australian man living in NZ used several guns to murder 51 people in two city mosques. He obtained an NZ firearms licence in 2017 and subsequently obtained two semi-automatic rifles, two shotguns and a lever action firearm.

Precisely what type of firearms were used hasn’t been clearly stated but the gunman’s own live streaming of the attack shows him using an AR-15-type rifle with high capacity magazine. Under NZ’s (former) gun laws were restrictions on handguns and on what were termed military-style semi-automatic (MSSA) firearms.

To acquire and use MSSA rifles one needed a Category E licence endorsement (Cat E). The MSSA definition applied to any semi-automatic centrefire rifle with one or more of the following features -  a detachable magazine holding more than 10 rounds, pistol grip, flash hider, folding or telescopic butt. However, an AR-15-pattern semi-automatic rifle with 10-round magazine, thumbhole fixed stock and no flash hider or bayonet lug fell into the least  restricted Category A, along with most everything else - bolt action, lever action and single-shot rifles, shotguns and air rifles.

It appears the Christchurch gunman caused most of his carnage with a readily available and legally acquired Cat A firearm rather than a more restricted Cat E weapon. The NZ government’s response was to ban these rifles and some shotguns but they haven’t gone quite as far as Australia, which banned all semi-automatic centrefire and rimfire rifles and shotguns along with pump action shotguns.

New Zealand’s ban applies to all semi-automatic centrefire rifles and associated parts as well as rimfire rifles, self-loading and pump action shotguns, but with exemptions which mean many won’t have to be surrendered. For rimfires the ban doesn’t apply if the gun has a removable or fixed magazine of 10-round capacity or less. Semi-automatic shotguns with fixed tubular magazine of five rounds or less capacity aren’t banned while any pump action shotgun with detachable magazine is banned but not for those with fixed tubular magazine of five-round or less capacity.

New Zealand will allow modification of semi-automatic and pump action shotguns with fixed tubular magazines so they meet the five-round capacity requirement and will even contribute up to NZ$300 towards the cost of gunsmithing of eligible firearms.

As Australia’s buyback unfolded, gun owners pressed the government  to allow a similar process of modification, known as crimping, to restrict shotgun ammunition capacity, the government eventually ruling it out on the grounds it could be reversed, although not easily.

As New Zealand has never had general firearms registration it has no idea how many now-banned firearms are out there. Neither did Australia in 1996 as not all jurisdictions had registration in place but the process of introducing registration for all jurisdictions proceeded in conjunction with the buyback. In NZ registration may be the next step despite ample evidence it’s an expensive waste of police resources, creating a vast bureaucracy which does nothing to hinder the criminally minded while imposing cost and inconvenience on the law abiding.

As Australia did, NZ is seeking to encourage compliance with an element of ‘carrot  compensation’ for firearms surrendered and ‘stick’ - tough penalties for anyone in possession of banned firearms. There are certain exemptions for those who need semi-automatic centrefire rifles for animal control,  and collectors who can demonstrate their collections have a theme and are not just an ad-hoc group of firearms.

Like Australia, NZ has drawn up a long list of now banned firearms along with what compensation will be paid for their surrender but has adopted a different mechanism for calculation. Australia set prices for items in new and used condition and once a firearm was assessed to be either new or used, there was no further assessment and the owner paid the scheduled sum.

Australian gun owners were not happy to surrender guns they’d lawfully acquired and safely and responsibly used but were mostly happy with the compensation, in many cases substantially greater than what their guns would have fetched had they been sold legally the day before Port Arthur. New Zealand can surely expect to see exactly what Australia experienced - with their buyback money Aussies went out and bought more guns.

The NZ buyback list nominates a base price for each firearm - and magazine information. For those assessed as new or near new, owners will receive 95 per cent of the base price, for used firearms 70 per cent and for those assessed as poor non-functioning condition, 25 per cent. It would seem to follow that most guns likely to be surrendered, other than new shop stock, fall into the used category. Considering the difference in what’s being paid for used and poor condition guns, it could also follow that some owners will do their best to renovate scrap guns and claim maximum possible compensation. New Zealand is also seeking to buy back component parts and accessories and has again set a base price for nominated items but will pay just 70 per cent of that price for new, near-new or used items and 25 per cent for parts in poor condition.

For the Australian buyback owners took newly-banned firearms to police stations and there were some community hand-in events. NZ is seeking to do this mostly through community events, though there are some provisions for hand-in at police stations. Owners are advised to register online in advance or on the day which involves creating an account, notifying police of firearms licence, items to be surrendered and bank account for payment. The first collection was held in Christchurch in mid-July while the buyback and associated amnesty runs until December 20.

So how’s it going? Media reports indicate a good early response although numbers of guns surrendered don’t seem that large but, as the scheme runs until December, it would be human nature for owners to hang on as long as possible.

What does success look like? As New Zealand has never had full firearms registration, no-one knows how many now-banned guns are in the community. Even Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern acknowledged they were very much in the dark as to how many banned guns were in circulation but it’s known there are around 15,000 Cat E firearms. NZ’s Council of Licensed Firearms Owners (COLFO, counterpart to the SSAA), estimates 250,000 to 300,000 now-banned guns.

The New Zealand government budgeted NZ$208m (A$183 million) for the buyback and COLFO says that could more than double to NZ$500m, the government  having already added additional funds, saying it will provide more if needed.

Unsurprisingly, many Kiwi gun owners aren’t happy with the less than adequate process of consultation, with losing their guns and the level of compensation. COLFO is talking about a legal challenge. “The view by many is this pricelist doesn’t fairly reflect the prices - they were out of whack with what people thought they were worth in the second-hand market,” said the NZ Opposition police spokesman.

There appears to be one other significant loophole - compensation will only be paid to licensed gun owners. Those without a licence can still hand in banned guns but won’t be paid. “Perhaps the greatest tragedy is the government’s decision to exclude illegally-held firearms from the buyback. It appears to be telling law-abiding firearm owners ‘line up’ while telling criminals ‘keep doing what you're doing’,’ said New Zealand crossbencher David Seymour, leader of the ACT party. “The net result is we’ll likely be less safe than we were on March 15.” 

Maybe some of NZ’s unlicensed gun owners will do the right  thing but you’d have to think many won’t and these guns will just disappear into a criminal black market, perhaps to surface years down the track in a bank robbery. That’s the criminal fraternity.

But just as occurred in Australia, some NZ gun owners are murmuring about not surrendering their firearms. As Australia’s buyback unfolded there were anecdotal stories of hardware shops selling out of six-inch PVC pipe and end caps, which shooters were buying up to bury their guns.

Certainly Australia’s buyback was lauded as a great success with 640,000 guns surrendered though wasn’t a total success and a large part of the estimated 250,000-plus illicit firearms across the country are guns not surrendered post-Port Arthur or subsequently registered. New Zealand likely has this in its future.

The Kiwis are entitled to conduct the buyback their way but considering their ultimate policy objective is to remove as many ‘dangerous’ guns from the community as possible, that won’t be helped by measures which seem aimed at doing this on the cheap and which, no matter how well intentioned, seem likely to drive firearms on to the black market.

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