Uses and Control of Firearms in
New Zealand




2.1 The First 120 Years


1845 to 1885

Firearms control began in New Zealand with the Arms Importation Ordinance of 1845. Its preamble reported concern that "certain tribes of the Native race of New Zealand have taken up arms against the Queen’s sovereign authority", probably a reference to Hone Heke’s activities at Kororareka the previous year. Certainly its objective was to prevent the acquisition of firearms by Maori, through controls over imports and changes of ownership, rather than to regulate the ownership or possession of firearms by European settlers.

The Ordinance proved difficult to enforce and not very effective. Aside from the problem of smuggling, there was difficulty establishing the ownership of particular firearms. The Arms Act of 1860 attempted to remedy this. It introduced a rudimentary system of registration and licensing, and required all firearms imported into the colony to be stamped with a serial number. Details of each firearm were to be recorded by arms dealers, who were required to obtain a licence. Upon its introduction in the House, it was stated that the Bill would enable "the government by the machinery of registration, to identify all the firearms in the country, and to render the present holders responsible for their disposal".

While said to be "not against Maoris so much as against dealers", the impetus for its introduction was the ongoing conflict with the Maori in the Waikato and Taranaki during the late 1850s and 1860s. Then, as the threat of armed conflict receded, the Act was suspended in respect of the South Island in 1882, and many of its provisions were suspended in the North Island in 1885.


1885 to 1912

By the turn of the century, the arms code had largely become a dead letter. The issue of access to firearms was unimportant to Maori, and non-existent as between Europeans. Settlers could in effect obtain and possess whatever arms they wished, and there was no way of knowing who had what.

In 1908 another Arms Act was passed by Parliament, but this was largely a consolidation of what had gone before. In what was still predominantly a rural society, supplied with large resources of game which were available to all those who had guns and could use them, firearms were familiar and useful tools, which might be needed to protect the far-flung bounds of Empire, but did not pose a social problem calling for active control.


1912 to 1945

The change which brought firearms control back into the limelight was an increasing level of industrial unrest. This climaxed in 1912 and 1913 with violent clashes between police and striking workers. The possession and occasional discharge of revolvers by some strikers caused alarm, particularly after a policeman was shot in the stomach during the miners’ strike at Waihi. Although there were few other reported injuries, the Police, who knew that the Pistols Act 1903 had introduced controls over pistols in the United Kingdom, sought similar legislation here, initially without success. However some controls over the acquisition of firearms and ammunition were later obtained through regulations issued under the War Regulations Act 1914.

After World War I the Police resumed their attempts to obtain statutory controls, particularly in respect of handguns, numbers of which had been brought back by returning soldiers as war souvenirs and were being sold by dealers. In addition to those police concerns, politicians saw the possible spread of socialist revolutionary ideas in the wake of the 1917 revolution in Russia as a threat to public order. It was probably those political concerns which played the greater part in the enactment of the first detailed arms statute, the Arms Act 1920: "an Act to make better provision for the public safety by regulating the possession of arms, ammunition and explosives". This set in place the system of permits to procure rifles, shotguns, pistols and unlawful weapons, and the obligation to register individual weapons, which with some variations was to be the basis of arms control for the next 60 years.

In response to the police concerns about pistols the Act declared automatic pistols to be unlawful weapons, and required that a licence be obtained to possess other handguns. These could be carried only pursuant to a permit, and for "proper and sufficient purpose", a provision intended to discourage the carrying of concealed handguns.

The politicians’ concerns, which were not as to crime but as to riot and revolution, were the rationale for the controls on rifles, shotguns and explosives, and explain Sir Francis Bell’s statement in the House that this was "a bill intended to prevent factions being armed against each other in New Zealand".

By 1932, the Police had compiled records for about 200,000 firearms, and the registration work was said to be placing a strain on their resources. There had also been growing discontent among farmers and sporting shooters who considered registration to be irksome and unnecessary. In 1929, the Government had introduced a Bill to dispense with the need to register either rifles or shotguns, but this was defeated in the Legislative Council, primarily due to Bell’s continuing concern about civil disorder and revolution. The farming and sporting organisations continued to campaign for relaxation of the registration requirements, and in 1930 a compromise was reached whereby the requirement to obtain a permit to procure and to register shotguns was dispensed with. The requirement to obtain a permit to procure a shotgun was reintroduced in 1968, although for those over the age of 20 a single permit allowed the purchase of more than one gun.

