Firearms-Control Legislation and Policy: New Zealand

Summary

The New Zealand Police operate a firearms licensing system, but only certain classes of weapons are registered, namely handguns, military style semiautomatics, and restricted weapons. In order to possess these types of weapons license holders must also obtain license endorsements, which can be granted in limited circumstances.  Permits to procure such weapons must also be obtained.  The licensing system includes background and reference checks, as well as safety training and a written test.  The Police inspect and approve firearm storage before issuing licenses and endorsements.  Law changes in 1992 aimed at further restricting access to firearms included stricter firearm storage requirements, prohibiting the sale of ammunition to non-licensed persons, and new processes relating to mail order purchases of firearms and ammunition.

There are estimated to be about 1.1 million firearms in New Zealand—about one for every four people.  The rate of deaths involving firearms has decreased in the past twenty years, including those resulting from assault, suicide, and accidents. The authors of one study suggested that the 1992 law changes contributed to a “detectable reduction in firearm suicides.”  Another study concluded that New Zealand has seen “the most pronounced decline in firearm homicide over the past two decades” compared to Australia and Canada.

Introduction

In New Zealand, the licensing of gun owners and restrictions on firearm sales are governed by the Arms Act 1983[1] and regulations made under that legislation: the Arms Regulations 1992[2] and the Arms (Restricted Weapons and Specially Dangerous Airguns) Order 1984.[3]  Several provisions in these instruments were recently amended by the Arms (Military Style Semi-automatic Firearms and Import Controls) Amendment Act 2012.[4]  The New Zealand Police (the Police) is the body responsible for administering firearms legislation.  There is no right to own or possess firearms under New Zealand law, including for the purposes of self-defense.
The current legal regime for firearms can be characterized as a “licensing but no registration” system since the majority of firearms in the country do not need to be registered.  A range of amendments aimed at further restricting access to firearms were introduced in 1992 following a massacre in which thirteen people were killed by a licensed gunman carrying semiautomatic firearms.
This report provides an overview of the history of firearms control legislation in New Zealand, sets out details about the licensing and registration systems, and discusses firearms dealing and importation restrictions.  The final section of this report provides statistical information relating to firearm ownership and the number of deaths involving firearms.

History of Firearms Control Laws in New Zealand

Early Laws

Early firearms control laws in the mid-1800s in New Zealand were primarily aimed at preventing the acquisition of firearms by Māori.[5]  The legislation included import restrictions as well as a rudimentary system of registration and licensing that was targeted at arms dealers.  However, once the threat of armed conflict between Māori and the colonial government receded, the legislation became largely a “dead letter” by the turn of the century, and settlers could readily acquire firearms without registering them.[6]  Another law was passed in 1908 that consolidated earlier legislation, by which time, in the predominantly rural society, “firearms were familiar and useful tools, which might be needed to protect the far-flung bounds of Empire, but did not pose a social problem calling for active control.”[7]

Labor unrest prior to World War I led to the Police seeking greater controls for firearms, with limited success.[8]  After World War I, the Police continued to push for statutory controls, particularly of handguns, which were being brought back to the country in large numbers by soldiers.  In addition, political concerns regarding socialist revolutionary ideas likely contributed to the enactment of the more detailed Arms Act 1920, which included a system of permits to procure firearms and an obligation to register individual weapons.  The Act also declared automatic pistols to be unlawful and required a license to possess other handguns, which could only be carried with a permit and for a “proper and sufficient purpose.”[9]  Later, in the 1930s, pressure from farmers and sporting shooters led to some relaxing of the registration requirements for shotguns.[10]

The challenges and costs of maintaining an accurate and complete arms register were highlighted during the 1960s when increasing gun crime led the Police to try to make more frequent use of the register, resulting in the identification of widespread issues.[11]  Following various reviews and discussions, the Police also determined in the 1970s that “a closer control of users was desirable to try to reduce access to firearms by unsuitable persons.”[12]  Although the Police did identify that the registration of firearms provided “an invaluable investigative aid,” the agency saw the validation of existing records as an enormous and expensive task that would detract from other work.[13]  The approach of focusing more on tighter screening of firearms license applicants rather than on registering firearms, a reversal of the approach that previously existed, gained political support and was formalized in the Arms Act 1983.[14]

1983 Legislation

The original Arms Act 1983 provided for lifetime licenses that could be issued to persons over 16 years of age who were considered by police to be “fit and proper” to be in possession of a firearm.  A firearms license allowed the holder to own as many firearms as he or she wished, including pistols and restricted weapons where the person obtained a special license endorsement to possess such weapons.  There was no requirement for the registration of most weapons, apart from pistols and restricted weapons, for which an acquisition permit was also required.[15]

