Tighter arms control in New Zealand has history of being blocked

‘Firearms community’ set to stymie Ardern pledges in wake of Christchurch massacres

The last attempt to introduce tougher gun laws in New Zealand ended, as such attempts often do, in a balancing act. On the one hand, Paula Bennett, the police minister in former prime minister Bill English's government, was facing pressure to reduce the risk of a gun-based attack on New Zealand soil. On the other was the rights of legal, law-abiding gun owners, most of whom were part of the powerful hunting and sporting lobby and who were guaranteed to show their displeasure at the polls if stricter gun laws were introduced. As they have in every attempt to reform New Zealand's gun laws since the Aramoana massacre in Dunedin in 1990, shooters' rights won out.

Gun control advocates are concerned that if the prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, does not act swiftly, those same forces will see her promises of tighter gun laws in the wake of Friday's Christchurch massacre stymied again.

In responding to the recommendations of a 2017 parliamentary committee on gun control, Bennett said that the rights of "responsible" shooters must be respected. "Nobody wants firearms getting into the hands of violent gang members but we also don't want over-the-top rules and restrictions to be placed on hunters and shooters who manage their firearms responsibly," she said. Bennett went on to accept seven of the committee's 20 recommendations and modify one more. Those accepted included raising existing penalties and implementing prohibition orders for high-risk individuals, a mechanism copied from Australia.

‘Military-style’ loophole

Rejected was a recommendation to investigate creating a new category of restricted semi-automatic rifles and shotguns. The committee warned that semi-automatic rifles that could be purchased under a category-A licence could be converted into a military-style semi-automatic rifle (MSSA). According to statements made by Ardern and NZ police, that was the case with the weapons used in the Christchurch shooting. The committee’s report recommended restricting the sale of all semi-automatics that have a magazine that is capable of holding more than 11 rounds or have a detachable magazine, to prevent this conversion. Reclassification alone would not solve the problem, with the committee noting that “unless there are controls on the purchase of large magazines, there would be many ‘A’ category firearms in the community, subject to minimum controls, that could readily be converted to MSSAs by fitting a large magazine”. The same recommendation was made, and rejected, in 2010.


Gun advocates objected to the reform on both occasions on the grounds that it would “entail significant costs to the firearm community” in the form of fees, paperwork and security requirements. Also rejected were tougher regulations around safe storage and tracking of firearms, a recommendation that the definition of a “fit and proper person” to hold a gun licence be codified in legislation, and recommendations that a licence be required to possess ammunition, that a dealer be licensed to sell ammunition and that dealers be required to keep records of ammunition sales.

The man charged over the Christchurch massacre had two semi-automatic rifles as well as three other firearms, all held legally on his entry-level category-A firearms licence, which he obtained in December 2017 – five months after the English government rejected the proposed reforms. The semi-automatic rifles had allegedly been modified by adding a high-capacity magazine, exactly as the committee described. When Ardern announced in the hours after the Christchurch massacre that "gun laws would change", it was expected her government would immediately revive some or all of those recommendations. The attorney general, David Parker, said semi-automatic rifles would be banned.

Move swiftly

Ardern said on Monday that her cabinet had made an "in-principle decision" on gun control, but didn't announce the detail. According to Philip Alpers, the founder of gun control website gunpolicy.org, New Zealand's best chance is to move swiftly before the gun lobby has a chance to react. That's the method that was used in Australia, when the then prime minister, John Howard, introduced the bulk of Australia's sweeping gun control laws in the 12 days following the 1996 Port Arthur massacre. Earlier attempts to go slowly and consult had been stymied by protest from conservative and rural electorates and did not have the support of the National party, Howard's coalition partner. Those protests existed in 1996 but were overridden by the enormity of the tragedy. The same conditions currently exist in New Zealand.

“If any New Zealand leader in the past 20 years was disposed toward that it would probably be [Arden], and she has what John Howard said you really needed, which is a serious incident with which to persuade people that something has to be done,” Alpers said.

Gun reform is a politically difficult issue in a country with high gun ownership and a large number of rural electorates, for which hunting is a way of life. According to gunpolicy.org, 6 per cent of New Zealanders over the age of 16 – the age at which you can get a category-A licence – hold a gun licence. The biggest and most significant attempt to reform the laws was the year-long, million-dollar review of the country's firearms laws in 1997 by former high court judge Sir Thomas Thorp.

Thorp’s proposals were rejected for much the same reasons cited by Bennett: the burden placed on the “firearms community” was too high. That review recommended individual registration of firearms; a buy-back of assault rifles; tighter vetting for licences; ensuring gun licences expire after three years instead of 10; tightening the sale of ammunition; and reforming the law to make it clear that “self-defence” was not a legitimate purpose for holding a firearms licence. Since 2010, there have been almost annual attempts to reform the laws, according to Stuff.co.nz. All of them have been dropped. – Guardian News and Media 2019