A 1934 Amendment addressed problems arising from the importation of cheap firearms during the depression and sought to reduce accidental death and injury from inferior weapons. It also gave the Police a discretionary power to refuse or revoke licences according to their assessment of a person’s fitness to have firearms, although that power related only to a small number of licensees.

Throughout the inter-war period defence interests in maintaining competent marksmen featured largely in debates. It was a period when secondary schools generally had cadet corps, the Army its territorial forces, and when rifles and shotguns were familiar items in most communities.

World War II ensured that from 1939 to 1945 firearms remained a familiar sight both in urban and rural New Zealand. At the end of the first century of "firearms control" it was still not uncommon on Friday nights to see young men with packs and rifles in inner city streets, heading out of town on weekend hunting expeditions. Armed bank robberies were still a rarity, save in the movie theatres.


1945 to 1965

The immediate post-war period in New Zealand gave no particular occasion to review arms control. The absence of interest in guns on the part of New Zealand politicians and criminologists during this period is exemplified in the absence from the Justice Department’s major survey of criminal behaviour in New Zealand as at 1965 of any discussion of the use of firearms in crime.

The period was however marked by an increased interest in hunting and other firearm sports. This in due course led to
the government-sponsored New Zealand Mountain Safety Council being formed (in 1965) with a view to making outdoor recreation, including the recreational use of firearms, as safe as possible.

This, the second period of peaceful enjoyment, ended with the spread to this country of the increase in the level of violent crime already apparent in other parts of the Western World, and with it a corresponding increase in firearm crime. The extent of those trends is examined in some detail in part 3.

Similar trends resulted in further firearms controls being legislated in England and Wales, and in unsuccessful attempts in the United States to halt massive increases in their gun numbers and gun crime. In New Zealand, regulatory powers intensified controls somewhat, but the essential basis of firearms control remained that settled in 1920: the registration of individual firearms with only very limited licensing of shooters. That approach was to be reversed in the Arms Act of 1983.

2.2 How We Got The Present System: The Origins and Nature of the 1983 Act and the 1992 Amendment


The increasing level of gun crime in the late 1960s caused the New Zealand Police to make more frequent reference to the "arms register". This consisted of the shotgun permits index in Wellington, and 16 separate indices throughout the country containing paper copies of the registration of rifles, pistols and restricted weapons. Such a decentralised system required considerable manual investigation to pinpoint a firearm’s owner or location and was of limited effect in locating armed offenders. Moreover, the "register" was both incomplete and inaccurate, a major cause of inaccuracy being the slight
attention paid by shooters to notifying their changes of address.

As a result of police concerns about the state of the register a study was commenced in 1967 to assess its accuracy. This was to involve a personal check of every firearms owner to ensure that each rifle listed in the various indices existed, that it still belonged to the registered owner, and that the address given was still correct. While this study was expected to take up to two years, it was assigned a low priority, to be undertaken when other duties permitted.

In 1973 it was calculated that, if checking were to proceed with the same resources as were then available, it would take 11 years to complete, and that the record would then be so out of date that it would be time to start the process over again. The checks carried out to that date revealed that 66 percent of the entries were inaccurate in some respect, and that a large number of rifles which had been registered could not be located. Again failure to notify changes of address as required by law was the most common cause of inaccuracy.

The project was abandoned and the Police commenced a search for some better system. Those enquiries assumed that it would be politically unacceptable either to call upon government to provide greater resources, or to require greater financial contributions from shooters. Indeed, throughout the decade of deliberations which followed, there was a clear determination to find some formula which would have shooter support (without which it was believed the system would fail), but would not involve further expenditure.

Quite early in that search it was concluded that a closer control of users was desirable to try to reduce access to firearms by unsuitable persons. In 1974, at a New Zealand Mountain Safety Council Firearms Seminar in Wellington, this concept of owner licensing was aired and received general support. At the NZ Deerstalkers Association’s Annual Conference in Napier in 1976, the then Minister of Police invited consideration of a mixed system including:

Ÿ greater emphasis on an individual’s fitness to obtain a firearm;

Ÿ regular checks on gun owners to verify their need for continued ownership;

Ÿ constraints against the lending of weapons other than to a person holding the necessary police approval;

Ÿ checks to ensure firearms were in good order and condition; and

Ÿ the registration of shotguns.


