1 Mar 2024

Government confirms plans to expand Firearms Prohibition Orders

12:21 pm on 1 March 2024

The government has confirmed its plans to allow police to search gang members, their vehicles and homes at any time using court orders.

The scheme will also allow people to have the orders cancelled after five years, rather than waiting for them to expire after 10.

Associate Justice Minister Nicole McKee, from the ACT Party, announced confirmation of the government's plans to expand the use of Firearms Prohibition Orders - as set out in the coalition's 100-day plan - at Wellington Police Station on Friday morning.

The orders - introduced by the previous Labour government in November 2022 - allow a court to ban certain people from using, accessing, or being around firearms - and make breaching those rules a criminal offence.

They currently can be applied to people convicted of offences which would disqualify them from holding a firearms licence, other serious violent offences, the Crimes Act offence of participating in an organised criminal group, or terrorism-related offences.

Breaching an FPO makes the offender liable for up to five years in prison, or seven years if the weapon was an illegal firearm.

Associate Minister of Justice (Firearms) Nicole McKee speaks to media on 1 March 2024.

Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

The newly proposed changes would allow a court to issue these to any member or associate of a gang that has been convicted of a drug, firearms or violence offence, and would grant police new powers to search those people, their vehicles, and their homes at any time.

It would also change the regime to allow people who are subject to the orders to apply to the court for it to be changed or removed after five years - half the current expiry date of 10 years. The FPOs are applied at sentencing.

"The reality is that many senior gang members have others doing their dirty work, and this means they often end up with only low-level convictions rather than convictions for serious offending. This bill will rectify that," McKee said.

This would include offences under the Crimes Act, the Misuse of Drugs Act, or the Psychoactive Substances Act, she said - and confirmed the changes would lower the threshold to a minimum one-year imprisonment.

The minister confirmed only 31 people had so far been subject to FPOs, but this was expected to be between 80 and 100 by the time the changes took effect, with further increases as a result of the widened criteria.

"We don't know how many people are actually going to be added into the system once we open this up, but I expect it to be more," McKee said.

"This will ensure FPOs remain targeted only to those high-risk offenders. The review mechanism provides an incentive for people with FPOs to engage in rehabilitation and pursue law abiding lives," the minister said.

FPOs currently cannot be renewed unless the person commits another qualifying crime and the court considers it appropriate.

"Firearms are being illegally used by gangs to intimidate, to commit violent crime in support of their profit making, and to initiate gang warfare that law-abiding citizens get stuck in the middle of. This can't be allowed to continue, this Government is going to take their illegally held firearms off them," McKee said.

"Keeping firearms out of the hands of gang members and high-risk offenders is needed to ensure public safety."

McKee said initial advice from Crown Law showed there was not expected to be any concern about breaches of the Bill of Rights Act.

"It's neither a new penalty, nor is it a new punishment, so therefore it doesn't fit within section 21 or 26 of the Bill of Rights Act. But at the end of the day, the criminals themselves that are illegally using firearms to cause harm in our communities don't care about anyone else's Bill of Rights."

The government also plans to rewrite the Arms Act, and McKee said that would include everything: "the good, the bad, the ugly" - including the potential return of semi-automatic weapons.

"We need to have a conversation to be able to have enduring legislation. In 2019 and 2020 we had rushed legislation that has caused more gun crime in this country than we've seen before: between May 2022 and the 17th of May 2023 gang members alone committed 2.8 firearm offences every single day," she said.

"This is why the good, the bad, the ugly, all needs to be discussed, because what's good and what's bad and what's ugly to some, is not to others. To some people, there is legitimate use of firearms - for hunting, for sporting purposes - and those people were not heard back in 2019 and 2020."

The National Party, leading the coalition government, has long talked about cracking down on gangs and made it a priority in its 100-day plan.

Last week, the government said it would ban gang patches in public and give police extra powers to stop gang members congregating.

Justice Minister Paul Goldsmith and Police Minister Mark Mitchell said gangs had recruited more than 3000 members over the past five years - a 51 percent increase.

There had also been a "significant escalation" in gang-related violence and shootings during the same time period, Goldsmith said.

The bill was expected to pass by the end of the year, McKee said.

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