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Otago researchers call for urgent law change

Wellington campus

Sunday, 17 March 2019

Marie Russell image
Dr Marie Russell

Firearms law changes promised by the Prime Minister are long overdue, according to experts in the Department of Public Health, University of Otago, Wellington, Dr Marie Russell and Dr Hera Cook.

They believe it is time for the gun lobby to stand aside. And they are calling for an urgent and immediate moratorium on sales and imports while changes are in process, to prevent a run on gun purchases by people predicting this will happen.

“Many New Zealanders are, like us, worried about the number of firearms in New Zealand,” says Dr Russell.

“Firearms imports number many thousands each year. But we don’t actually know how many guns there are in New Zealand. Estimates range from 1.2 million to two or three million. Along with countries in North America, New Zealand is one of the few places where owners don’t have to register each weapon, except for some limited categories of firearm.”

The researchers believe immediate action is needed to stop sales and importation of semi-automatic firearms. It is likely that some firearms enthusiasts are expecting a ban or restrictions to be imposed and will be racing to purchase these items.

For this reason, and to reduce the increase of stock to dealers from imports, they recommend the following:
1. An immediate moratorium on sales, imports and advertising of semi-automatics while changes are decided.
2. Within a limited period of time, removal of semi-automatics from dealers to police custody.
3. Within a limited period of time, checks by Police on the owners and storage of all semi-automatics and pistols. Police know who most of these people are because these types of firearms currently must be registered – unlike other firearms.

Looking to the longer term, legislation should include:

4. A ban on all private ownership of semi-automatic firearms in New Zealand.
5. An amnesty or buy-back with compensation to owners of banned firearms.
6. A register of all firearms.
7. Three or five-year licensing of firearms owners (currently 10 years).

To achieve lasting change in the firearms laws, the researchers believe that concerted action is needed:
8. An all-party commitment to these basic gun control measures.

“For too long, firearms policy has been dictated by an active and influential gun lobby, whose vocal members have dissuaded governments from making meaningful changes. More than 20 years ago, the gun lobby ensured that recommendations of the detailed 1997 Thorp Report were not adopted. Firearms groups have generally resisted any change, apparently on principle,” says Dr Russell.

Firearms owners comprise about 5 per cent to 6 per cent of the population. Their activities are subsidised by the tax payer. For example, while each licenced firearms owner must pay $126.50 once every ten years for a standard A Category licence (to own rifles, shotguns etc.), the actual cost to NZ Police of administering the entire licensing system is over $11 million per year. More than half of this is paid by the taxpayer. The cost to Police of administering firearms imports is entirely absorbed by the Police budget: no fee is charged for administering applications to import firearms, restricted weapons or firearms parts.

“Because taxpayers are subsidising firearms owners, it’s time for taxpayers to have more of a say in firearms policy and law,” according to Dr Russell.

“Current systems are not working: and we are thinking about the 50 or so gun suicides that occur each year, as well as the people shot this week in Christchurch.

“Open arming of the police has been discussed recently. Overseas research suggests that when Police are openly armed, there are more shootings, both accidental and intentional, with ethnic minorities more at risk of police shootings. There are fears that Māori are more likely to be targeted.”