NZ buyback: Flaws in the new laws

John Maxwell

Two years on from New Zealand’s Christchurch massacre and the subsequent buyback of some 60,000 banned guns, the country is experiencing a wave of firearm crime that’s the highest in a decade, the problems caused not by the country’s licensed shooters but by criminal gangs. New Zealand MP Nicole McKee, former secretary and spokeswoman for the Council of Licensed Firearms Owners (COLFO), NZ’s counterpart to the SSAA, says the government gave themselves a pat on the back for removing 60,000 guns from the community.

“Wait a minute mate, you took 60,000 guns from licensed owners who were obeying the law, meanwhile the gangs are having a field day. They’re out there shooting themselves and other people and it needs to stop,” she told Australian Shooter. “The government went after the wrong people and the wrong firearms. They spent $100 million taking firearms off licensed, approved owners from their police-approved secure locations while gangs are out there shooting on a street corner near you.”

Some of this crime wave, maybe much of it, is down to Australia’s policy of deporting New Zealand-born criminals – more than 1500 since 2014 – who’ve simply touched down and continued doing what they do. Among those deported were senior bikie gang members who, according to media reports, have set about reshaping New Zealand’s crime scene, driving violence to fresh heights in a turf war against established groups, one reason for the frosty relations between NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Australian counterpart Scott Morrison.

In the worst incident – on June 19, 2020 – Constable Mathew Hunt was shot dead and his colleague wounded when they stopped a car suspected of being associated with criminal activity (a 24-year-old man has been charged). This was the first murder of a police officer on duty since 2009 and neither officer was armed at the time, the offender reportedly carrying a long-barrelled firearm.

New Zealand is part-way through a program of changes to its gun laws sparked by the Christchurch terror attack of March 2019 when an Australian right-wing fanatic used legally acquired guns to murder 51 people in two city mosques. The Labor Government, backed by almost every MP in parliament, launched far-reaching changes including an immediate ban on semi-automatic and some other types of rifles and shotguns, a buyback scheme, changes to licensing and introduction of a registration system.

The six-month buyback ended in December 2019 with 60,297 guns surrendered and owners compensated around NZ$102 million. NZ Police estimated the final cost would be about $120 million and buyback administration cost $35 million, almost double the initial assessment. No-one has claimed this was a ripping success as nobody knew how many newly-banned guns there were to start with, though estimates put it as high as 200,000. Even the NZ Auditor-General couldn’t conclude the buyback delivered value for money for the taxpayer as there was no reliable picture of how many newly-prohibited firearms remained in the community.

Now the government has launched a second buyback aimed at certain types of firearms which police apparently didn’t realise should be included until now. They are:

  • Centrefire pump-action rifles with detachable magazines;
  • Centrefire pump-action rifles with non-detachable (tube) magazines able to hold more than 10 rounds;
  • Some specified semi-automatic pistols and carbine conversion kits.

Centrefire pump-action rifles includes the Remington 7600 series which are available in Australia along with TROY rifles, which resemble an AR-15 and use some AR components but were designed solely as a pump-action. Plans to import these to Australia were rejected on grounds of their military appearance. There appear to be few affected pump-action centrefire rifles though an IMI Timber Wolf may exceed the 10-round limit when loaded with .38 Special rounds.

Quite what NZ Police are after in the third group isn’t completely clear as conventional handguns (smaller than 400mm overall length) are fine, subject to appropriate licensing. The lengthy banned list features semi-automatic rifles (AR, AK, Garands) which clearly aren’t pistols however, in a police explanatory video, an officer holds up a short-barrelled AR-15 as an example of what’s now banned. It may be some of those remain in the hands of NZ shooters as they’d been treated as pistols and not subject to the first buyback.

Carbine conversion kits are defined as anything which allows a conventional handgun to be fired from the shoulder, including detachable stocks for historic Luger and broomhandle Mauser pistols as well as modern kits in which a handgun such as a Glock is installed in a frame. These aren’t banned outright as with the appropriate permits and endorsement they may be retained.

The new buyback started on February 1 and ends this month in a move that will cost an estimated NZ$15.5 million which Ms McKee says could be better spent on recruiting more police, considering the current crime wave. “The question comes back – you’re buying firearms which had nothing to do with the March 15 terrorist attack in order to tidy up or do whatever it is you think you might have missed on the first lot,” she said.

So where does this leave Kiwi shooters? As well as the new buyback, New Zealand is rolling out a new firearms licensing system. “It’s atrocious. As at December last year we have 9800 people, according to police, waiting to be processed for their licences, including 3000 waiting for renewals,” Ms McKee said.

“Those 3000 waiting for renewals have been told because police are behind in their administration, they need to actually have someone else take care of their firearms – it’s been more than six months for some people and that’s not good enough, not at all. We’re finding people are in illegal possession of a firearm because their licence has expired – it’s just not fair to them when they got their renewals in on time.”

And there’s more. On her travels Ms McKee routinely encounters shooters still in possession of banned firearms. The initial ban was aimed directly at military-pattern self-loading rifles of the type used by the Christchurch killer. However, new magazine capacity restrictions captured many older rifles such as semi-auto rimfires and pump and lever-actions with tube magazines holding more than 10 rounds. Ms McKee said those shooters were gobsmacked to learn they were in possession of banned guns and needed to do something about it. “I think the majority of them are actually people unaware,” she said.

Under new laws, gun registration will be rolled out over three years. New Zealand has tried registration but ditched it in 1973 when it was found that fully two-thirds of entries were inaccurate and the cost of a paper-based system outweighed the benefits. This time round it’ll be digital though it seems NZ Police will still need to raise their game as, under the previous regime, legally owned military semi-auto rifles were registered but the Auditor-General found police records of the number of such guns ranged from 13,175 to 15,037.

Shooters there are now well represented in parliament and in last year’s election the New Zealand ACT Party, for which Ms McKee is an MP, went from one to 10 seats, the same number of MPs as the Greens who picked up two. The Labor Government, led by Ardern, went from 46 to 65 seats in the 120-seat parliament while the traditional conservative party, The Nationals, plummeted from 56 to 33 as New Zealand First went from nine seats to none.

NZ ACT is a libertarian party of the centre right. ACT stands for Association of Consumers and Taxpayers and was founded in 1993 by Roger Douglas, the former Labor minister who oversaw NZ’s radical economic restructuring in the 1980s. Unusually for New Zealand where coalition governments have been the norm, Labor’s strong performance in 2020 means it can govern without requiring the support of minor parties such as ACT whose 10 members include seven with firearms licences – it may not hold a balance of power but can make itself heard.

One concern for Ms McKee is with two buybacks under its belt, the government will next turn to handguns which, like Australia, have always been heavily regulated. “Luckily for us we haven’t seen a lot of pistols used in organised crime here and I hope we don’t,” she said, “though my fear is that’ll be next.”

Ms McKee is developing legislation to repeal some of the more onerous provisions of the firearms legislation such as police powers to ban anything they don’t like without going to parliament. Ultimately she’d like to produce a whole new Arms Act which takes all the good bits of the much amended legislation dating back almost 40 years.

In the election Ms McKee stood for an electorate but didn’t get in. She became an MP under the mixed member proportional (MMP) electoral system which allocates seats to a party based on how many votes it receives. As what’s called a ‘list MP’ she doesn’t have an electorate to oversee. “I still say I have a constituency and that’s the firearms owners of New Zealand,” she said. “I’m travelling up and down the country talking to clubs, organisations, going to events, militaria shows, auctions, speaking to people and letting them know what we’re doing and finding out what’s happening in their world.”

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