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Opinion: Why are taxpayers subsidising licensed firearms owners?

Wellington campus

Wednesday 22 May 2019 11:33am

By Drs Marie Russell, Lucy Telfar-Barnard and Hera Cook*

Dr Marie Russell image
Dr Marie Russell.

Online comment from some local gun lobbyists after the Christchurch shooting bypassed sympathy and jumped straight to worries about government "taking our guns away". Despite such attitudes, firearm owners are happy for the rest of us to subsidise them through our taxes.

Taxpayers pay most of the cost of administering the firearms system. When 10-year firearms licences were introduced in 1992, shooters complained about the fees, compared to the earlier 'lifetime' licences. But, as Justice Thomas Thorp explained in his 1997 review of firearms control, "shooters could not expect the taxpayers of New Zealand to pay for these measures if they did not own or use firearms".

At that time, user-pays was being introduced and, in comparable areas such as passports and building consents, full cost recovery is considered normal. It is accepted that citizens should pay individually for services of direct benefit just to them.

New Zealand Police administers the firearms licence system. This involves:

  • Running a check to see if the applicant is 'fit and proper'
  • Arranging interviews with the applicant in person, plus the spouse or next of kin and another person nominated by the applicant
  • Inspecting the storage arrangements
  • Completing relevant records and issuing the licence as appropriate.

The successful applicant pays $126.50 for a 10-year standard Category A firearms licence, averaging $12.65 a year. Licence endorsements for special types of firearms work out at a few additional dollars annually.

Firearms administration cost police well over $11 million in 2016–17, but the gun owners' licence fees accounted for less than half of the costs. Taxpayers and the police budget cover the gap. How do police juggle the trade-offs involved? What corners are they cutting elsewhere to subsidise firearms owners?

There's more. To import a firearm legally, you need a police 'permit to import'. To buy a pistol, or restricted weapon (or, until recently, a military-style semi-automatic), you need a 'permit to procure'. An average of 27,000 shotguns and rifles are imported each year, and police must check the details. Individual applicants, but also dealers and retailers, pay nothing for the checks.

Lucy Telfar-Barnard image
Dr Lucy Telfar-Barnard.

A key argument from supposedly law-abiding shooters for keeping firearms licence fees low and purchase checks free is that, if fees rise, it will so deeply annoy many that they won't get a licence at all.

Firearms are a concern because of their lethality. Each year there are about 50 deaths, mostly suicides, and about 120 hospitalisations for injuries.

Epidemiologists assess the financial costs of deaths by estimating the 'years of life lost' for each person who dies prematurely, and assigning a dollar value. Total costs of firearms deaths in 2000–2015 were $304m a year.

With injuries, there are actual costs. The average cost of firearms injury hospitalisations from 2000–2017 was just under $1m a year.

Costs from deaths and injuries, as well as the distress, are met by victims' families, police, ambulance staff, ACC, and the healthcare system. Search and Rescue and domestic violence support also contribute.

There is no tax on firearms, like the taxes on tobacco and alcohol, to help pay downstream healthcare costs.

Dr Hera Cook image
Dr Hera Cook.

Is there another side of the balance sheet? Community benefits that justify taxpayers subsidising gun owners? The gun lobby claims that shooters contribute to society through controlling pests, and through their healthy outdoors lifestyle.

Certainly, firearms are part of the economy. Businesses involving firearms include dealers, retailers, gunsmiths, and tourism companies providing hunting-related services to overseas visitors (who do not cover costs, as they pay only $25 for a firearm licence). Trophy hunting, and breeding trophy animals for game parks, are part of the firearms-related economy.

Then there is hunted wild meat providing protein to shooters' households. This may be of particular importance to some low-income rural and Māori households, but is also prized by wealthy urban-dwellers.

Without hunters, the Department of Conservation might pay more for commercial pest control in some areas. By definition, hunters need something to hunt. Some have gone so far as to release deer and pigs illegally on to conservation land. Hunters and hunting businesses wish to maintain adequate numbers of the larger, browsing animals to ensure satisfactory shooting and hunting experiences. This arrangement, to 'manage' the animals, not eliminate them, was formalised in law under the Game Animal Council Act 2013.

However, as Thorp explained, individuals owning the firearms should pay for the cost of the system that benefits them.

Owning a firearm in New Zealand is a privilege, not a right. Because of the lethal nature of firearms, strong regulation and policing are required. Regulations can be made, if politicians wish, under the Policing (Cost Recovery) Amendment Act 2016. It seems only fair that those who enjoy firearms should pay for the systems to safely regulate their use.

Fact sheet: Taxpayer subsidies for for licensed firearms owners May 2019 (PDF 730 KB)

* Dr Marie Russell and Dr Lucy Telfar-Barnard are both senior research fellows, and Dr Hera Cook is a senior lecturer, in the Department of Public Health, University of Otago, Wellington.

This opinion piece was first published on the Stuff website and in Stuff newspapers.