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Introduction

1.1 Origins and Terms of Reference of Review

In July 1996 the then Minister of Police requested that I undertake an independent review of firearms control in New Zealand. The immediate catalysts for that request were two recommendations made by the Police Complaints Authority following police shootings in September and November 1995 in Invercargill and Whangarei. In its March 1996 report on the Gellatly incident at Invercargill, the Authority recommended:

[T]hat there be instituted as soon as possible a complete review of the statutory regulations and police guidelines on the control and storage of guns, ammunition, weapons and explosives, particularly in places to which the public have access.

A little over a month later the Authority reported on the Radcliffe incident at Whangarei. In the intervening period since the Gellatly Report a tragedy of considerable magnitude had occurred in Dunblane, Scotland. The Authority drew attention to the fact that the United Kingdom Government had appointed Lord Cullen to carry out an Inquiry into the shootings in Dunblane, and recommended:

[T]hat the Minister of Police secure Government’s agreement to establish an independent inquiry of firearms control in New Zealand. This is intended to replace and widen the Gellatly recommendation. This recommendation would enable a complete review to be conducted of all existing legislation and that public hearings be held so that all persons and organisations with an interest in gun control could make their submissions. It is a matter for Government how it sets the exact terms of reference for such an inquiry and other related issues such as reporting times but I envisage by this recommendation no aspect of gun availability and control be excluded.

The police response was to conduct its own internal review. On 28 May 1996 the Police Executive Conference at Police National Headquarters approved a report entitled A Review of Firearms Control in New Zealand. While stating that it "should not be considered an in-depth study of the issues" the report’s opening paragraph declared that "New Zealand has in place an effective system of firearms licensing and arms control", and suggested a series of relatively minor reforms "to ensure the system maintains its high level of integrity".

Having considered that report, the Minister decided to seek an independent review, and on 22 August 1996 published its terms of reference as follows:

REPORT TO THE MINISTER OF POLICE ON

AN INDEPENDENT REVIEW OF ISSUES RELATING TO

FIREARMS CONTROL IN New Zealand

 

TERMS OF REFERENCE

 

1. To consider the effectiveness of the Arms Act, and its subsequent amendments to control the use of firearms in New Zealand, and to report on, in particular:

a) whether the 1992 Amendment has met with general compliance by the public;

b) whether the Police have been able to adequately enforce compliance;

2. Arising from consideration of the issues raised in paragraph 1, outline the need for any amendment or further recommendations which should be included in the Report.

The Review will encompass an audit of the recommendations contained in the Police Review as well as submissions from interested parties. It is not anticipated public hearings will be held or oral submissions taken apart from where the Reviewer considers that oral submissions are needed to enable proper assessment of written submissions. Written submissions are to be invited by public advertisement closing by 31 October 1996.

 

This Review is to be completed by 28 February 1997.

 

In December 1996 the Minister approved an extension of the reporting deadline to 30 June 1997.

 

1.2 Procedure Adopted

 

The Review has been conducted over a period of nine months, much of which has been spent in fact-gathering and consultation. Assistance with research and logistical support has been provided by the New Zealand Police. As for at least 80 years the Police have had sole responsibility for the administration and enforcement of arms control in this country, their records contain by far the greatest part of the information relevant to this Review. Since this Review is critical both of the extent and the standard of police record-keeping and of the low priority given by the Police to arms business, it must in fairness be put on record that none of my many requests for information was ignored, and that documents were made available from the police files even when they plainly did not support positions taken in the May 1996 Review.

Assistance was also sought and received from sources out-side the Police. Almost without exception this information was made available without reservation, and this whether the request was to a protagonist in the "gun debate" or to a
governmental or other independent organisation. Notable assistance was received from those managing the Australian reforms and from the Canadian Firearms Centre and officials engaged in arms control research and reforms in Canada. Both jurisdictions have made plain their willingness to share with New Zealand the results of their research and their experience, and that must be a valuable resource for the future.

The paucity of primary evidence made it necessary to seek information, by surveys, sampling exercises and other means, to fill in some of the gaps. Those endeavours included: empirical research projects, public submissions, a visit to Australia, and consultation with informed groups.

 

Empirical Research Projects

These took such forms as:

Ÿ a survey of 1,000 firearms licensees to determine the types and ages of firearms held by them;

Ÿ the inclusion of questions regarding firearms ownership and use in an AGB McNair survey of 1,000 households;

Ÿ analysis of police files to discover information about

the types and source of firearms used in crime

the basis for police revocation action and for the refusal of applications for firearms licences

the vetting of firearms applicants;

Ÿ a study of prison inmates to discover more about the source and types of firearms used in crime;

Ÿ a study of firearm security including rural and urban licensees and dealers; and

Ÿ enquiries to estimate the accuracy of current police firearms records and to gauge the ease of purchase of firearms without a licence.

 

 

Receipt of Public Submissions

The Review received input from the public in two principal forms: written submissions and oral hearings. A total of 2,884 written submissions were received by the Review, ranging from letters from concerned individuals to detailed submissions on behalf of clubs and organisations. The submissions were signed by over 3,500 people and endorsed by an even larger number once membership of clubs and organisations is taken into account. A discussion of the submissions is contained in part 2.7 of the report.

Hearings were conducted in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch in January 1997. These provided an opportunity for 32 individuals and groups to clarify or expand on matters of particular significance to the Review. All those who requested a hearing were given the opportunity to be heard.

