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Where We Are Now
Our Present System of Firearms Control
New Zealand's gun laws are contained in the Arms Act 1983, which was amended in 1992 after the Aramoana killings. In essence the Act provides:
  • A system for the licensing of users every ten years. This is intended to screen out unsuitable persons and reduce their access to firearms. Few restrictions are placed on licensed shooters.
  • Registration of about 4 percent of guns - namely automatic weapons, military style semi-automatics (MSSAS) and handguns. No records are maintained of the remaining 96 percent of firearms. [Part 2.2]
Essentially the system is a "Licensing/No registration" system. Although this system provides useful control of shooters, even at that level it has definite limitations:
  • There is no foolproof mechanism to prevent dangerous people from obtaining licenses, and unsuitable persons can and do get access to firearms even though they are unlicensed.

  • The system provides insufficient information about individual firearms to provide the basis for firearms control.
Those circumstances, plus deficiencies in administration, make the present system ineffective. At $7.5M per annum for licensing activities in addition to $3.6M per annum for investigations and prosecutions, it is also
an expensive system for what it provides. [Part 5]

How We Chose That System

Throughout most of our history firearms have been regarded as familiar and useful tools which caused few social problems, so firearms controls were not a high priority. That relaxed view began to change in the 1960s when the increases in crime which had occurred throughout the Western World arrived here:

With those increases came increases in criminal violence, and in gun crime. The gun register accordingly gained new significance. However when attempts were made to use the register it was found that this was spread over 16 district offices, in loose paper form, and was very difficult to use. Instructions were given to get it in order on the basis that the work be done when time permitted. Other competing calls on police energies meant that the register continued to deteriorate. A search then took place for some new system which would provide a measure of control within the resources then being made available for such work, as it was considered further resources would not be made available. This resulted in the decision in 1982 to abandon records of firearms and to rely upon a more intensive screening of applicants for firearm licences. Those who passed that test would get lifetime licences and be free to acquire whatever number of firearms they wished.

There were mixed views about the wisdom of relying on controls over licensees and abandoning controls over firearms themselves. But there was little public opposition, and in senior police councils resource arguments, and the belief that any additional funds could be better used for more urgent needs, prevailed. Thus the "licensing but no registration" policy, which is still the basis of our arms control system, was introduced in the Arms Act 1983.

That policy was challenged after the shooting of 13 people at Aramoana by a young man who held a 1983-style licence. His licence entitled him to own as many firearms as he chose, and he used two MSSAs for the purpose. This raised calls for tighter controls. The parliamentary response was the 1992 Amendment Act. It added MSSAs to the list of weapons which had to be registered, revoked the 1983 lifetime licences and required shooters to apply for new ten-year licences, for which they had to pay additional fees. That last provision was considered by many shooters to breach assurances given them during the consultations which preceded the 1983 statute, and their dissatisfaction was one cause of poor compliance with the 1992 Relicensing Project. However the 1992 Amendment did not alter the licensing/no registration basis for arms control which had been introduced in 1983. [Part 2.2}

The Use and Misuse of Firearms in New Zealand

The abandonment of registration of firearms in 1983 persuaded the Police that collecting information about firearms was no longer a necessary part of firearms control. That decision has left no adequate base from which to calculate the number of firearms in this country, let alone the numbers which lie respectively within and without the law. Nor is it possible to achieve close definition of the numbers of shooters, or the volumes of and trends in gun misuse. Similar difficulties have been experienced overseas in countries which do not have close gun controls.

In the result, putting New Zealand into a comparative table is only possible on a "best fit" basis, as both our own and the overseas statistics are weak. -However, proceeding on that basis, and applying the results of such surveys and sampling exercises as the Review was able to carry out in the time available, the Review's conclusions as to the New Zealand situation are as follows.

Numbers of Guns

There are probably between 700,000 and 1,000,000 firearms in New Zealand. On a population basis that puts our rate of gun ownership at about one-third of that in the United States, in the same general rank as Canada and Australia (at least before the latter's recent ban and buy-back of semi-automatics), and well ahead of the United Kingdom and most European countries.

Gun imports, at between 10,000 and 15,000 per annum, are unlikely to maintain the armoury at that level. Most classes of weapon will reduce in number unless there is a new enthusiasm for guns. The exception is handguns, which have increased in number with the growth in popularity of pistol shooting as a competitive sport.

In the nature of things it is impossible to get an accurate count of the numbers of guns held for criminal purposes. However, there is clear evidence of a substantial pool of illegal guns which is periodically refreshed by purchases, theft and burglary, and (to a lesser extent) by illegal imports. It has been variously estimated at between 10,000 and 25,000, and could be higher, though that seems unlikely. Other findings are that:
  • The favoured weapon for robberies is the sawn-off shotgun; the cheapest illegal guns are shotguns, which have an average price of around $ 100, whereas pistols usually fetch over $ 1,000;
  • Handguns are used in crime to a greater extent than their proportion of the national armoury; and guns used in domestic violence are mostly owned by the offenders, but guns used for other criminal purposes are generally stolen by the offenders, or acquired from acquaintances and friends and probably stolen. [Part 2.3]
Numbers of Shooters

At the conclusion of the present licensing project there are likely to be about 210,000 licensed shooters, a substantial drop from the 327,000 licensed in 1991. Part of the difference represents those who have elected not to re-license. However, continuing reductions in the numbers of applicants for firearm licenses and of game licenses issued, and the continuing urbanisation of society, all point to a downward trend in the numbers of shooters which is not merely temporary. A 1985 estimate anticipated annual increases in the number of firearms licensees of around 3.6 percent. The picture today is rather one of a gradually aging gun-user population which is unlikely to increase in numbers unless recent trends in public attitudes towards firearms are reversed.

The arms code permits the use of guns by unlicensed persons who are "under the immediate supervision" of a licensee. Attempts to determine how many persons do in fact use guns made only modest progress. However, an AGB McNair household survey found that there were 1.8 "users" of each firearm, which suggests that there are 350,000 to 400,000 people using firearms. The same survey found that one in five households has at least one firearm. That figure relates closely to Australian and Canadian estimates. [Part 2.4]

Next related article: Forward to Numbers of Firearms OffencesNumbers of Firearms Offences

Back to Thorp Review of Firearms Control in NZ Index

Our Present System of Firearms Control

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