New Zealand’s Arms Act Reform: Buy-back is not an end in itself

New Zealand Security Magazine - February-March 2020

LEGEAR now open in Auckland
Gun control

Dr John Battersby of Massey University’s Centre for Defence and Security Studies makes a sober assessment of the efficacy of the gun buy-back scheme, arguing that a starting point should have included identifying gun owners posing a risk to society.

Just before Christmas New Zealand’s gun buy-back and amnesty period formally ended with considerable media coverage. Assessing the success or failure of it amid the media scrum, appeared to be a matter of perspective.  The government claimed it had achieved its goal, critics alleged otherwise – both have vested interests and a more detached view is required. 

The ultimate question is – has the gun buy-back made New Zealand safer than it was before, and has it mitigated the risks that were starkly revealed in New Zealand on 15 March 2019?  Has the buy-back solved problems, or has it generated more? 

The government drove the changes to the Arms Act and has claimed success. It it has after all, only spent $100 million dollars compensating firearms owners and removed over 56,000 firearms in six months. The buy-back has received considerable publicity – Deputy Commissioner Mike Clement hit the nail on the head when he said  – if gun owners did not know what was expected of them “they would have had to have been living under a rock.” 

Some of those giving up their weapons were unhappy, resigned to a course of action they didn’t choose, but some seemed relieved and all who attended the collection points cooperated.

The law is clear, the communications have been clear and the warnings have been clear. If anyone wasn’t sure if their firearm was legal or not, they had only to take them to a collection point and ask. Waiting times varied, but giving up a few hours – to ensure compliance over a six month period – seems both reasonable and achievable. 

There have been calls for the amnesty to be extended.  But why?  What is another six months going to achieve that the previous six months hasn’t, other than more cost, more demands on police resources, and signal perhaps that the government isn’t that serious? 

The Minister of Police made it clear as the amnesty ended, that the New Zealand Government was absolutely serious.  If some people had endured six months underneath a rock, another six was easily manageable and wilfulness, not ignorance, would be at the heart of it.

On the other hand, the figure of 56,000 firearms is meaningless because New Zealanders do not know how many firearms are in circulation in their country.  They do not know how many semi-automatic firearms are owned, and they have never known how many illegal firearms there are nor how many unlicensed individuals are in possession of them.

Enjoying this article? Consider a subscription to the print edition of New Zealand Security Magazine.

Import data and sales information has been suggestive – and the Council of Licensed Firearms Owners claim another 100,000 banned weapons are still in the community. They argue that an extension of the amnesty is necessary, and indeed, they could have a point. 

If the objective is to get these weapons out of circulation – is another six months really too much to ask? Does it matter if more money and resources are spent? Does it matter if the government signals a preparedness to compromise to get the ultimate end result it is looking for? 

If police resources were strained getting 50,000 firearms from cooperative people, how are they going to bear the burden of finding and seizing 100,000 more guns from those who aren’t?

While we balance the pros and cons of either side of this debate, we have to remind ourselves that the gun buy-back is not an end itself. On 15 March 2019 massive vulnerabilities in the administration and regulation of firearms in New Zealand were exposed. Fifty-one people paid with their lives for those vulnerabilities. 

An overhaul of the Arms Act 1983 became inevitable that day – things simply could not remain as they were. Regardless of what the Council of Licensed Firearms Owners say – it cannot reverse this incontrovertible reality.

But change must mitigate those vulnerabilities – change must make us safer. It is unclear if taking 50,000 firearms off people who are clearly responsible enough to comply with the law, has progressed that in way, shape or form. 

The immediate banning of the sale and purchase of semi-automatics was a sound and decisive move, but pursuing all those who owned them for years prior to 15 March, stored and used them properly, and posed no risk to society – may not have been the best first move.  

A thorough assessment of where the risks were, what steps would address them best and, critically, how to identify those who should not have them, would have provided a clear foundation about how to proceed. Illegally held firearms have been, and remain, a key firearms risk for New Zealand – not yet with any obvious solution.

If recent media coverage is anything to go by, it seems ‘the gun lobby’ and the government/police have divided themselves into opposing camps.  This makes good media, but bad policy.  

Experience in the UK with its PREVENT strategy should sound a clear warning for the New Zealand government not to start targeting large communities of people for vague similarities with a tiny proportion of extremists, and for all concerned not gravitate into camps of ‘them’ versus ‘us,’ each arguing passed the other. 

If the media are encouraging these ‘camps’ they need to step back, shoulder some responsibility and explore if there is not some common ground between all concerned. 

The ultimate goal for New Zealand is a safer community where the privilege of reasonable and legitimate use of appropriate firearms by responsible people can be facilitated, but at the same time there is an accountable system in place that militates against those who wish greater harm to society exploiting an Arms regime that previously placed too much trust in the enduring New Zealand adage that “She’ll be right”.