Australia took action with its gun laws. Why didn't New Zealand?

2019-03-19 09:57:22

New Zealand's gun laws haven't changed substantially since 1992. But why have we been so relaxed about semi-automatic weapons, and what's halted change? Michelle Duff and Tom Hunt report.

After Australia's Port Arthur massacre, that country took a major step.

Twelve days after the mass shooting in which 35 people were killed, prime minister John Howard took drastic measures. With the introduction of the National Firearms Agreement, gun control was massively tightened.

The new law included a national gun register and a ban on semi-automatic weapons. Buy-back schemes in 1996 and 2003 cost around $628 million, and netted around 730,000 weapons.

According to a Sydney University analysis, before the law change mass shootings took place at a rate of one every three years, with 13 massacres since 1979.

There have been none in the two decades since 1996. Researchers concluded gun control laws theoretically prevented 16 mass shootings in Australia.

In the years our neighbours were taking action on gun control, what was New Zealand doing? And why have any moves to tighten our gun laws failed?

It turns out there been plenty of occasions where successive Governments could have changed the law many consider to be outdated, inadequate, and full of loopholes.

The opposing view, pushed by a vocal gun lobby, is that it is already effective.

It's a debate for the ages, and as it has raged, guns have kept flying off the shelves – and casualties have continued. There are now an estimated 30 guns per 100 New Zealanders, a figure behind America (101 per 100) but well above the United Kingdom (3.78) and (Australia (13.7).

Sustained pressure from gun lobbyists and the reluctance of politicians to push through tougher measures that were not considered a priority – despite a high-powered enquiry and multiple warnings – has meant the status quo has remained.

Until now.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Monday announced several "in principle decisions" on gun law changes had been made by Cabinet, and would be made public before the next meeting. This would be within 10 days of the attack.


The last real change to New Zealand's Arms Act was made in 1992, following the Aramoana massacre in November 1990 where 13 people were killed by a gunman toting a semi-automatic weapon. After that, a special E-category was added to licences to cover military-style semi-automatics, or MSSAs.

But semi-automatic weapons can still be bought under an A-category licence. Modifying them to become MSSAs - with a higher calibre magazine - is illegal. But technological advances and increased promotion and sales of semi-automatic weapons have made acquiring the guns and parts on a basic licence very easy.

"Just think of the cellphone you had in 1992," firearms lawyer Nicholas Taylor says. "This is old legislation, and 30 years of evolution has occured."

And just four years after Aramoana, there was reason to revisit the Arms Act.

Against the backdrop of Australia's Port Arthur tragedy and two police shootings in Invercargill and Whangarei within two months in 1995, the government commissioned retired judge Sir Thomas Thorp to conduct an investigation into tightening gun control.

While the country waited for Thorp's report, six people were shot during Stephen Anderson's killing spree in the small central North Island town of Raurimu.

Thorp's 1997 report made 60 recommendations to improve gun control, including a ban on military style semi-automatics, controls on handguns, registration of all firearms, and improved security and vetting.

He advocated a buy-back of all MSSA guns, an independent agency set up to administer gun laws, and a reduction of 10-year licences to three years. He estimated it would cost $21 million ($32m today) to buy back the 25,000 to 30,000 MSSAs believed to then be in New Zealand.

But Simon Mount, a Queen's Counsel who worked as counsel assisting the Thorp report, says the gun lobby quickly mobilised to pressure the government against adopting any of the suggested changes.

Then-police minister Jack Elder announced he would not ban MSSAs because he wanted to keep gun owners "on board", rather than "waving a big stick" by threatening to seize their guns.

Eventually, in 1999, the National government introduced a weak Arms Amendment Bill (No. 2) which would have installed one of Thorp's recommendations – a gun register. Owners would have been faced with registration or an instant $500 fine.

But there were 6500 submissions to the bill at Select Committee, with an overwhelming number in opposition. Gun organisations warned there would be low compliance, it would infringe on individual freedom, and quoted huge figures to implement.

Mount says the government bowed to their demands, which was a mistake.

"The gun lobby strongly opposed even this weak form of regulation, and ultimately the bill did not proceed," he says.

"Tragically, I believe if the Thorp recommendations had been implemented in 1997, the Christchurch attacker would not have been able to obtain the semi-automatic weapons he used in this country.

"The reality is these are the weapon of choice for mass killings, and have extremely high lethality ... I believe the [Christchurch] attack would not have occurred, or would at least have been made much more difficult and less deadly."

Mount was surprised at the vehemence of opposition to reform.

"What we found at the time was that most gun owners are sensible, law-abiding New Zealanders who support common sense regulation," he says.