Throughout 1980 and 1981 draft bills were distributed to District Arms Officers and firearms users with a view to receiving input from those who would be most directly affected by the legislation. A 1980 version was discussed at an International Shooting Sports Symposium in Wellington organised by the New Zealand Mountain Safety Council. This version continued to promote a mixed system of shooter licensing and firearm registration. In his presentation to the conference, Inspector Neville Cook of the Police Firearms Section advised that:


The major change proposed in the legislation will be to provide for a system of licensing the firearm owner instead of the present emphasis on the registration of individual firearms, although we still say that there is a requirement to keep records of the firearms held by individual licence holders. Such a system would place the emphasis on the owner, the suitability and the ability of the owner to use firearms.


He also indicated that:


Each licence would be renewable at pre-determined intervals, probably 3 yearly. This would enable a check to be kept on the firearms in the possession of each individual and place him in the position of re-examining his need to have them. It is felt that there are many firearm owners who have had their weapons stored away for many years, but have never got around to doing anything about disposing of them, even though they never use them.


The proposals also included increased penalties for the criminal misuse of firearms, and the registration of shotguns, which were noted as becoming frequently used in firearms crime, in addition to the existing registration of rifles and pistols. Airguns were to be included within the definition of firearms.

Later that day the Symposium was addressed by Mr Colin Greenwood, whose 1972 publication Firearms Control in England and Wales had argued strongly for the recognition of a "right to bear arms", and against the efficacy of legislated arms control. He contended that there was no evidence in England and Wales that the detection and prevention of crime had been assisted by registration records. In his view, strict firearms controls merely forced otherwise respectable individuals to become criminals because of their unwillingness to surrender firearms which had sentimental or monetary value. He questioned the existence of any relationship between the availability of firearms and the levels of firearm crime.

The record of the Symposium’s proceedings notes that following his address Mr Greenwood was accorded a standing ovation, and that later speakers from firearms user groups supported his minimalist approach to firearms control.

In September 1982 that approach received support in an internal police report entitled Firearms Registration in New Zealand, which reviewed the various police proposals to that date and took a new and entirely different position.

The Report was particularly critical of the recent proposals for the registration of firearms, and claimed that there was no relationship between the registration of firearms and their control. It did acknowledge that the registration of firearms would provide police with "an invaluable investigative aid" if the details of every firearm and owner were recorded. However, validation of existing firearms records was seen as an enormous and expensive task, there was no reason to believe that firearm owners would be any more compliant in advising changes in address than they had been previously, and the money could be spent to better advantage on other police work. It warned that if registration were retained "the failure of the Police to cope with registration in 1920 may be repeated". An appendix advised that the Police should be careful "not to be placed in the embarrassing situation of having legislation passed without the staff, equipment or forms to service it". The police report concluded that:


[T]o reach any degree of accuracy in the registration index will be difficult if not impossible and as mentioned previously the introduction of a new system is not on its own going to change attitudes.


The paper foresaw considerable savings if the registration of shotguns and rifles were dispensed with in favour of a tighter licensing system, and that this would "place the responsibility of safe firearms use squarely on the shoulders of the user". Persons wishing to possess firearms would be required to obtain a licence, with the exception of those under direct supervision or on a properly constructed firing range. Prospective firearm owners would also be required to attend lectures in firearm safety and sit a written test.

These arguments gained parliamentary acceptance in the Arms Act 1983.

The Arms Act 1983

This came into force (along with the 1984 Arms Regulations) on 1 June 1984. Its stated intention was "to consolidate and amend the law relating to firearms and to promote both the safe use and the control of firearms and other weapons". Its two principal reforms were the abandonment of registration of individual firearms, and the creation of "lifetime" firearms licences.

Under the new Act only those persons who held a licence were entitled to be in possession of a firearm, except under supervision. Possession of a firearm without a licence, or selling a firearm to an unlicensed person, incurred a fine of up to $1,000, or up to three months’ imprisonment.

