What we can learn from New Zealand and Gun Control

On March 15, 2019 a gunman drove up to a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand and began to execute innocent people as they met for prayer. He then drove to another mosque and began to open fire until a brave churchgoer fought back by yelling and throwing what he described as “the suspect’s discarded shotgun” at the suspect’s car, shattering the windshield, which ultimately led him to drive away and later be apprehended by police. In the end more than 50 people were murdered and over another 50 people were injured. In response to this hate-filled attack the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, has enacted new gun laws aimed at “military style weapons” in an extraordinary short time span - the initial laws passed just 6 days after the attack! The previous gun laws in New Zealand required firearm owners to apply for a license, complete a firearm safety program, and be investigated by police - this also includes being vetted for additional endorsements if they wanted to buy collectable firearms, buy (or even use) “military style” firearms(MSSA’s) or handguns, or other restricted firearms as described in the Arms Code of 2013. The application process required citizens to apply through the local police, who then would conduct background checks and contact references to determine if the applicant was a “fit and proper person to possess firearms or airguns”. Although the legally licensed people were recorded, there is currently no registration for the actual firearms, and there is no limit as to how many firearms a licensed individual can possess. The assumption of the government is that if the person is deemed “fit and proper” to have guns, it doesn’t matter how many they have.

Prior to update, Definition of MSSA; Arms Code of 2013; Page 34

Prior to update, Definition of MSSA; Arms Code of 2013; Page 34

Some of the changes to New Zealand’s current gun laws, effective March 21, 2019, mean that the definition of MSSA’s will now include “any semi-automatic firearm OR shotgun that is capable of being used in combination with a detachable magazine (other than one designed to hold 0.22-inch or less rimfire cartridges) that is capable of holding more than 5 cartridges” (including high-capacity magazines) and they will now be banned permanently. The government is working on creating a “buy back” operation to compensate MSSA owners who turn over their now-illegal firearms to the police. The move to tighten firearm legislation has garnered widespread support from organizations such as Hunting & Fishing New Zealand, gun experts like Professor Kevin Clements, the Police Minister Stuart Nash, and of course the Prime Minister herself. This drastic step is aimed to “remove” all MSSA’s from the country, including the ability to manufacture military-style firearms or convert firearms to MSSA’s.

The difference between firearm ownership in New Zealand versus the United States is that in the USA it is considered under the Constitution that “keeping and bearing arms” is a fundamental right, whereas in New Zealand it is considered a privilege which has to be applied for and can be denied at any time. Because New Zealanders do not have the right to firearm ownership under the law, gun laws can be amended at any time to reflect the will of the government no matter what that may be.

Although there is support for this radical change to firearms laws, Auckland lawyer Nicholas Taylor (who specializes in gun laws) believes there could be some negative aspects as a result. Taylor says that “ the problem with a ban on semi-automatics was that the only people who would hand them over would be those who were licensed and have them legally… You would create a huge black market of these firearms and then you lose control." Local Police admit that they have no idea how many firearms are actually in the country, since they have not been required to register the firearms themselves, only the people applying for ownership. What this means is that even though one cannot legally own an MSSA now in New Zealand, because they were not previously required to register the firearm itself, it will be difficult (if not impossible) for law enforcement to determine whether the actual number of MSSA’s in the country have been surrendered. Therefore, the black market value for this now-banned firearm is going to skyrocket and will still be readily available to any nefarious individual who would want to obtain it for whatever purpose they may have.

While the intention of the Prime Minister is to “make sure that this never happens again”, there will likely be unpredictable consequences due to the sudden and ill-planned radical changes to gun laws, for instance, as Police Commissioner Mike Bush said, "For many people, you will now be in unlawful possession of your firearm" - in other words, this made lawful gun owners suddenly unlawful gun owners essentially overnight. Additionally, criminals who already have firearms will still have access to the MSSA’s which are still in the country, which not only doesn’t fix the initial problem, it creates a bigger problem of only the criminals having the “big guns” and being unmatched in firepower. We have yet to see the full scale of ramifications as a result of these changes.

The changes in gun laws that we have seen recently in New Zealand reflect the attempts by some US legislators to criminalize the ownership and possession of firearms by responsible, law-abiding citizens in our own country. This serves as a sober warning that we must maintain our fight to ensure that our right to “keep and bear arms” is not infringed.

New Zealand Arms Code: https://www.police.govt.nz/sites/default/files/publications/the-arms-code-2013.pdf

New Zealand Changes to MSSA’s: https://www.police.govt.nz/advice/firearms-and-safety/changes-firearms?nondesktop

New Zealand Firearms Safety: https://www.police.govt.nz/advice/firearms-and-safety/firearms-safety-programme

Interview with Nicholas Taylor: https://www.radionz.co.nz/news/national/385058/a-short-history-of-nz-s-gun-laws-from-cutlasses-to-semi-automatics