27 Jul 2019

Make entry into registry easy as possible for gun owners

6:46 pm on 27 July 2019

By Lew Stoddart*

Opinion - The gun buyback scheme is working to remove firearms from society and enforcement laws are strong, but creating a meaningful gun registry is also essential, writes Lew Stoddart.

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Photo: RNZ / Simon Rogers

On Friday I attended the gun buyback event in Mosgiel to turn over my now-illegal rifle to the government. It was all done in a bit over an hour with firm handshakes, bonhomie, and sausage rolls.

I got paid a fair price and the money was in my bank account by close of business on Monday. All government interactions should be so straightforward.

And that's why the gun buyback is working: it's not an alienating process. The government's second tranche of gun control policies, unveiled yesterday, should aim to be similarly painless, because if it's too hard, it just won't get buy-in.

All the broad brush strokes of the new policy are pretty sensible. Public safety is absolutely the correct focus. Formally setting a legal status of "privilege" for owning firearms is an obvious counter to tumescent second Amendment trolls, and will be broadly welcomed.

A public advisory group including non-gun-folks is plainly a method to demystify guns among the public, and to prevent the reform agenda from being captured by the aforementioned trolls. After the events of 15 March, gun owners owe some explanations to the general population, and we should relish the opportunity to set their minds at ease.

Making it harder to get and keep a license is also obvious and sensible, even if Police Minister Stuart Nash wasn't entirely sure whether they would shut out non-citizens. The hard enforcement measures also look good. Higher penalties, lower thresholds for enforcement, stricter requirements for dealers, advertising, parts, and ammo - this is all just good housekeeping.

But the object of the reforms cannot be merely "good housekeeping". The Prime Minister signalled an epochal shift on gun control, and so far, in this Year of Delivery, gun control is the only thing strongly resembling that. The buyback will remove a lot of firearms from society, but an unknown and vastly larger number will remain in circulation. This is where the registry comes in: we may not remove them from circulation, but we can at least know where they are, and knowing is half the battle.

The registry brings many implementation problems of its own, but the biggest initial problem is simply standing it up and getting complete and true enough records for it to be a useful inventory. The government starts from a position of weakness because, short of going door-to-door with search warrants, there is no way of forcing people to register their guns.

It must be done by consent and goodwill. And this is where my concerns begin in earnest: anything that makes it much harder for bona fide gun owners to comply will increase silent non-compliance, and to the extent that silent non-compliance becomes the norm, the black market remains strong, and grows stronger.

And the government can't do much about it because (see above) they don't know where the guns are because we don't have a gun registry. So all initial efforts should be bent towards making entry into the registry as easy and painless as possible, with enforcement coming later. First take stock. Then catch baddies.

With that in mind, the minister's comments about not wanting government to "subsidise" the costs of the registry and other firearm admin is unhelpful. Non-gun-owners may grumble at govt spending $9 million annually to administer the existing regime, but (as an economist acquaintance put it) if you think that cost as buying a degree of safety from being shot, $2 each per year doesn't seem so bad.

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The buyback events are now being held across the country. Photo: RNZ / Tim Brown

The only true certainty is that whatever we think the registry will cost, it will end up costing more. If those costs are to be borne only by gun owners, the impost on each individual will be high, and will result in non-compliance. If the government wants these reforms to be effective, it must be willing to eat the cost and move on, and (crucially) the Opposition must not nickel and dime them on it.

This is, after all, is not a problem of Jacinda Ardern's making - it is an intergenerational and bipartisan failure of public safety.

A second concern I have is the notion gun owners will be supposed to inform police of "major life changes" throughout their license period. Acquiring a gambling or substance abuse problem; falling out with one's partner; a change of health circumstances, this sort of thing. On the one hand, these are the sorts of risk factor that should raise concerns. But seriously? People struggle to admit these things to themselves, let alone the cops.

I hope this aspect has been mischaracterised because it goes one of two ways: either the police will be expected to run a surveillance apparatus, which will taint the registry and increase silent non-compliance, or they're going to be reliant on people dobbing themselves in.

Why on earth would they do so, if it means risking the loss of their guns? We don't know where the guns are, but we know a bit about who owns them: mostly men, mostly rural, mostly middle-aged and older.

This is also a demographic with significant undiagnosed mental health concerns, who are most reluctant to seek professional help, or even to talk about it among their friends. Many of them are already about being asked to bear the costs for the actions of one dangerous individual. Shooting, hunting, and the outdoors is a livelihood for some and a saving grace for many of these people, and any policy that makes it harder for them to seek help, or forces them to dob themselves in, will do far more harm than good.

The good news is that once the stock take is done, enforcement gets easier. The registry will be built and verified on inspection at license renewal time. As that happens, Police will begin to get a picture of who is complying happily, who is complying reluctantly, and who is not complying at all.

At that point, once everyone has had plenty of opportunity to demonstrate their law-abiding good faith credentials, police can begin properly targeted enforcement work. And that is how you get the baddies.

*Lew Stoddart is a media analyst, gun owner, and hunter. He writes for Kiwipolitico.

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