A licence could be obtained by any person over the age of 16 years who could satisfy police that he or she was a "fit and proper" person to be in possession of a firearm. The statute was silent as to the criteria to be applied in assessing whether an applicant was "fit and proper" to possess a firearm. A licence could be revoked at any time by the Police if the holder was no longer considered to be a fit and proper person.

Once an individual had been granted a firearms licence, he or she was permitted to hold as many firearms of the appropriate class as desired. Records of individual firearms were to be kept by police only in respect of pistols and restricted weapons, which made up a very small proportion of the total firearms population.

The prospective licensee had to nominate two referees, attend a lecture on firearms safety and sit a test based on the Arms Code supervised by Mountain Safety Council instructors, and be assessed by a police officer for suitability to possess firearms. In practice however "Project Foresight", as the process of licensing shooters under the new Act was called, required the personal vetting only of applicants who did not already own firearms. The only vetting of the great majority who already possessed a certificate of registration for a rifle or a "permit to procure" a shotgun under the 1958 Act was a computer check to see whether they had any convictions or prohibitions recorded against their name. Vetting went further only if that check produced a positive result.

Licences were to be for life, requiring no later checks on an individual’s suitability to possess firearms. This somewhat controversial decision was justified on the basis that the administrative burden of renewing licences every three or even five years would exceed the benefits which it would provide in terms of crime control.

The costs of licensing varied. Existing owners of registration certificates and permits, which had cost $9.50 under the 1958 Act, could purchase a new licence for $11. New applicants had to pay $27 for a licence, while owners of pistols and restricted weapons paid $50. Dealers had to pay $65 for their licences, which were to be renewed annually.

Existing firearm owners were given until 31 January 1985 to obtain a licence, while dealers and pistol owners had until 31 March 1985. For those who did not wish to obtain a licence and were willing instead to surrender their firearms, an amnesty was declared from 1 June 1984 to 31 January 1985.

Pistols and other restricted weapons remained registered and recorded on the computer. A special endorsement was required to possess these weapons. In practice an applicant had to be a member of a pistol club, a dealer or a collector. The Police had a discretion to issue an endorsement once satisfied that the applicant was a "fit and proper person to be in possession of [a] pistol or restricted weapon". Such persons then had to acquire a permit to procure these weapons, which was to be used within one month of its issuance.

The definition of "firearm" under the new Act included rifles, shotguns and pistols, as well as cannons, rocket launchers and other miscellaneous weapons capable of discharging a projectile. The Act focused on the potential capability of the object rather than its present capability. This broadened the scope of items included, as weapons were still considered firearms even though unloaded, dismantled, damaged or disabled.

Airguns were not included within the definition of firearms unless declared to be "specially dangerous airguns" under s 4. Any person over 18 years could possess and use an airgun without a licence. Antique firearms, while still defined as firearms, could also be held by non-licensees.

By changing to a system which sought to control users rather than the firearms themselves, the Act marked a new era in firearms control in New Zealand, adding to the concept that it was the user and not the firearm which posed a potential danger to society the assumption that a preliminary vetting of applicants could eliminate the prospect of firearms getting into the wrong hands. Its concentration on users was intended to reduce the administrative burden on police, and allow recreational shooters to pursue their lawful activities without undue restrictions. The system was intended to be self-regulating in as much as the licensed community could sell among themselves, rather than going through the State permit and registration system.

In general, it seemed that New Zealand shooters supported the Act which made the purchase and sale of firearms much less complicated. They also welcomed the lifetime licences, which were seen to remove the prospect of increasingly expensive renewals. The regime was as little restrictive of legitimate users as any arms control system in a like society, and much less restrictive than most. In England, Greenwood, in an article entitled "Some Do It Right", described the Act as representing "the optimum in firearms legislation", a statement which has since led some user groups in New Zealand to assert that our gun control system is not only effective, but that this is well recognised overseas.

By the end of 1985 approximately 290,000 new licences had been issued under the new Act. Of these, 30,000 were issued to new applicants who had not previously had any part in the arms system. No attempt was made to cross-check to ascertain what proportion of owners who had registration papers under the old system had applied for new licences. The Police believed that the people who re-licensed represented about 90 percent of the potential licensees, but there was no basis for more than an informed guess. The fact that a significant number of existing owners had not re-licensed was indicated by applications received after 1985 from persons still holding certificates under the old system. In addition, there were an estimated 20,000 lost or stolen firearms outside the system in 1983, and insufficient grounds for assuming that their owners would have elected to apply for licences.

