Editorial: gun law changes do not go far enough

Police Minister Paula Bennett has rejected a series of proposals to reform New Zealand gun laws.
Cameron Burnell/Fairfax NZ

Police Minister Paula Bennett has rejected a series of proposals to reform New Zealand gun laws.

EDITORIAL: There is a sad irony in discussions of New Zealand gun laws coming just as news broke of yet another mass shooting in the United States. A gunman opened fire at a baseball game in Virginia, injuring Republican politician Steve Scalise​ and three others. Irony is compounded when we learn that Scalise is a staunch opponent of gun control. 

Changes to our gun laws have often been driven by events like that. The Arms Amendment Act of 1992 followed the Aramoana shootings and a Law and Order Select Committee investigation of the illegal possession of firearms was inspired by an increase in firearm seizures. The seizure of 14 illegal firearms in Takanini in 2016 was a stand-out example. 

The committee set three questions. How widespread is firearm possession among gangs and other criminals? How do criminals and gangs come to possess firearms if they lack licenses? And what changes could restrict the flow of firearms to criminals? 

Context is important. Firearms are used in only 1.4 per cent of violent crime in New Zealand, which is low by international standards. And as the vast majority of 242,056 licensed firearm holders are law-abiding, the committee felt restrictions on criminal access must not impinge unfairly on them. 

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The cross-party committee chaired by National MP Kanwaljit Singh Bakshi​ finished in April with 20 recommendations, which had the backing of the Police Association. But Police Minister Paula Bennett has accepted only seven of the 20 recommendations, and is recommending changes to one more. Twelve of 20 recommendations were flatly rejected

Should the Government have listened more carefully to the committee and taken on board a greater number of their recommendations?

Gun ownership has traditionally been seen as a privilege rather than a right in New Zealand but Bennett's rejection of rules suggested by the committee tips the balance back towards the so-called rights of the gun owner.

Among the rejected recommendations are suggestions that police should be allowed to enter premises to check firearms safety and should record serial numbers. Bennett also rejected recommendations that a firearms licence should be required to possess ammunition, with records of ammunition sales kept by gun dealers. She also rejected proposals that owners who do not store guns safely would automatically lose their licence, although it could be suspended under new rules.

Surely the safe storage of guns in homes, away from children, should be a bottom line for ownership. 

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The Police Association believes that Bennett has been influenced by the gun lobby. One of her additions to the list of recommendations seems to confirm this. Bennett has proposed that the police must "improve its consultative processes with the firearms community", which suggests she has been swayed by that "community".

The Government has tried to pitch Bennett's backdown as a tightening of the rules around access to firearms. As a tough-on-gangs policy it is definitely a headline grabber, as Bennett has backed the select committee's view that gang members and prospects are by definition not "fit and proper" people who should own guns in New Zealand.

But she could have gone much further to ensure we remain safe from the dangers of gun ownership we see elsewhere.

 - Stuff

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