Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's focus on strengthening current gun laws after Christchurch terror attacks

10:46 am on 18 March 2019

Today New Zealanders will have a clearer picture of how the coalition government plans to change the gun laws, including a possible ban on semi-automatic weapons.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at the Kilbirnie Mosque.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at the Kilbirnie Mosque. Photo: RNZ/Ana Tovey

The Cabinet will be briefed by law enforcement and intelligence agencies, but a primary focus of the prime minister will be on the current gun laws.

Officials have been busy in the Beehive over the weekend following Jacinda Ardern's declaration the law "will be changed" in the aftermath of the violent terror attack in Christchurch.

It's an issue that comes to the fore on a regular basis - usually in response to a specific incident.

For example, in 1996 the Australian government significantly strengthened its gun laws after the Port Arthur massacre, and embarked on a large scale buy-back programme.

So why have successive New Zealand governments been reluctant to change the law here?

There has been a strong push to tighten the rules for many years; including the Police Association that warned MPs back in 2016 the current rules could well result of a mass killing on the scale of the Aramoana massacre

But there's been strong resistance to any change from the rural and hunting sector in particular, who argue knee-jerk reforms would only affect the people willing to act within the law in the first place.

The coalition government had already started a review of penalties under [

the Arms Act], but the changes being flagged by Ms Ardern will be far-reaching and much swifter.

The current regime

A standard licence covers a range of firearms: Rifles and shotguns mainly, but there are a number of semi-automatic A-Category rifles. In simple terms they can only hold fewer than seven rounds.

At the moment people 16 and over can apply for a firearms licence; background checks are carried out and then applicants have to pass a theory and practical test. There is a police interview at the applicant's home that includes an inspection of where the firearm would be secured.

Most military-style semi-automatics (MSSA) are "E-Category" weapons, a category created after the Aramoana shooting spree near Dunedin in 1990, and they basically allow someone to fire more rounds. There are tougher security checks for E-Category weapons and the person has to be over the age of 18.

The Police Commissioner Mike Bush said Brenton Tarrant, who's on a murder charge after the attack, had an A-Category licence, which he used to buy the weapons.

The problem, said the commissioner, was he could have altered them to turn them into semi-automatic weapons.

"A Category-A firearm holder can purchase firearms without the magazines... I was very happy to hear in the prime minister's comments that there will be a change in the gun law."

That will be one aspect of the law to come under scrutiny, but a big part of the problem in New Zealand is with illegal weapons that are unknown to police.

That is another key part of the debate - should individual firearms be registered, rather than the individual owners being licensed? There is a view, including from the police, that would make it much easier to keep track of where these weapons are, and who has them.

The Police Association's Chris Cahill has said New Zealand needed a register of all guns and who owned them.

"If someone was building up a cache of weapons and there was some alarms around that, it would be something that could be followed up," he said.

"But as it stands now, we have no idea who's buying weapons and where they're keeping them or how many they have in New Zealand."

The 2017 parliamentary inquiry

In 2017 Parliament's Law and Order committee released its Inquiry into Illegal Firearms report, but then Police Minister Paula Bennett accepted only seven out of the 20 recommendations, prompting accusations from the police she had succumbed to pressure from the gun lobby.

The report said the unlawful use of firearms was an "integral aspect" of gang culture and gang membership should disqualify a person from being deemed fit and proper to own firearms.

The minister rejected recommendations that would have required a licence to possess ammunition.

Another recommendation that would have required the police to record the serial numbers of all firearms possessed by licence holders when they renewed their licence or when their property was inspected was rejected with the following comment:

"On balance the Government considers that this recommendation would not deliver advantages over that which is already provided through the current voluntary process, and would be very expensive."

The report also called for consideration of a new category of 'restricted semi-automatic firearms', saying the legislation had difficulty taking into account "the interchangeability of parts and the wide variety of grips".

Again, that was rejected, with the government recognising the challenges but not believing "a simple solution that meets the needs of both the firearms community and Police is readily available".

Recommendations that were picked up included making it illegal for gang members or prospects to possess a firearm or hold a firearms license, giving the police the power to suspend licenses, and requiring the police to consult with the firearms community when considering changes to the Arms Act.

New Zealand First presented a minority view, which only backed the recommendations relating to gang members, and increasing penalties for firearms offences.

Military style semi-automatic (MSSA) weapons

New Zealand police state that MSSAs are "any semi-automatic rifle or shotgun which has a pistol grip".

A pistol grip is described as a "free-standing grip". They are "designed to be gripped by the whole or most of the trigger hand of a person firing the firearm; and [are] structurally connected to the firearm at only one point and when deployed, protrudes from the firearm in a direction that is closer to being perpendicular to the barrel than to being parallel to it".

The Arms (Military Style Semi-automatic Firearms and Import Controls) Amendment Bill states: "Firearms that do not have such a pistol grip (along with other features) are deemed to be in sporting configuration and are, by law, not MSSAs."

Semi-automatic weapons require the shooter to pull the gun's trigger each time they fire. The weapon automatically loads a round into the chamber to be fired each time. In fully automatic weapons, the trigger can be held down and it will fire repeatedly, allowing much faster firing.

MSSAs can have one or more of the following features:

  • Folding or telescopic butt
  • Magazine that holds, or is detachable and has the appearance of holding, more than 15 cartridges for .22 rimfire
  • Magazine that holds more than 7 cartridges, or is detachable and has the appearance of holding more than 10 cartridges for other than .22 rimfire
  • Bayonet lug
  • Pistol grip
  • Flash suppressor

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