The 1992 Amendment

On 13 November 1990, David Gray shot and killed 13
people using two "military style semi-automatic" weapons (MSSAs). This massacre, of unprecedented magnitude in New Zealand, highlighted the destructive power of MSSAs, such as the Russian AK47 or American M16, which are designed for military use. Concern had been growing in the 1980s over the increasing numbers of these weapons in private ownership, and such concerns were fuelled by an upsurge in the use of MSSAs in mass killings overseas. An attempt was made by Commissioner of Police Jamieson to ban their importation.

Aramoana raised questions about the adequacy of the 1983 Act’s procedures. Gray had been issued with a new licence in 1984 during Operation Foresight after limited vetting, as he had previously been registered as the owner of a single .22 bolt-action rifle. At the time of the massacre he owned six rifles, four of which were semi-automatic, including two MSSAs. The effect of his 1983-style licence was that he could legally own as many firearms as he liked, so long as they were not pistols or restricted weapons. Thus the firearms he held were within the bounds of his licence.

The response to this incident was, not surprisingly, a call for tighter firearm controls. Within a short time the then Minister of Police outlined plans for legislation that would see the importation of MSSA rifles banned, annual renewal of licences, and a requirement that all owners of semi-automatics be subject to compulsory club membership. Questions were raised regarding the wisdom of deregistration, and allegations made that the Police had "lost track" of the number and type of firearms within New Zealand. Underlying these claims was the suggestion that, had registration been maintained, the tragedy at Aramoana would never have happened.

The Arms Amendment Bill which followed was not preceded by a similar consultative process to that which underlay the 1983 legislation, although quite substantial representations were received by a Select Committee.

The eventual form of the Amendment stopped short of the restrictions initially signalled. A total ban on MSSAs was rejected in the face of opposition from user groups and the estimated cost of such a measure in terms of providing adequate compensation to current owners. Instead, these weapons were treated in the same way as pistols and other "restricted weapons". A new E endorsement was required to possess such a weapon, upon satisfaction of the "fit and proper" criteria. Furthermore, as in the case of pistols and restricted weapons, a permit was required to procure this style of weapon.

For the purposes of the new amendment, a military style semi-automatic was a semi-automatic or self-loading firearm other than a pistol, which had one or more of:

Ÿ a folding or telescopic butt;

Ÿ a magazine capable of holding more than fifteen .22 rimfire cartridges, or more than seven cartridges of any other calibre;

Ÿ bayonet lugs;

Ÿ a military pattern free-standing pistol grip; or

Ÿ a flash suppressor.

Owners who did not wish to obtain an E endorsement had the option of surrendering the weapon to the police or converting it to a "sporting configuration", which entailed removing the features listed above. There was some resistance to conversion from shooters due to the cost of removing the offensive features and the lower resale value of such "hybrid" weapons.

The Amendment also introduced tighter security provisions. Firearms were to be kept in a lockable cabinet or receptacle, steel and concrete strongroom, or a display cabinet or rack in which firearms were immobilised and locked at all times, except when under the direct control of the owner. Pistols, MSSAs and restricted weapons were to be kept in:

Ÿ a steel and concrete strongroom;

Ÿ a steel box, safe or cabinet, securely fixed to the building; or

Ÿ a room of sufficiently stout and secure construction.


Dealers were also made subject to new security requirements. Failure to comply with these requirements was not made an offence, but potentially gave grounds for the revocation of a licence or endorsement.

In furtherance of the objective of preventing unsuitable people from obtaining access to weapons, it became an offence under the Act to sell ammunition to an unlicensed person, and the purchase of firearms or ammunition by mail order was made subject to an endorsement.

The Amendment also included provisions dealing with firearms and domestic violence. In cases of domestic violence, police were given powers to search persons and to seize firearms. Protection orders made under the Domestic Protection Act 1982 could provide sufficient cause for the revocation of licences.

One of the most controversial aspects of the 1992 Amendment was its revocation of lifetime licences, which were to be replaced by licences renewable every ten years. Although the police recommendation was for an even shorter term, the ten-year period was seen as a breach of faith by many shooters.