1992 Amendments

While a number of features of the original 1983 legislation continue to apply today, the laws were amended in 1992 following the 1990 Aramoana massacre in which a thirty-three-year-old licensed gunman killed thirteen people using two “military-style semiautomatic” (MSSA) firearms before being shot dead by police.[16]  The 1992 amendments and associated regulations included new restrictions on MSSAs, introducing a requirement to obtain a license endorsement to possess such firearms along with permits to procure them, similar to the existing requirements for handguns and other “restricted weapons.”  However, “[a] total ban on MSSAs was rejected in the face of opposition from user groups and the estimated cost of such a measure in terms of providing adequate compensation to current owners.”[17]

The 1992 amendment bill and accompanying regulations also required firearms licenses to be renewed every ten years; provided that ammunition sales only be made to firearms license holders; introduced a written permit system for mail order guns and ammunition; added tighter storage requirements along with inspections; and gave police powers to seize weapons in cases of domestic violence.[18]

1997 Report and Subsequent Actions

Following the 1992 changes, and after two shootings by police officers in 1995, the government ordered an examination of internal police procedures for storing and using firearms.[19]  The government also sought an independent review of firearms legislation, which subsequently took place in the context of gun massacres in Australia and the United Kingdom in 1996.  The resulting 1997 report (the Thorp Report) recommended “radical reform of firearms laws,”[20] including restricting the number of handguns that a licensee can hold; banning all MSSAs; limiting magazine capacity for other semiautomatics; disqualifying persons convicted of certain offenses from holding a firearms license for a set period; and permitting the voluntary disclosure of relevant mental health information by health professionals.[21]
Many of the recommended changes in the 1997 report, including a return to a full firearms registry, were included in a bill that was introduced in 1999.  However, due to intensive opposition during the parliamentary process, this bill did not advance.[22]  A pared-down bill was later introduced in 2005, which was primarily aimed at enabling New Zealand to comply with the minimum legislative requirements of the Protocol against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Their Parts and Components and Ammunition (supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organised Crime).[23]  This bill also has not advanced.[24]

2012 Amendments and Current Discussions

Amendments were passed in 2012 following a 2010 High Court finding against a Police interpretation of the definition of MSSAs that reclassified particular weapons as MSSAs.[25]  The High Court decision created uncertainty about whether some semiautomatic firearms were MSSAs or not, particularly regarding an exclusion for firearms having a “sporting configuration,” which included firearms that did not have certain features such as “a military pattern free-standing pistol grip.”[26]  The amendments covered four main areas: a clearer and more adaptable definition of MSSAs; an extension of regulation-making powers so that the Police can declare a firearm or type of firearm to be an MSSA; a right of appeal to enable firearms owners to challenge a classification of a firearm as an MSSA; and restrictions on the importation of airguns that have the appearance of being pistols, restricted weapons, or MSSAs.[27]

During the select committee process for the 2012 amendments, and in the Police annual report for that year, the Police indicated that it was considering the establishment of an advisory group “to improve communications between Police and the firearms community.”[28]  The annual report also stated that a review of the Arms Act 1983 is being conducted by the Police “to identify other amendments that could help to address operational issues that have emerged since the Act was last significantly amended in 1992.”[29]
New Zealand is one of a small number of countries in which police officers do not routinely carry firearms.[30]  The debate about arming officers reignites from time to time following incidents in which police officers are killed or injured, including most recently in December 2012.[31]  The current Police Commissioner has stated that, while he supports providing greater access to Tasers and firearms, including by having gun safes in more police vehicles, he does not support police officers routinely carrying firearms while on standard patrol.[32]  In September 2012 he stated his belief that “routine arming of New Zealand Police would radically alter the relationship between police and public, without making the policing environment safer.”[33]

Statistical Information

Number of License Holders and Firearms

Because sporting-type rifles and shotguns are not formally registered, the total number of such firearms can only be estimated broadly.[116]  Estimates for the total number of firearms in New Zealand have remained relatively steady since the mid-1990s.  For example, in the context of the 1997 Thorp Report, it was estimated that, as of 1996 (when the population was about 4.17 million people[117], there were between 700,000 and 1 million firearms in New Zealand, including 6,919 registered MSSAs.[118]  The total figure included an estimated 10,000 to 25,000 illegal guns.[119] The report stated that about 3% of the country’s firearms were handguns,[120] with handguns, restricted weapons, and MSSAs therefore making up a total of “no more than 4 percent of the total armoury.”[121]

