Why do members of the public even need military-style semi-automatic rifles?
Source: https://www.stuff.co.nz/news/111342456/-

2019-03-17 17:51:09

Brenton Tarrant is accused of shooting and killing 50 innocent New Zealanders with modified versions of guns he obtained legally. So what are the loopholes politicians could look to close? Stacey Kirk reports.

Wearing an expression that dared anyone to oppose her, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern promised: "Our gun laws will change."

It's understood the issue will be top of the agenda at Cabinet on Monday, but following years of failed attempts at reform - across multiple Governments - where there may be a political will, it's never been that simple to find a way.

Factions on different sides of the debate are already arming themselves and the war for legitimacy has begun.

While New Zealand's gun lobby does not hold the toxic level of power that is synonymous with inaction in countries like the United States (US), there are around 250,000 firearm licences held in New Zealand - a predominantly male group of active voters aged 40-70.

Both National and NZ First have been courting associations within this group in recent years, but they are not the only parties that can be accused of bowing to pressure on issues of gun control.

Both Labour and the Greens have backed away from a raft of recommended law changes at various points in an extensive timeline - spooked by the backlash of an intense network of political pressure groups.

The battle for the definition of a "responsible gun owner" could be about to reach a fever pitch as calls to ban military-style semi-automatic weapons and establish a gun register gain traction in the wake of the horror inflicted at two Christchurch Mosques.


An Australian man stands accused of murder, following an attack which claimed the lives of 50 predominantly muslim worshippers at the Deans Ave Mosque and Linwood Mosque in Christchurch.

Brenton Tarrant, 28, had a gun licence, which he obtained in New Zealand and at least five weapons, including two semi-automatic guns, which he obtained legally under that standard A-category licence.

However, firearms held under an A-category licence can be easily converted into what's called a military-style semi-automatic weapon, using unregulated parts.

That suggests there are loopholes in the categorisation of what could reasonably be considered a standard semi-automatic weapon versus "military style" firearms, which require a category-E licence.

Semi-automatic rimfire .22 "rabbit" rifles are a staple in many New Zealand gun cabinets, for example. But they are arguably a far cry from an AR15, which falls in the same category if loaded only with a 7-shell capacity magazine.

Load it with an easy-to-obtain 30-shell capacity magazine, and it's a different category of weapon - military semi-automatic firearm.

It raises questions over who in New Zealand - aside from the military or police - would need access to military-style semi-automatic weapons.

Calls for a compulsory register have so far been met with great opposition from the firearms community. Some argue against the measure, citing that it would do little to monitor the weapons that criminals held illegally.

Others claim it to be a security risk - if it fell into the wrong hands gangs could target gun owners to steal for their own caches.

Police Association President Chris Cahill points out neither argument holds water, as the Government holds far more sensitive databases than that.

A recently-established sex offenders register is one such database which, if it fell into the wrong hands, could put many people in harm's way. So far, that has not happened.

Inevitably, there will be questions over how Tarrant was granted a gun licence to begin with.

But obtaining a first licence in New Zealand does require the clearance of a number of hoops, including participation in a theory and practical handling course, the sitting of a test and a series of referee interviews, personal interviews with police, as well as a physical inspection of the prospective gun owner's home to assess storage systems.

The licensing period is inordinately long, compared to other similar countries - 10 years compared to five years across Australia, Canada and the United States.

And while lobbyists call against "kneejerk reactions" and incremental change, those who want to see meaningful reform argue that swift change - before months of consultation waters down both the law and the immediate willpower to do it - is exactly what the gun lobby is aiming for.


Police Association President Chris Cahill says easily-modified semi-automatic weapons need to be banned. A register was needed for all guns currently in New Zealand too, he said.

"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. 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."

Council of Licensed Firearms Owners secretary Nicole McKee agreed changes were needed to address access to military-style weapons through simple modification, but she disagreed with an outright ban.

"The way that it stands now, someone with a standard firearm licence should not be able to change their firearm into an E-category illegally.

"We need to look at how that has occurred and what we can do to stop that," she said.

But she called for "thorough investigation" into what went wrong first, including into intelligence agencies.

“We just need to have an investigation into what needs to change and work with our officials to ensure the changes [are] effective change and not knee-jerk legislation," said McKee.

She did not believe military-style weapons should be banned, "but maybe we need to look at who has access to those [weapons]".

“We’ve already done that, after we had Aramoana, after we had Raurimu, there were legislative changes to look at who could have access to those."

McKee questioned whether the changes needed were "legislative" or "administrative".

"We actually need to find where those holes are first. It's easy for me to say the act is fit for purpose, but this guy got a firearm and he got guns, and he committed this horrible attack on Kiwis. So something's gone wrong."

Otago University Department of Public Health experts Dr Marie Russell and Dr Hera Cook said that was not enough.

Both have jointly called for an immediate moratorium on sales, imports and advertising of semi-automatics while changes are decided.

Ardern did not go there on Sunday night, however a wide range of restrictions are likely to be on the Cabinet table for discussion on Monday.