The new Amendment also saw a significant increase in fees, to pay for the introduction and administration of the new system. The renewal fee was increased to $65 for existing licensees, and $75 for new licensees. The fee for B, C and E endorsements was $200, and the fee for dealers, who were still required to renew their licences annually, was increased to $200. The user-pays rationale for these increases was that shooters could not expect the taxpayers of New Zealand to pay for these measures if they did not own or use firearms.

The old passport-style licences were to be replaced by plastic identification cards containing a photograph of the licence holder. This was to prevent the fraudulent use of licences to obtain firearms. Furthermore, existing licence holders were to be re-vetted. This was to involve a full application by all prospective licensees, in contrast to the almost automatic acceptance of existing licensees that had occurred under the 1983 Act.

It was estimated that the Relicensing Project would be completed by 1997, and that 90 percent of the old lifetime licences would be replaced by new licences or surrenders within six months of the sending out of call-in notices. By late 1994 it was apparent that the project was lagging behind timetable, that costs far exceeded income, and that barely 70 percent of the 1983 licensees were applying for new licences or surrendering their old licences. Police attempts to obtain greater compliance had some success, but overall approximately 70 percent remained the norm. This suggested that a further 100,000 firearms remained outside the system, and that without substantially greater effort and resources the project would not produce a reasonably comprehensive register of gun owners. There was also evidence of widespread disregard of the conditions of licences which required firearms to be secured and changes of address to be notified. In 1994, 1995 and again in April 1996, the Firearms Co-ordinator reported problems of these kinds, and declared that, unless substantial further resources were provided, none of the initial objectives of the 1992 Relicensing Project would be met.

Then followed the police shootings of Eric Gellatly in Invercargill and Barry Radcliffe in Whangarei, the PCA reports, the May 1996 Review and the Minister’s call for the present Review.

2.3 The Number of Firearms


The Limits on Estimation

Part 1.3 of this report examined the difficulties which the absence of basic firearms data creates for anyone endeavouring to settle a firearms control policy suited to this country’s particular needs and circumstances. In no other sphere of the Review was this more significant than in its consideration of the size and state of the country’s armoury. There is no sound base from which to deduce the numbers of firearms in this country, let alone the numbers which lie respectively within and without the provisions of our arms legislation.

When this first became apparent it was necessary to consider whether the Review should be halted until further basic and carefully structured research had remedied the position. However, study showed that even in those jurisdictions which had devoted substantial resources to the definition of their civilian armouries none had made progress rapidly, and that those with the best estimates had obtained these from the long-term collection of relevant information from populations which had become accustomed to providing it. Further, it became clear that our problems in this regard were far from unique and that, for example, a similar paucity of data had not prevented the UK, Canadian or Australian governments from taking steps to improve their arms control systems.

However, acceptance of the unavoidability of proceeding without a satisfactory definition of the size and nature of the country’s armoury did not reduce the need to do whatever could be done in the time available to identify reasonable parameters.

For that purpose a series of "sampling" exercises and other inquiries was undertaken. It was anticipated that individually none of these would have more than limited value, and that together they were unlikely to do more than indicate likely limits. Now they have been carried out, it is clear that large areas of uncertainty still exist. However, some clarification of parameters has been achieved. Moreover, it is in my view unlikely that satisfactory definition will be achieved save by setting up systems which ensure the systematic collection of information about the ownership and use of firearms, and accumulating that information over a period of years.

For the purposes of considering the state of our armoury it is convenient to divide the total gun population into three categories:

1. "legal" guns those firearms held lawfully and in compliance with the firearms code;

2. "grey" guns those not held in compliance with the firearms code, due to apathy, lack of conviction or antipathy as to the importance of firearms regulation, but not for criminal purposes; and

3. "illegal" guns firearms held specifically for criminal purposes.


The nature of the last two categories, and the consequent blurring of the two, would suffice to prevent precise assessment of total gun numbers.

Further, impediments to the assessment of gun numbers in this country arise from the lack of registration of individual firearms save in the case of handguns, MSSAs and restricted weapons (less than 4 percent of the total armoury) and from the fact that the abandonment in 1983 of registration in favour of owner licensing was seen by the Police as removing any purpose for keeping records of other weapons.


