Submission to the Select Committee on the 2019 Arms Amendment Bill.
Professor Kevin P Clements,
National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Otago.
My name is Kevin P Clements, I am the Foundation Director and Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Otago. I have been a strong advocate for tighter controls of Military Style Semi Automatic Weapons and Assault weapons ever since I returned to New Zealand from Australia in January 2009. Having seen how Prime Minister John Howard, after the Port Arthur Massacre, courageously and resolutely banned the ownership and use of such weapons in Australia, I have always had difficulty understanding why successive New Zealand Governments have lacked the political will to do the same. In particular,following the mass shootings at Aramoana and the extraordinarily prescient findings of Judge Thomas Thorp, (in his comprehensive review of New Zealand’s Gun Laws in 1997), it distresses me that it took the Christchurch massacre to galvanise the political will necessary to take action.
Although I deeply regret the circumstances that prompted this Amendment Bill, however, I warmly welcome the fact that, this time, Parliament has united across party divisions to back the banning of these weapons and the magazines and parts that enable lower capacity semi-automatic weapons to be turned into military style semi-automatics capable of generating mass murder. Banning this entire category of weapons is significant and will go a long way to ensuring that events such as the Christchurch massacres will not happen again. Removing the 24,584 MSSA’s and assault rifles that are owned by licensed owners, and therefore known to the Police, will be a major first step in reducing the total amount of lethal capacity in the community. Locating illegally held MSSA’s and assault rifles will be more problematic but hopefully there are enough provisions in this Bill and in existing law for the police to engage in search, discovery and retrieval of weapons held illegally by either licensed or unlicensed gun owners. It is important that this legislation reduces the exemptions for possessing such weapons.
Although the proposed legislation specifically exempts pistols ( In the Purpose of the Bill) I think that this needs to be reconsidered . Even though pistols are not likely to be used for mass murder on the Christchurch scale they are lethal and capable of killing significant numbers of people in close proximity. It is currently possible, for example to go to Gun City and buy a 50 round barrel magazine,attach it to a Glock pistol and have a weapon that is just as lethal as a semi automatic rifle. I think it is highly desirable that pistols continue to be restricted and as many as possible taken out of circulation as well.
Although it is not written into this amendment bill, if New Zealand had a Register of Weapons and who owned them the current Amnesty and Buy Back proposal would be much easier to implement and monitor. It should be relatively easy to identify owners with E category licenses but will be more problematic for A category license holders who have turned some of their current weapons into semi-automatics. In any event, because there are fewer such weapons here in NZ than there were in Australia, I do not expect that the cost of the New Zealand Buy Back programme will be anywhere near the cost of the Australian Programme. If my hunch is right it would be highly desirable for some of the savings from this programme to be expended on developing a NZ register of firearms and their owners.
It is disconcerting that those of us interested in this field are still working on Judge Thorp’s 1997 estimates of 700,000-1 million firearms . Current estimates of the total numbers of firearms in New Zealand’s civilian armoury range between 1.5 to 1.7 million or even 4 million if air rifles are included. If we are really going to get control over guns in New Zealand it is vital that we develop a comprehensive data base of the numbers and types of weapons that each licensed gun owner owns. Without this information we have no idea how many guns each licensed (or unlicensed) gun owner actually owns. With such a register the police ( or some designated independent authority) would be able to identify individuals who were amassing weapons and developing arsenals. The establishment of a comprehensive register to supplement the current firearms licencing system should also record the make, type, calibre and serial number of firearms including ownership and the transfer of ownership from point of sale.I know that this is something that is being foreshadowed as a second phase of this tightened gun control legislation but I would strongly urge the Committee and the House to couple these two agendas as soon as possible.
This tragic event also highlights the fact that we need to direct more attention to the supply side of the gun problem in New Zealand. There are very active gun retailers in New Zealand who import a wide variety of weapons to satisfy the interests and needs of the 248,000 licensed gun owners and others who are just interested in guns . There is a very thriving market for weapons in New Zealand. Gun City in Christchurch , for example, had a turnover of $20 million last year. The New Zealand Customs Service listed 69,621 shotguns and 171,787 rifles or a total of 241,408 firearms imported between 2008 to 2016. If air rifles are added, to this figure, the total number is 474,847 weapons imported during this 8 year period. If we keep importing weapons at the rate of nearly half a million every 8 years and we have an estimated 1.5 million weapons now New Zealand will have approximately 2.5 million weapons in civilian hands by 2035. This is a totally unacceptable number for a population of 4+ million and 248,000 licensed gun owners. I would hope, therefore, that there be some investigation on the Police capacity to do adequate checks on owners and dealer licenses and the appropriateness of the orders being made. I think it is also highly desirable that instead of gun licences being issued for a ten year period that they be issued for 5 years at a time and that more stringent reviews are put in place for their renewal.
For the record, I should like to add that my interest in tighter gun control is aimed at moving “easy lethality” from the hands of those who own weapons developed and intended for military use, i.e weapons that are primarily focused on homicidal capacity. I do not wish to restrict hunters, farmers or sporting rifle enthusiasts who have legitimate gun licenses and appropriate weapons for these purposes. The fact is, however, that reputable, peer-reviewed research studies show that easy access to weapons around the world does result in higher levels of homicide, suicide, hospitalisation and accidental death. New Zealand’s relatively low level of homicide by guns is because we are a small society with strong normative conventions and laws against murder. But as the Christchurch massacre demonstrated the availability of weapons is critical to those intent on mass murder. Our high suicide rates would also be reduced if guns were less readily available and accessible.
Finally, I would like to applaud the Government and Opposition Parties for finally implementing one of the central Thorp report recommendations. I hope that the amnesty and buy back is successful in eliminating these weapons from our shores . I also hope that we can make progress towards a register of all weapons in New Zealand and who owns them. This is critical to understanding what weapons are where and who might be plotting mayhem. Finally I very much hope that more attention might be directed towards the supply side of this problem with government attention being given to the stimulation of demand by gun importers and retailers with the result that we are expanding our civilian arsenal of weapons without detailed knowledge of where these weapons eventually end up.