Owning a gun is a privilege: Firearms licences may need better checks & balances

I value the guns I own, but with ownership comes responsibility and it's reasonable to expect licences and those who enfore them to ensure the safety of all New Zealanders

Given the public mood following the Christchurch terror attacks, I have felt some discomfort in admitting I hold a firearms licence. Understandbly, in the wake of the mosque shootings, there is a very strong anti-firearms sentiment in the public mind.

Gun ownership is legitimate and legal, but the way firearms are presented in the media there is a shadow over guns and its hard not to feel a little under a cloud.

Perhaps some context will aid understanding of the reasons I have a license. My father was a farmer and a knowledgeable history buff. I share that same interest.

His history bent left him with a deep interest in the American Civil War and he collected a fair bit of civil war literature and paraphernalia, including weapons used in that period. When he died my sisters had no interest so I inherited these items. Amongst others, I have a black powder muzzle loading musket. For those who don’t know, to load a muzzle loader takes the best part of a minute. Some very skilled operators can do it in 30 seconds, but for most it takes much longer. It fires one shot and then needs to go through the reloading process again. Muzzle loaders were replaced by much easier to reload breach loaders in the mid-1800s.

My dad also passed on to me a excellent condition genuine World War I fully wooded Lee Enfield .303. It a very good example of the rifles used at Gallipoli and in the trenches of the Western Front. I don’t use it to shoot but value it for what it is and as a family heirloom. I also have a couple of air rifles – slug guns – given to me when I was a boy.

As a farmer, my father dealt with the quite serious rabbit and opossum problem on our farm with a .22 bolt action rifle – we called it the ‘pea rifle’. They fire a small bullet. I also own a .22 silenced Ruger .22 which is still used to hold rabbits at bay – and they are serious this year - on our lifestyle block in a way that does not alarm neighbours. My dad was also a keen hunter and duck shooter so he had a deer hunting rifle – a bolt action .223 and a couple of shotguns (a pump action and a side by side).

Personally I am not into hunting – I am happy to leave the ducks and deer at peace. But we are all different. In principle, as much as they can without hurting or affecting others, I think people should do and be what they want to do and be.

From as early as I can remember, my dad drilled the firearm safety message into our heads. All my firearms are kept in an approved safe. We do everything we can to be assured our firearms will never harm anyone.

In the wake of the Christchurch attack, there has been a huge focus on semi-automatics. A semi-automatic reloads after each bullet is fired using some of the power from the shot to drive the reloading mechanism. It is then ready to fire again. But you only get one shot per trigger pull. The alternative is a bolt action. Here the person firing opens and closes the bolt after each shot. It is not as fast as a semi-automatic but in the hands of an experienced operator is only a very little slower.

Military-style semi automatics and assault rifles have been banned already; all the guns used in the mosque attacks. An amnesty is in place. The government is still considering how much further to go with law reform.

Some commentators who obviously know little about guns leave the impression that the world will be safe if we just get rid of semi-automatics. That is not correct. Bolt action rifles used wrongly can be very dangerous too. Indeed that is the point. Firearms of any sort – semi-automatics, bolt actions, even muzzle loaders – should be kept out of the hands of the wrong people.

I was very surprised to read that the shooter had purchased these deadly weapons on an A licence, and what is more, online. Some media reports on the way the checking process was carried out by the Police with this Firearms Licence application in this case if true seem careless. From society’s point of view, the purpose of a licensing system is to say that being permitted to own a firearm is a privilege; to protect society from firearms getting into the hands of the wrong people. Licences should not be given to people unless the system carefully checks and assures that their owning firearms is not allowing weapons to fall into the hands of potentially dangerous people.

The A licence is meant to be the very basic licence. A weapon with the more dangerous elements like assault rifles and MSSAs (Military Style Semi Automatics) supposedly required an E licence and both the owner and the weapon were required to to be registered with the Police. This strict E licensing process was there to keep these formidable weapons out of the hands of potentially dangerous people. Clearly it was not being run in a way that achieved that objective in this case.

If the licensing system cannot achieve that goal a ban becomes inevitable – there is no choice, and had I still been an MP I would have voted for it.

But if we are going to have a licensing system it should be tested against the objective of being a system intended to assure potentially dangerous situations are managed to lower risk in society as much as possible.