NZ buyback was no roaring success

by John Maxwell

New Zealand’s gun buyback ended on December 20 with more than 56,000 now banned firearms surrendered for destruction, their owners compensated almost NZ$100 million. Some 31,650 New Zealand firearms owners handed in guns which were overwhelmingly semi-automatics, including sporting and military-pattern rifles.

About 188,000 assorted parts were also handed in and police seized a further 1800 guns from gangs, while 2700 guns were modified to comply with the new laws. Another 5000 guns were surrendered under a parallel amnesty which allowed owners to hand in any non-banned firearms without compensation.

The amnesty followed the Christchurch massacre in March of last year when an Australian man shot and killed 51 people in attacks on two mosques. The New Zealand Government moved swiftly to ban semi-automatic and other firearms and launch a buyback scheme to remove them from the community. The approach was similar to the Australian Government’s response following the 1996 Port Arthur tragedy.

Now a second round of legislation is being introduced, changing registration requirements and tightening the country’s firearms licensing regime. Unsurprisingly, the Government declared the buyback a great success but the Council of Licensed Firearms Owners (COLFO) - New Zealand’s equivalent of SSAA - branded it a complete failure which alienated many shooters. “We are loath to call it a buyback, rather a confiscation compensation scheme,” COLFO spokeswoman Nicole McKee told the SSAA.

Guns in New Zealand were not registered other than handguns and military-style semi-automatic rifles - it was unclear just how many now banned guns were in the community. The NZ Government commissioned consulting group KPMG to produce an estimate and it could do no better than somewhere between 50,000 and 170,000. COLFO made its own assessment based on import information from NZ Customs and data from 11 major firearms importers and estimated a figure of 170,000.

Even if the true number was around the median, it appears New Zealand has done no better than capture half the banned guns in the community and may have done a lot worse - and that’s before national registration begins. Compliance wasn’t helped by ill-will between shooters and police.

“Unfortunately there’s not much trust with New Zealand Police and the way they’ve behaved towards firearms owners,” Ms McKee said. “It’s really sad because it shouldn’t be that way, it does need to change but it’s not going to happen overnight.”

New Zealand is a nation with a strong hunting and shooting culture, a high level of gun ownership, traditionally low rates of gun violence and, by Australian standards, permissive firearms laws. Like Port Arthur, the Christchurch massacre produced a backlash against gun owners and even former PM John Howard acknowledged Australian shooters felt aggrieved they were being penalised because of “the behaviour of a madman.”

Ms McKee said the Christchurch attacks shook everyone to the core. “And we had a government which singled out licensed gun owners. We had people turning against people in the workplace when they found out they were gun owners,” she said. “Firearm owners were being vilified and it was a constant tirade of abuse. I had my tyres slashed.”

Ms McKee said New Zealand was now set to follow Australia’s experience with banned guns disappearing into an enlarged grey market, with some likely to find their way to the criminal black market. The grey market in Australia is defined as banned firearms not surrendered in the 1996-97 buyback or otherwise legal guns which were never registered. Such guns aren’t necessarily retained for criminal purposes but if stolen or on-sold, can enter the black market.

No-one knows how many banned or unregistered guns remained in the Australian community following the buyback. In 2016 the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC) estimated the entire Australian illicit market comprised perhaps 250,000 long-arms and 10,000 handguns. One indication of the size of the Australian grey market has come from firearms amnesties, with 57,000 guns handed in or registered during the national amnesty in 2017.

The federal, state and territory governments have now agreed to a permanent ongoing amnesty starting later this year so anyone can hand in any gun at any time, no questions asked. But it would follow it’s not criminals handing in their guns. With a large number of banned rifles remaining in the New Zealand community and more likely to follow as registration is rolled out, the country will likely end up with a significant stockpile of undocumented firearms. Considering well-established trans-Tasman criminal ties, could it be some of those guns will find their way to Australia?

Unlike Australia post-Port Arthur, New Zealand has launched an inquiry to determine exactly what happened at Christchurch, how it happened and whether it could have been prevented. The Royal Commission findings are to be handed in by the end July. COLFO and others have suggested the NZ Government should hold off on the next round of firearms legislation until it has seen the Royal Commission findings.

The findings will likely provide better answers to key questions: How did a newcomer to New Zealand so readily attain a firearms licence then buy five guns including the AR-15 pattern rifle he used to murder 51 people? New Zealand’s gun laws pre-Christchurch dated from 1983 with further changes after the 1990 massacre in which a man used military and other rifles to murder 13 people in the town of Aramoana near Dunedin.

Among the changes were more rigorous licensing and greater restrictions on military-style semi-automatic (MSSA) firearms for which the Category E licence endorsement was introduced. However, an AR-pattern semi-automatic rifle with thumbhole fixed stock, low capacity magazine and no flash hider fell into the least restricted Category A along with most everything else including bolt action, lever action and single-shot rifles, shotguns and air rifles.

It appears the Christchurch gunman caused most or all of this carnage with a legally acquired Cat A firearm, to which he added readily available high capacity magazines. That was a recognised loophole exploited by others such as the man who murdered two women in 2017. Ms McKee said COLFO had been urging the government to restrict high capacity magazines to those with a Category E endorsement. “We were told basically the horse had bolted,” she said. “That’s what the Christchurch gunman ended up doing and straight away the government pointed the finger at licensed firearms owners.”

Ms McKee said questions had been raised as to how he managed to obtain a licence so soon after arriving in New Zealand and whether or not there were face-to-face interviews with the two referees he was required to nominate. He was issued a 10-year licence in September 2017, as little as four to six weeks after arriving in the country. At the time he had no job and few community ties but was assessed as being a fit and proper person to receive a firearms licence.

“One of the referees should have been a family member and our understanding is that no family members were interviewed,” Ms McKee said. “We’ve suggested you need to go back and have a look at the robustness of the process of licensing, we don’t believe registration is going to be the answer. Registration is not going to stop a massacre from happening, what will stop a massacre is looking at the people we licence and whether they’re fit and proper to have or maintain a licence.”

The NZ Government appears intent on creating a national firearms registration system akin to a system the country tried once before but abandoned in the 1980s on grounds it was costly, inaccurate and provided no actual community benefit. Legislation to create registration, tighten licensing and much more is before the NZ parliament.

How the registration will be rolled out hasn’t been explained yet, other than that it will take around five years to implement. The process will certainly involve recording data on every previously unregistered firearm including make, model, calibre and serial number. In order to track firearm transfers, some sort of permit-to-acquire system would also need to be introduced along with penalties for non-compliance and a substantially expanded bureaucracy to administer the new arrangements.

Ms McKee said one suggestion was for owners to register their guns online, however there was a data breach on the NZ Police website last December where owners had registered guns to be surrendered under the buyback.

After Port Arthur, Australian shooters expressed their dissatisfaction at the ballot box contributing to the rise of the populist One Nation party, especially in Queensland where the party claimed almost a quarter of the vote and won 11 seats at the 1998 state election. New Zealand could have something similar in future with the next general election scheduled for September 19. Ms McKee said it was expected gun laws would be an election issue with 240,000 licensed shooters eligible to vote.

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