The 1997 Thorp Report also noted the difficulty of calculating the number of license holders at that time, about four years after the start of the implementation of the 1992 amendments, which saw lifetime license holders needing to reapply for a ten-year license.[122]  The report estimated that, given various available information, there would be about 206,000 license holders by 1999.[123]  Thorp also noted that a draft United Nations report included the figures of 1.1 million firearms and 250,000 license holders for New Zealand, which he suggested should only be used as a “guide, to be considered along with any other information available.”[24]
About ten years later, in 2006, the Police reported to Parliament that there were at that time 227,704 firearms license holders and about 1.1 million firearms in New Zealand, including about 8,500 registered MSSAs as well as nine anti-tank projectors and sixteen grenade launchers.[125]  The Police spokesman stated that many of the larger firearms would likely be collectors’ pieces or have nonexplosive shells.  He also said that there was an active policy not to increase the number of MSSAs and that “[t]he people that are in possession of them are subject to rigorous vetting and their security must be of a higher standard.  Very few new people get these licenses.”[126]
The following year, in 2007, the Small Arms Survey research project estimated that there were approximately 850,000 to 1 million firearms in civilian ownership in New Zealand, with an average ownership rate of 22.6 firearms per 100 people (the twenty-second highest rate of the countries surveyed).[127]

The most recent information located is from May 2010, when the Police provided a breakdown of firearm numbers and license holders to the Gunpolicy.org website.[128]  The statement records that at that time there were about 223,000 holders of a current firearms license, with this number fluctuating daily.  Of these people, 3,477 held B endorsements (target pistol shooters); 3,689 held C endorsements (pistols and/or restricted weapons as a collector, heirloom, museum curator, or for theatrical performances); and 5,171 held E endorsements (MSSAs).  There were also 457 dealers’ licenses.[129]  The population of New Zealand at the end of 2010 was about 4.39 million people.[130]
In terms of firearm numbers, the 2010 information reported that there were about 36,000 pistols and 7,800 MSSAs in the possession of endorsement holders.[131]  The increase in MSSAs compared to the figures in the 1997 Thorp Report were reported to be primarily due to the change of understanding of what constituted a “military pattern free standing pistol grip” during 2009 and early 2010.[132]
In November 2012, it was reported that “[h]undreds of illegal firearms are being seized each year in police raids.”[133]  According to a National Strategic Assessment paper obtained by the news media, “[r]esearch indicates there is already a large pool of illegally held firearms in New Zealand and that firearms of almost any type can be obtained relatively easily from within the criminal fraternity without needing to source illicit firearms from overseas.”[134]

Firearm Deaths

There are various sources of information available regarding firearm deaths in New Zealand, including annual crime statistics produced by the Police and Statistics New Zealand, the National Injury Query System operated by the Injury Prevention Research Unit at Otago University,[135] and international studies. Analysis of the data from these sources may produce slightly different results due to differences in definitions and counting methods.  The following sample of the available data and analysis is provided for information purposes and is not intended to be exhaustive.

Assault/Homicide

Using the National Injury Query System, a search for fatalities resulting from assaults involving firearms between 1988 and 2009 shows that the crude rate was 0.5 per 100,000 people in 1988 (a total of eighteen deaths), increasing to 0.7 in 1990 (twenty-four deaths, including thirteen people killed in the Aramoana shooting massacre).  During the 1990s the rate ranged from 0.5 per 100,000 people in 1994 (seventeen deaths, including five members of the Bain family killed in a shooting massacre) down to less than 0.1 in 1998 (four deaths).  Throughout the 2000s the rate was between 0.1 and 0.2 per 100,000 people, up until 2009 when the crude rate was 0.3 (twelve deaths).[136]
The results for deaths resulting from assaults involving all external causes also show some fluctuations in the rates over the period between 1988 and 2009 (e.g., 1.7 per 100,000 people in 1988, 2.3 in 1992, 1.3 in 1995 and 1999, 1.2 in 2004 and 2008, and 2.0 in 2009).[137]  However, comparing the two sets of data shows that the percentage of assault deaths involving firearms dropped from 31% in 1988 to 14% in 2009.
Using the most recent crime statistics published by Statistics New Zealand to calculate the percentage of recorded murders involving firearms compared to total recorded murders produces the following results for the period from 1994 to 2011:[138]

