The callous murders on Friday 15th March are a national tragedy, and a symbol of many failures. Our hearts are with those dealing with the very human consequences of this inhuman act.
One such failure is our gun law, described in the Arms Act. The government has committed to making a raft of changes to prevent a tragedy of this nature happening again.
At the heart of this is whether people should be able to own semi-automatic firearms, many of which now on the market are based on assault weapons, such as the AR-15 used in Fridays massacre. The calls for an outright ban on semi-automatic firearms is loud, and seems well heard by the government.
Do we need semi-automatics in New Zealand? No.
A semi-automatic rifle was designed as a weapon of war. There is no war here.
Recreational hunters who say that that they are necessary must be pretty crap hunters. Duck hunters too would be affected as semi-automatic shotguns are popular, but do you really need it to enjoy recreational hunting? No. Not at all.
There are a couple of outliers to that – pest management is a good example where a firearm is a tool. But there is a big difference between a semi-automatic .22 used for rabbit control and a 5.56mm semi-automatic rifle originally designed for military purposes.
At the extreme end of the debate, the notion of a ban is the first step to a totalitarian state, from which semi-automatics are viewed as protection. That logic defies the notion that the intent of the firearms for recreational purposes and enhances the need to make sure these weapons are severely restricted, if not removed altogether.
But, as observed both in NZ and overseas, changes to gun laws are not easily achieved. We may well see a set of recommendations that are a tightening, not an outright ban. This would be disappointing at a policy level and devastating at a values level.
In this case, if firearms are tightened but not banned, what are some of the things we need to see to have some assurance that firearms are better restricted??
Closing the MSSA logic black hole. Under the current regime, the classification of a what is functionally an assault rifle is mostly determined by its cosmetic appearance. Make a change to the cosmetics, and what was previously a firearm limited to those that hold an E category license can now be assessed by anyone with a general A-category license. This is nonsensical and needs to be eliminated.
Managing Magazines. The firearm itself is only half the equation. It needs a magazine to function. There are limits to the size of a magazine that a rifle can have to be legal, but there are no restrictions on purchasing bigger magazines. A regime should consider magazines and other accessories that can “up-class” a firearm, and ideally restrict purchases of these accessories to holders of the appropriate class of firearm.
Registration. The current registration system is non-existent. Registration of all firearms needs to happen, regardless of a ban, so that the ownership of firearms is known. A registration should also consider registering ownership of key accessories such as magazines.
Graded licensing. Creating a more functional and risk-management based approach to different firearms types needs to be a cornerstone of any recommendations. A regime needs to be based on what particular class of firearm is functionally capable of, and manage risk accordingly, rather than what a particular rifle looks like.
In practice, this could be a specific class of license for semi-automatic firearms, subject to a higher degree of scrutiny. This graded classification model could also look to manage the number of firearms that can be legally possessed or traded
Exemptions for certain types of firearm could be managed through this, for example .22 semi-automatics – firearms that have a viable use case for things like pest control may remain available to A-class holders.
Ammunition. A firearm control regime needs to consider the procurement of ammunition. One of the major risks is illegally procured or owned firearms, which under any licensing regime would be undeclared by an owner. So, the regime needs to consider ammunition, and ensure that people are only buying ammunition for calibre of firearm they are known to own. That would be an immediate red flag to the police – this person has only registered that they own a .22, so why are they buying 5.56mm ammunition??
Gun Clubs. The role of gun clubs seems to have not been well understood by the broader community. A regime needs to consider the culture, environment and membership of these clubs on a more overt basis. Gun clubs are key to ensuring that license holders are acting as responsible owners of good character – we need to be sure that this responsibility is being met.
Again, a general ban on semi-automatics is the best overall response. This would be ideal but may not be politically possible for a government. The gun lobby in NZ is vocal, powerful, and for some reason or another, has been reasonably successful in the past at limiting the scope of change. That’s not to say it is impossible – Australia has previously implemented such a ban. But if 50 deaths are not enough to force change, then one must seriously question the mindset of those opposed to change.
What we do not want to see is a situation such as in the USA where any attempts to tighten gun laws fail and get caught in a partisan all-or-nothing proposition. We want change and we don’t want to see another tragedy unfold because we didn’t act.