"But there are also a number with quite extreme political views, who oppose almost any form of regulation. There are also a number of well-organised firearms groups who mobilise to oppose reform through direct pressure on politicians."

In 2005, the Arms Amendment Bill (No. 3) was introduced instead, proposing three new offences focusing on the illegal manufacture and trafficking of firearms.

Four years later, as that bill languished without action, Napier man Jan Molenaar killed one police officer, injured three others, and turned the gun on himself in the 50-hour Napier Siege. Molenaar's cache included two pump-action shotguns, two self-loading rifles, two semi- automatic carbines and a handgun.

Thorp, who had watched officials sit on his report for 13 years, felt the tragedy was entirely preventable. "It is frustrating," he told The Dominion Post at the time.

"I can't see why military firearms should be in civilian hands, I can't see why the recommendation that we curb the number of handguns couldn't have been put into place."


Gun safety advocate Philip Alpers sees the country's gun lobby as as small, vindictive, organised and quite separate from farmers, hunters, and even many inside gun clubs.

It was smaller than the United States NRA, or gun lobbies in the likes of Australia, Canada, and South Africa, but the tactics were similar, he said.

"They are tiny but energetic - tiny, but effective."

He says the group will target an MP, who will then see a "flood" of support for gun owner's rights. Instead, it is just the small but organised gun lobby.

"They believe their rights are being trodden on - this is such an American way of doing things."

When he took a stance on gun control in 1992, Alpers says he was instantly targeted by that lobby. He got bullets and faeces in the mail, and was subscribed to a gay magazine: "It says more about the people doing it than it says about me."

The harassment went on and  Alpers was taken off the electoral roll. He now lives in Sydney, where he is an associate professor at the University of Sydney.

While he admired Ardern's "steeliness" in changing the law, he warned the pro-gun lobby would do anything they could to prevent this. "The last thing anyone needs is more talk, and more investigation."

But Council of Licensed Firearms Owners (COLFO) spokeswoman Nicole McKee says the New Zealand lobby was not comparable to the US National Rifle Association. The New Zealand gun lobby worked on logic, intelligence, and reason, McKee says.

She rejected suggestions her group, an umbrella group for gun organisations, would stall change.

"We expect change to be quick but we don't think it needs to happen in an unrealistic time frame. It is not we are trying to delay, it is just that we want to make sure that it works."

Like Alpers she had received hate mail: "It hurts but everybody is hurting."

Some of the Thorp recommendations were unworkable, she says. A gun registry in Canada cost $2 billion before it was cancelled. (At the time, CBC news put this figure at $1 billion.)

A buy-back of MSSAs was possible but taxpayers would have to reimburse gun owners for guns, parts, accessories, and consumables. COLFO's estimates put that between $500m and $1 billion.

"That doesn't mean we support or oppose - that is just what we would expect."

MSSA owners already faced three-yearly checks, she says, and gun owners already worked alongside police on higher security for guns in homes and premises.

She added that New Zealand already has some of the strictest vetting rules for firearms licences.


A cross-party law and order select committee was set up to investigate how criminals and gang members were getting their hands on high-calibre weapons in 2016.

This was in response to a police raid in south Auckland, which netted 14 military assault-grade AK47s and M16s, and an armed seige in Kawerau during which four police officers were shot.

The committee came up with 20 recommendations, which were supported by the Police Association.

But in June 2017 police minister Paula Bennett accepted only seven recommendations, rejecting 12. One of these was a recommendation she added: that the police must "improve its consultative processes with the firearms community". This led to criticisms she had been swayed by the gun lobby, who she had consulted with extensively.

"We needed to strike the right balance between public safety and the rights of legal firearms owners, " Bennett said at the time.

"Although the report was well intended, I believe many of the recommendations would not decrease the flow of firearms to criminals and gangs but would unduly impact on legally licensed firearms users."

Later that year, just two months after the Jacinda Ardern-led Labour Government was elected, Police Commissioner Mike Bush was imploring it to revisit a law change. "Criminal activity, combined with changing technology and marketing, have highlighted additional gaps in the legislation which, when exploited, have safety implications," Bush said.

In response to moves by Police Minister Stuart Nash to review legislation, National began to organise road shows aimed at gun owners.

But before this latest version of this gun debate could take shape, a far-right terrorist shot and killed 50 people at two mosques in Christchurch.

It has taken 27 years and multiple deaths to get to the point where laws might finally be changed. This includes Thorp, who died in October 2018 before any of the steps in his report could be enacted.

It seems possible, more than two decades after he suggested it, they finally might be.

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