Up until Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s announcement of a ban on military-style weapons yesterday, New Zealand had a system of licensing firearms holders and used a process of application, vetting, reference checks and attendance at firearms safety lectures.
Knowledge of the Firearms Code was required and tested. A firearms license holder was able to then legally acquire any number of firearms. New Zealand has not set up an arms register since the Arms Act was enacted in 1983.
There is no tally of how many firearms are in New Zealand, and no log of how many firearms any individual may have. There are an estimated 1.3 million firearms legally owned in New Zealand, and nothing beyond speculation about how many illegal weapons have found their way in.
Loopholes in gun laws
With a certain class of license, military-style semi-automatic weapons (in unlimited numbers) could be acquired legally. Some 14,000 of these weapons are thought to be legally owned in New Zealand.
Loopholes in current legislation abound. These make it possible to modify weapons and obtain large magazines, and even to buy armour-piercing bullets. Why, in a peaceful, democratic and open society, does anyone need a military-style automatic weapon and armour piercing ammunition?
Prime Minister Ardern has shown the decisive leadership we should see from a leader who genuinely cares about the people she leads. She has finally grasped the nettle, exploiting the current situation to drive through the changes New Zealand should have made 23 years ago following the Port Arthur massacre. She has outwitted those who might oppose her move because there is no argument that anybody could muster now that would in any way resonate with the vast majority of New Zealanders.
Ardern has announced the ban on a number of weapons, signaled changes to the firearms licensing regime and the need to keep tabs on the national recreational arsenal. But there is a tough road ahead.
Rural, recreational use of firearms
Politicians have an unquestioning faith that legislation is sufficient, but it is largely impotent without adequate resourcing for the enforcement of new rules. With only an estimate to work on, New Zealand Police (the administrators of firearms regulations) will have to identify and locate the owners of these weapons and implement the buy-back and amnesty that will be required.
Many owners will give them up. Their humanity will outdo their desire to have them, but the shocking reality of panic buying of semi-automatics since the Christchurch tragedy signals that clearly there are those who will seek to subvert the government’s intent. Police will have to investigate those who fail to cooperate, safely seize the weapons and prosecute the offenders.
Most firearms license holders in New Zealand do not own military-style semi-automatic weapons. Many are rural, recreational hunters or use their weapons on ranges. They look after their weapons responsibly, secure them safely, own them legally and use them at no risk to the general public.
Most who own semi-automatic weapons are no different. We should not demonise a section of society simply because of the horrific, obscene and brutally inhuman actions of one lonely individual who no more represents gun owners than he does any other group of New Zealanders.
Illegal weapon imports
But this is not the issue. The issue is that the privilege of owning a certain class of weapons is not worth the terrible cost of 50 people being gunned down in prayer. New Zealand is already seeing the steady illegal importation of firearms, often tied to the increasing movement of illicit narcotics. Banning semi-automatics will increase the demand for the importation of these weapons illegally, adding extra pressure on law enforcement agencies.
For a ban on military-style semi-automatics to have meaning, New Zealand’s long coastline, its airports, and seaports, through which illegal commodities are moving, will need resources that allow fit-for-purpose enforcement powers, people and tactics.
The changes New Zealand will now make will not guarantee it will be free of terrorism in the future. Other countries have much stricter firearms regulations, having taken far stronger measures years ago, but they have still suffered terrorist attacks. Firearms reform is one small step for a country that will need to address a plethora of gaps in its security approach.
New Zealand’s terrorism legislation is inadequate. It was found wanting when police attempted to apply it in 2007 during the “Urewera raids”, but charges could not be laid then. New Zealand’s then Solicitor General David Collins described the Terrorism Suppression Act then as incoherent and unworkable. How New Zealand manages social media needs review, and the traditional minimalist approach to national security will no longer suffice.
New Zealand has faced security crises before during the Russian scare in the 1880s and the second world war in the 1940s. It has often been caught out doing “too little, too late” to be saved only by its distance from any potential threat. The internet has extinguished that distance. It has brought the ills of the rest of the world to us. It is already too late. We must ensure that what we do now, is not too little.