Past and Present Estimates

Of the various estimates made over the last 15 years of the numbers of firearms in New Zealand the more informed have been:



Year Source Number of guns
1982 Donnelly 460,000 rifles
1982 McCallum 460,000 rifles

96,500 shotgun permits

1985 Forsyth 460,000 rifles

300,000 shotguns

10,000 handguns

770,000 total

1988 Nugent 750,000 total
1992 Coote 1,000,000 total
1996 PNHQ 1,200,000 total



Of these estimates, those by Donnelly and Nugent proceeded from the strongest supporting evidence.

As there has not been any significant manufacture of firearms in this country, some assistance can be obtained from a consideration of the volume of firearm imports. Customs records are available back to 1880, and a schedule prepared from those records appears as appendix 2. This indicates that some 1,064,000 firearms were imported for civilian use between 1880 and 1996.

To that total should be added some allowance for the firearms released by the Army for civilian use.

Army records are available only in a limited way before 1988, and are virtually non-existent before 1955, due to loss or destruction. Those records which are available show sales since 1955 to New Zealand purchasers of under 12,000 rifles, and 40 machine guns the latter sold to people with collectors’ licences. A larger number of surplus weapons were sold offshore.

Inquiries from numbers of former Army officers produced hearsay evidence of earlier sales of .303 rifles, and of informal recoveries of weapons by soldiers returning from the major overseas conflicts. The largest estimate of pre-1955 sales was 20,000, and of the total numbers of enemy weapons brought back by returning soldiers, 5,000.

For the purpose of trying to fix an upper limit to our armoury it is appropriate to add something to the known increments to that collection from the Army, and the following calculations assume that they may have reached a maximum of 50,000. Of course a significant proportion of the rifles sold before 1950 will have worn out or been lost. Sales of .303 ammunition have shown continuing decreases over recent years.

Besides the legal imports, some weapons have been brought into the country illegally. The illegal importation of firearms is a major problem in many overseas jurisdictions. The collapse of the Soviet Union has led to large-scale smuggling of former Russian Army weapons into bordering countries. This activity has spread to New Zealand, but so far as can be ascertained it is on a relatively small scale. There is now anecdotal evidence, though from several different sources, of the bartering of weapons (particularly handguns) by sailors from visiting fishing vessels. Both Customs and the Police believe that illegal imports into New Zealand have at least until recently been at a low volume, and that large-scale imports would have become apparent were they occurring, but the matter deserves continuing attention.

From all these inputs some deduction has to be made
for firearms which have been lost or have worn out. The Review’s postal survey endeavoured to ascertain the age of our firearms and from this to derive a "depreciation rate". In the result the information obtained did not provide a sufficient basis for the calculation of a depreciation or loss rate. It did however suggest a low loss rate for firearms manufactured after 1980, and a survival rate of not more than 70 percent for firearms manufactured before 1950. That estimate can be compared with another estimate received to the effect that firearms would depreciate by around 50 percent over 50 years.

Applying a loss rate of 30 percent for firearms manufactured before 1950, and 10 percent for all later importations, the estimated number of firearms would be as follows:


Imports 1880- 1996 1,064,000

(Less) loss/depreciation (190,000)


Add Ex-Army (say) 50,000

Add Illegal imports (say) 36,000

Total 960,000 or say 1,000,000


This figure is believed to be a realistic estimate of the maximum number of firearms within New Zealand.

Somewhat lower totals would be suggested by the Donnelly and Nugent figures.

The telephone survey carried out for the Review by AGB McNair estimated the total number of firearms at 600,000. That figure was produced by multiplying the average number of firearms reported for each household by the total number of New Zealand households. However, as the survey noted, it is likely that some of those surveyed would have under-reported the number of firearms in their households, so the figure should be regarded as conservative.

Acknowledging the margins of error which each of those estimates involve, in my judgment the most likely parameters for the present New Zealand civilian armoury are between 700,000 and 1,000,000 firearms.

Types of Guns

Rifles and shotguns:The best informed estimates of the numbers of rifles and shotguns are those of Forsyth and Nugent. These estimates together put the preponderance of rifles over shotguns in the mid-1980s as being somewhere between 2:1 and 3:2. Trends over the ensuing decade, particularly the reduction in the number of game licences, suggest a declining proportion of shotguns, and that their present share would be near the lower of the earlier estimates. However, the AGB McNair survey produced an estimated "household" proportion of 3 to 2, in line with the estimate made by Forsyth in the 1980s.