  • 1994: 16 (27.6%)‬‬‬‬‬‬
  • ‪1995: 9 (23.1%)‬‬‬‬‬‬
  • ‪1996: 9 (18.8%)‬‬‬‬‬‬
  • ‪1997: 13 (21.7%)‬‬‬‬‬‬
  • ‪1998: 4 (8.2%)‬‬‬‬‬‬
  • ‪1999: 5 (11.1%)‬‬‬‬‬‬
  • ‪2000: 7 (13.5%)‬‬‬‬‬‬
  • ‪2001: 6 (11.8%)‬‬‬‬‬‬
  • ‪2002: 10 (16.7%)
  • ‬‬‪2003: 7 (15.9%)‬‬‬‬‬‬
  • ‪2004: 4 (8.9%)‬‬‬‬‬‬
  • ‪2005: 9 (14.8%)‬‬‬‬‬‬
  • ‪2006: 9 (18.4%)‬‬‬‬‬‬
  • ‪2007: 5 (10.4%)‬‬‬‬‬‬
  • ‪2008: 7 (13.5%)‬‬‬‬‬‬
  • ‪2009: 11 (16.9%)‬‬‬‬‬‬
  • ‪2010: 7 (15.2%)‬‬‬‬‬‬
  • ‪2011: 3 (7.7%)‬‬‬‬‬‬

The Police reported to Parliament in 2006 that firearms were involved in less than 1.3% of all violent offending in the previous year.[139]  In 2011, the crime statistics released by the Police and Statistics New Zealand showed that New Zealand’s murder rate was the lowest in twenty-five years.[140]
A 2011 study that compared long-term firearm homicide trends in “three countries with similar social histories but different legislative regimes: Australia, Canada, and New Zealand,” concluded that “the most pronounced decline in firearm homicide over the past two decades occurred in New Zealand.”[141]

Accidental/Unintentional Deaths

A search for unintentional deaths involving firearms using the National Injury Query System shows that there were eighteen such deaths in 1988, a crude rate of 0.5 per 100,000 people.  In 1992 the rate was 0.3, and since that time the rate has been below 0.1 in most years, ranging from zero deaths in this category in 1997 to seven in 2003 (a rate of 0.2).  In 2009, there were four unintentional deaths involving firearms, a rate of less than 0.1.[142]  Comparing these results to the results for unintentional deaths involving all external causes[143] shows that about 1% of such deaths involved firearms in 1988.  In 2009, this figure was just 0.3%.

Suicide/Self-inflicted Deaths

The results of the National Injury Query System search for self-inflicted deaths involving firearms between 1988 and 2009 shows that there were much higher rates of such deaths compared to those resulting from assaults or accidents involving firearms.  However, the numbers reduced significantly over that period.

In 1988 there were 102 self-inflicted deaths involving firearms; a crude rate of 3.0 per 100,000 people.  The rate dropped to around 2.0 per 100,000 people during the first half of the 1990s, and by the 2000s had reduced further to being between 0.9 (thirty-six deaths in 2000) and 1.3 (fifty-one deaths in 2001).  In 2009, the rate was 1.2, reflecting fifty-three deaths.[144]  When compared to the results for self-inflicted deaths involving all external causes,[145] the results show that about 21% of self-inflicted deaths involved firearms in 1988.  In 2009, this same figure was about 10.4%.
A study by staff of the Canterbury Suicide Project published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry in 2006 analyzed the possible impact of the 1992 amendments to the firearm laws on firearm-related suicide in New Zealand.  The study covered an eighteen-year period from 1985 to 2002.  The authors stated that the figures “clearly suggest that the introduction of the 1992 firearms legislation led to a detectable reduction in firearm suicides.”[146]  The trends were most marked for youth suicide, with the authors calculating that the figures for fifteen to twenty-four years olds implied that, “when compared with the pre-legislation period, rates of firearm suicide were reduced by 39% in the implementation period [1993-1996] and by 66% in the post-implementation period [1997-2002].”[147]
In its advice on the Arms (Military Style Semi-Automatic Firearms and Import Controls) Amendment Bill, the Police discussed the impact of the new requirements relating to firearm storage and security under the Arms Regulations 1992.  The agency referred to the above findings and further stated that “[d]espite firearms leaking to the criminal community the misuse of firearms continues to decline as a percentage of all violent crime, and across the board is either steady or reducing. The number of incidents remains relatively static. Non-intentional death and injury in the home has decreased to single figures.”[148]

Prepared by Kelly Buchanan
Chief, Foreign, Comparative, and
International Law Division I
February 2013