 

Visit to Australia

In March 1997 I visited five Australian States and the ACT in an attempt to learn about the Australian systems of firearms control before Port Arthur, and the progress, problems and successes of the substantial reforms agreed to in May 1996 by the Australasian Police Ministers’ Council in response to the tragedy at Port Arthur. The visit to Australia was delayed in order to see as much as possible the effect of their reforms. However, many of the new systems were still being introduced, and further visits should be made by those charged with implementing any reforms in this country.

 

Consultation with Informed Parties

It has been necessary to consult with a number of people on issues relating to firearms and firearms regulation throughout the course of the Review. A list of the principal individuals and organisations consulted appears as appendix 8.

 

 

1.3 Significance of Weak Information Base

 

From early on it became apparent that informed decision-making about firearms law and policy in New Zealand had been hampered by a lack of sound information on a number of principal issues. Reliable information was unavailable on issues as basic as:

Ÿ the number and types of firearms owned in New Zealand;

Ÿ the number of firearms owners and users;

Ÿ the rate of compliance with the Relicensing Project, including the number of licences surrendered and revoked;

Ÿ the number of firearms stolen, traded or destroyed annually;

Ÿ the number and nature of crimes committed with firearms;

Ÿ the number of refusals of firearms licence applications annually, the reasons for these, and the reasons for revocation action;

Ÿ the number of military style semi-automatic firearms, pistols and restricted weapons in the country, legal and illegal; and

Ÿ the number of firearms sold to civilians by the Army.

 

The extent of uncertainties in all of these areas was considerable. Taking the first of these by way of example, apparently informed opinion of the numbers of firearms ranged from 600,000 to 1.25 million. Cost estimates were even more disparate. Police estimated the cost of the current arms control work at $7M per annum, and listed costs for the enhancements proposed by the May 1996 Review totaling another $500,000. Coopers & Lybrand’s costings, now accepted by the Police to be "more reliable than any other source", put present actual costs at over $11M per annum, and the cost of the proposed enhancements at $7.4M to $7.6M.

Although the first seven months of this Review were spent trying to reduce the levels of uncertainty, those endeavours produced mixed results. The cause of the police failure to maintain proper arms records seems to have been in part the belief that they were not really necessary and in part the lack of resources. The fact remained that information which in any commercial enterprise would have been considered basic to informed management was absent. This circumstance ensured that attempts to secure an adequate factual basis for recommendations dominated the course of the Review.

We now know more about firearms in New Zealand society than we did previously, but the picture is by no means complete. In turn, the combination of a weak factual base and the inherent difficulties in much firearms research has meant that many of the conclusions in this report have had to be qualified. In some areas tentative conclusions have been expressed based on "best available" information. In others it has been concluded that the areas of uncertainty are too large to allow conclusions to be reached, and that further research must first be carried out. The process of developing a sounder and more accurate basis for policy formation is one which must continue well into the future.

 

1.4 Form of Report

 

The report is in eight main parts. Part 2 sets out some basic information about the use and control of firearms in New Zealand, including: the history of firearms controls; the numbers of firearms, licensees, owners and users; the various uses of firearms in New Zealand; and public attitudes to firearms and firearms control. Part 3 discusses the misuse of firearms in crime, suicide and accidents. Part 4 discusses the purpose of firearms legislation, the available strategies for gun control and their inter-relationship, and the bedrock arguments which underlie most debate about gun control; and describes recent movements in public opinion overseas. Part 5 assesses the effectiveness of the present system of firearm controls, either with or without the enhancements proposed by the Police in the May 1996 Review. Part 6 discusses a number of possible reforms, and considers the most appropriate administrative regimes for firearms control in New Zealand. Part 7 outlines a staged programme of reforms, drawing together the conclusions reached in the previous sections of the report. Part 8 answers the questions put in the Terms Of Reference.

At around 300 pages this report is likely to be too long for those who simply wish to know its conclusions, and who may want to know the principal reasons which led to them, but have no interest in the details behind those reasons and conclusions. For this reason a 15-page summary accompanies the report, and attempts to present the central findings in a more digestible form. Those who doubt the validity of any of the conclusions appearing in the summary can, if they wish, pursue the topic to its place in the report, references to which are identified in square brackets throughout the summary.

In providing a summary it is not my intention to perpetuate the practice, which has long hampered resolution of the principal issues arising in the debate on firearms control, of presenting argument in over-simplified terms. Firearms control is a complex business in which changing society’s attitudes towards guns its "gun culture" will play an important, perhaps as important a part as changing the gun laws. Black and white arguments and simple solutions, though sometimes appealing, are most unlikely to provide the answers.

 

1.5 Police Use of Firearms

 

Very few submissions were received on the issue of police use of firearms. That fact and the circumstance that the Arms Act does not govern the use of firearms by the police "in the course of their duties", so that the issue was probably not within my terms of reference, persuaded me that the topic should be left for some other occasion or Inquiry.



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Notes

  1. Police Complaints Authority, Report of the Police Complaints Authority on the Fatal Shooting of Eric Bruce Gellatly at Invercargill on 27 September 1995 (11 March 1996), at 28.

  2. Police Complaints Authority, Report of the Police Complaints Authority on the Fatal Shooting of Barry Ronald Radcliffe at Whangarei on 20 November 1995 (15 April 1996).

  3. Ibid, at 32.

  4. Operations Support Group (PNHQ), A Review of Firearms Control in New Zealand ("the May 1996 Review").

  5. Ibid, at 1.

  6. Section 3, Arms Act 1983.