16 Jun 2020

Firearms reform set to progress in Parliament

6:10 pm on 16 June 2020

Senior Labour ministers are playing down any influence coalition partner New Zealand First had on changes to firearms law, soon to be ushered through Parliament.

Minister of police Stuart Nash.

Police Minister Stuart Nash Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

After months of negotiating with the coalition partner, Police Minister Stuart Nash now appears to have the numbers to progress the second tranche of reforms it had hoped to have passed by 15 March.

The Arms Legislation Bill includes a firearms registry, harsher penalties and a warning flag system around a fit and proper person test.

Last year, a law making most semi-automatic firearms illegal passed with near-unanimous political support in the wake of the mosque attacks that left 51 people dead.

National has refused to support this second bill, saying it goes too far. It is not yet clear whether that position will change with the new amendments.

National's opposition meant Nash had to work to get New Zealand First on board.

That party had been calling for an independent arms agency, rights for farmers dealing with pest control, and exemptions for sporting shooters.

Today, Nash released a raft of changes which he said were in response to concerns raised during the select committee process.

"The coalition government has further agreed to establish an independent entity to take over firearms licensing and administration", he said, an idea that was proposed by Justice Sir Thomas Thorp in 1997 when he reviewed the firearms laws.

Farmers will now not have to set up a company to request an endorsement "to use prohibited firearms for pest control".

The national register will be delayed by a year, both to ensure good design and allow for time for the independent entity to be set up.

Nash was asked whether the changes were made under pressure from New Zealand First.

"Oh I wouldn't say pressure at all, I think we've worked constructively actually."

It was "purely hypothetical" to comment on whether the legislation would have ended up like this without input from the coalition partner, he said.

"I'm very happy with where we landed," he told reporters.

When asked how much credit New Zealand First could take, Nash said he was "more than happy for them to say we worked absolutely constructively, in coalition form, to come up with a piece of legislation that I think is fantastic".

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was also asked whether the changes had been made to get New Zealand First on board.

"Ultimately for every piece of legislation... we will work through issues where there are different perspectives", adding many of the changes had been flagged in previous reviews and were supported by those who made submissions.

She was "not going to diminish the role that support parties play in highlighting issues they think should be dealt with in a particular way".

"Of course they had a voice that made a difference", said Ardern, "but it so happened it was on areas where there was agreement as well".

Ardern acknowledged New Zealand First had been involved in the process but said the government had "never moved on anything we felt undermined the ultimate goal of the legislation."

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters said the party did not get everything it wanted on firearms, but fought to get the compromised changes unveiled today.

"You can never get everything you want, but we got whole lot that was very difficult to get, but we thought it was proper and right for this society and particularly the shape of our country."

New Zealand First had influenced the legislation for the better, he told reporters.

"Dramatically, from some of the demands which were extreme in the circumstances and very unfair for a lot of people who are legitimate, honest users of guns, particularly when it comes to the treatment of animals in distress."

Senior New Zealand First MP Ron Mark - who has been doing much of the negotiating - said the party pushed this as hard as it could.

"It is no secret New Zealand First has been a very strong supporter of responsible firearms owners for a very long time but, you know, 51 people are dead, 50 people have had their lives changed irreversibly".

It came to a point, he said, where a decision had to be made - either accept the changes agreed or let the legislation fail.

"I think you play a role as a responsible member of the government or you get out of government and right now that's what we've chosen to do."

National has withheld its support until now, saying this bill went too far against 'law abiding' gun owners but wouldn't say today whether the amendments would change that position.

Peters said whether the bill passed before the election depended somewhat on whether National used delaying tactics in the debating chamber.

PM backs police over licencing for mosque shooter

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is standing by the police's handling of firearms licensing despite media reports suggesting police failures led to the Mosque gunman getting his hands on legal firearms.

Stuff today reported a string of errors led to Brenton Tarrant being granted an A-category firearms licence in November 2017.

That allowed him to stockpile the weapons used to carry out the shootings at Masjid Al-Noor and the Linwood Islamic Centre on 15 March last year, leaving 51 people dead.

Stuff quoted an anonymous source as saying: "This was avoidable. If police had addressed some of the issues with administering firearms years ago, this could have been avoided".

In April 2018, less than a year before the attacks, RNZ reported police only employed the equivalent of 259 full-time staff to monitor the country's more than 240,000 firearms licensees - meaning if the monitors were all working full time they would each have responsibility for about 900 licence holders.

In April 2018, Police Association president Chris Cahill said the number of staff was enough.

"When we talk to those firearms vetters, they don't think that the workload is excessive," he said.

Following the mosque attacks however, he walked back those comments and said resourcing would have to increase.

"I think it's totally fair to say that the priority from police hasn't necessarily been as strong as it should," Cahill said after the attacks.

"There's such competition these days for police resources. The role of police has increased so much over the last 30 years, we certainly need to learn firearms and the administration of it should be a priority given the risk they present."

To apply for a firearms licence in New Zealand the applicant must include the details of two referees, both of whom should be New Zealand residents; one a spouse, partner or next of kin who normally lives with or is related to the applicant; the other someone unrelated over the age of 20 that knows the applicant well.

How Tarrant got his licence

Stuff reported this morning the only referees interviewed by a police vetter in relation to Tarrant's licence were a Cambridge father and son, who knew the terrorist through an internet chatroom.

Police did not respond to Stuff's claims and refused to be interviewed on the subject.

The former head of firearms control, Joe Green, made similar accusations to Morning Report in March last year, following the shootings.

"I understand that there was no interview of a spouse, partner or next of kin, because he didn't have a spouse or partner, he did have next of kin who live in Australia.

"I understand that two unrelated referees ... were interviewed and that they were a father and son and that they said almost exactly the same thing."

Green said he had been told the two referees knew the accused shooter primarily through online chat room contact.

Referees are meant to help police vetters decide if someone is a fit and proper person to possess and own firearms.

"He [the accused] declined to be interviewed at his home, is what I'm advised, and was interviewed at his place of work and it would seem from that no home visit may have taken place."

In response to Green's accusations, the police issued a statement in March last year in which they said the "correct process was followed by staff involved in the firearms licence application".

"The accused filed an application for a firearms licence in September 2017 in Dunedin. The vetting process was undertaken by a police firearms vetting officer in Dunedin, where the accused resided," the statement said.

"The accused initially listed a family member as one of his referees but that person did not reside in New Zealand. Policy states that a referee must be a resident of New Zealand, therefore new referees were requested.

"The accused provided two further referees who met the requirements of the process and were interviewed face to face by a police firearms vetting officer.

"One of the steps to gaining a firearms licence is a home visit to meet the applicant in person and inspect the security of their property.

"In October 2017 the accused was interviewed at his home address in Dunedin. A security inspection took place at the same time. Following this, all the available information was reviewed and the licence was approved in November 2017."

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