One of Australasia's leading experts in gun control policy says it comes as no surprise that Tarrant was a licenced gun owner.

Sydney University adjunct professor Philip Alpers says in 17 mass shootings in Australia and New Zealand, from 1987 to 2018, 142 people died.

"Most of the victims – 60 per cent – were shot by previously law-abiding, licenced gun owners using legally-held firearms. The Christchurch shooting will raise this ratio considerably.

"If the [alleged] Christchurch killer had stayed in his native Australia, he could not have legally obtained his semi-automatic rifles. His crime was made possible by gaps in New Zealand gun laws," said Alpers.

The fact the alleged perpetrator seemingly had at least one AR15 semi-automatic rifle, which police say had been modified - likely just by the insertion of a high-capacity ammunition magazine that held more than 7 rounds - was cause for concern.

He said there were very legitimate reasons to have guns in New Zealand, but absolutely no case for a responsible gun-owner to want to keep their weapon away from the eyes of authorities.

"New Zealand has a huge number of pests, which need to be shot - many of which came from Australia. It has a vibrant and usually very responsible sports shooting community and the hunting community is very, very big.

"There are some big animals to be hunted in New Zealand," he said.

Alpers, who is a New Zealander, said New Zealand has always prided itself on having a "responsible approach" to guns; they're tools of the farm, they're kept away from children, and New Zealand is "horrified" at what gun laws have allowed in the US.

"We regard ourselves somewhat smugly, as having a culture that does not allow things like that to happen."

But it cannot be escaped that Tarrant operated under current New Zealand law, which did allow for a tragedy on a massive scale by global standards. The argument that guns should not be recorded on a national register was "absolutely ridiculous".

He estimated that of the 94 per cent of long guns - shotguns and rifles - that were not registered, about half of them were likely semi-automatic and police had no idea who owned them, or where they were.

Arguments against registering them were akin to owning a car and saying because a driver held a licence, they did not need to register the vehicle.


A war for the influence of politicians over a certain amount of change could be futile in some respect however, as political consensus on a couple of flaws in the firearms legislation may not be difficult to achieve.

​No party is likely to want to be seen hand-wringing in the wake of a national tragedy.

While National Party leader Simon Bridges says he would like to see what law changes are proposed first, he has confirmed he stands with Ardern's position, that "there will be change".

"I'm not clear what the Government's proposing. We will genuinely look at everything, but we need to know what's proposed and I think we need to talk with them (the Government) when they know where they want to go," Bridges says.

He agreed there was likely little case for anyone to own a high-powered assault rifle or to keep that ownership a secret from authorities.

NZ First leader Winston Peters did not respond to a request for comment, but along with National, NZ First had in recent years courted the vote of the hunting lobby and was in a more precarious position too, with regards to remaining in Parliament at the next election.

And even in the confirmation of change, National will be wary of any additional votes that could be extracted by Peters through a nuanced stand on the issue.


There is consensus for change now - 50 people have been slaughtered by guns which were legally obtained. Those reluctant to clamp down on the freedom of the "responsible gun owner" can now see the glaring gaps in the law.

But that has not always been the case.

The path to reform has been slow and, in many cases, littered with dead ends.

Recommendations on firearms control by Justice Thorp in 1997 were never passed into law.

As well as a recommendation that all firearms be individually registered to their owners, in addition to owner licensing, Thorpe also called for restricted weapons to be permanently disabled, a three-year licensing period instead of the current 10-year period and tighter vetting and licensing provisions, with more stringent rules for secure storage.

An Arms Amendment Bill, introduced in 2005, languished until it was dismissed in 2012. Every year since 2010, government proposals for changes to legislation have been drawn up, and then quietly dropped.

In 2017, a year-long parliamentary select committee into the possession of illegal firearms offered up 20 recommendations. Two-thirds were rejected by then-police minister Paula Bennett. Cahill points out that backdown was not just hers to bear.

NZ First rejected the select committee inquiry findings too, and Labour's police spokesman at the time - now Police Minister - Stuart Nash downplayed recommendations for a gun register by saying "the real problem is people stealing firearms from licenced dealers".

National, sensing an opportunity last year, has organised roadshows aimed at gun owners and NZ First has long been a friend to hunting groups.

In 79 countries surveyed by the United Nations, firearm registration is the accepted norm and a cornerstone of gun control. Among developed nations, New Zealand's decision not to register 96 per cent of civilian firearms makes it a stand-out exception, along with the United States and Canada.

Police have no authority to monitor the size and content of most private gun collections, and so cannot detect or prevent the build-up of private arsenals. Officers responding to callouts have no idea what guns they might encounter, nor how many they must find and remove to make families safe in cases of domestic violence.

NZ Police report that most firearms used in crimes came from the collection of a licenced gun owner, either by sale, theft or neglect.

So what of the question of who, in the public, needs a military-style semi-automatic weapon anyway?

Politicians from both sides of the aisle may have reached enough of a consensus.

Absolutely no-one.

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