Police poised to push hundreds of firearms into the hands of criminals

The Police have, after intensive lobbying, achieved a law change that could end up putting more guns in the hands of criminals

The Arms (Military Style Semi-automatic Firearms and Import Controls) Amendment Bill was passed by Parliament last week. This new law, when it comes into force, will allow the definition of a “military style semi-automatic” (MSSA) rifle to be specified by regulation, rather than directly in the Arms Act as was previously the case.

This means that the Police, by providing advice to their Minister, can introduce regulations reclassifying whole classes of firearms as MSSAs. And they intend to do so, affecting thousands of firearms.

Why is this important? It’s certainly not because of any inherent differences between the two types of rifle (there really isn’t any, except that MSSAs tend to look a bit “nastier”). There are only two important distinctions:

  1. The law allows higher-capacity magazines to be fitted to MSSAs, meaning that more shots can be fired before reloading (normal rifles can only be used with low-capacity 7 round magazines); and
  2. The Police are allowed to keep a register of MSSAs, which they’re not allowed to do for regular rifles.

The Police have recently become really keen on registering firearms, and seem to believe classifying more firearms as MSSAs is a way to achieve this. But the evidence from around the world is that registering firearms is pointless. Canada, for example, has just abolished its register, having looked long and hard and concluded that the whole thing was a monstrously expensive waste of effort. The Police here were once of the same view; back when our current Arms Act was being drafted in the early 1980s, the Police successfully lobbied to abolish firearms registration.

But now the Police seem hell-bent on forcing as many firearms as possible into the MSSA category, just so that they can keep a register of them.

And they’re doing this in spite of the fact that firearms crime is a miniscule problem in New Zealand. Fewer than 1% of the 200-odd serious violent crimes committed in New Zealand every week involve the use of firearms. And that percentage has been declining since 2002. Looked at another way, around 1,400 people suffer an untimely death from criminal or accidental causes each year. Firearms typically contribute to around 6 of those. That’s fewer than the number who die through falling off their chair.

And there is no evidence – none, zip, nada – that registering firearms does anything to reduce that number. Yet the Police currently spend around $3.5m a year registering firearms, and they’re determined to spend much more. That’s money not being spent on, for example, road safety – where it could really save lives.

So what happens when Joe Public finds that his rifle has suddenly been reclassified as an MSSA? He has a few choices:

  1. He can apply for an MSSA endorsement to his licence. It will cost him $200 in fees to hand in the paperwork, and he will need to spend $1,000 or more upgrading his gun safe – just to continue to own what he previously owned quite legally.
  2. He can sell the firearm to someone with an MSSA endorsement already on their firearms licence. But it will be a buyer’s market, with hundreds of other owners trying to offload their newly illegal-to-own firearms at the same time. A great time to buy an MSSA if you’ve got the right licence, but a really bad time to be selling one if you don’t.
  3. Or he can take it down the pub, and sell it to someone who’s prepared to pay a nice premium for a decent shooter, no questions asked.

It won’t have escaped anyone’s attention that only option 3 offers our previously law-abiding firearms owner any chance to avoid being out of pocket. Sadly, many will find the temptation to avoid a financial loss irresistible.

It’s happened before. When the MSSA concept was first introduced into New Zealand law in 1992, hundreds of previously legally held firearms simply disappeared into the criminal underworld.

And it will happen again, each and every time the Police add a new regulation reclassifying more firearms as MSSAs.

Safer Communities Together? I think not.