Handguns: A starting point in ascertaining the number of handguns is the police register, which gives the number as approximately 25,000. To this figure must be added estimated numbers for antique handguns and for illegally-held handguns. The former group has never been counted. As a significant proportion may not be operable, a total of 2,000 should be generous. As to the second group, there is clear evidence that pistols are available on the black market for cash, and that some pistols are being smuggled illegally, but the total numbers are unlikely to be more than a few thousand (see the discussion on "Grey and illegal guns" later in this section). On that basis an approximate estimate of handgun numbers is:


Registered handguns 25,000

Antiques (say) 2,000

Grey and illegal handguns (say) 3,000


Total 30,000


That total is a little below the estimate provided by AGB McNair’s research, which estimated handgun numbers at around 35,000. However, as that estimate was arrived at by multiplying the average number of handguns in the households surveyed by the total number of New Zealand households, and involved extrapolating from a very small base figure (0.03 handguns per household), it does not give sufficient cause to move from the above estimate.


MSSAs: Estimation of the number of MSSAs within New Zealand is complicated by the "sporterising" provisions of the 1992 Amendment, which allowed owners of MSSAs to remove their military characteristics and avoid any obligation to register them. The Wanganui computer records 6,919 registered MSSAs. The police review of May 1996 estimated a total of around 15,000 MSSAs, including those sporterised.

District Arms Officers (DAOs) estimated that between 33 percent and 44 percent of MSSAs are registered as such. This would make the total of both registered and sporterised MSSAs between 16,000 and 21,000 MSSAs. However an examination of their estimates, and discussions with the officers concerned, showed that the estimates of the numbers of sporterised guns were more informed guesses than firmly based estimates. The general DAO view was that there would be "at least as many sporterised as registered".

A reasonably conservative estimate, therefore, of the total number of MSSAs, including sporterised MSSAs, is 20,000, with a likely upper limit of 25,000, and a possible limit of 30,000.


Trends in Total Gun Numbers

Imports of firearms presently average between 10,000 and 15,000 per annum. These are unlikely to increase the total number of firearms in the country, as the loss rate is unlikely to be less than 1.5 percent per annum.

The one area in which an increase appears to have occurred is the handgun population. That increase has followed the relaxation of restrictions on pistol shooting in 1983, and the success of the New Zealand Pistol Association (NZPA) and pistol clubs in promoting pistol shooting as a sport. Total membership of NZPA-affiliated shooters has grown from 1,646 in 1989 to 2,427 at 31 March 1997. Each member has a average of 3.5 pistols, rather more than the average for members of pistol clubs which participate in international competitions. While the New Zealand handgun proportion of the national armoury remains far less than that of the United States and very modest compared with the English situation prior to the Dunblane reforms, there are good reasons for seeking to halt continuing increases. This topic is addressed in Part 6.1.1.

Grey and illegal guns: As no firearms are manufactured in New Zealand on a commercial scale, and the volume of illegal imports is believed to be relatively insignificant, whatever the numbers of grey and illegal guns may be, they should come within the estimated maximum of 1,000,000 firearms, as this is based on import figures.

The number of grey guns must be substantial, and could be as high as 100,000. That estimate is based on the number of licensees under the 1983 Act who for one reason or another have not re-licensed under the 1992 Amendment, and are thus outside the system.

In the nature of things the numbers of illegal guns cannot be measured precisely, but it was important to get as much information about them as possible, and several enquiries were undertaken.

In the first, a survey of 51 prison inmates who had been convicted of firearms offences in New Zealand was undertaken for the Review by Dr Greg Newbold. The aim was to gather information about criminal patterns of firearm purchase and usage in New Zealand. This exercise confirmed:

Ÿ that there is a pool of illegally-owned firearms in the hands of criminals in New Zealand, of a sufficient size to supply criminal needs for a considerable period even were it possible to prevent addition to the pool (the number of incidents in which firearms are used for criminal purposes is around 4,000 per annum); and

Ÿ that persons with criminal contacts have little difficulty getting access to weapons and ammunition.

Other findings were:

Ÿ that only nine of the 51 had ever applied for a firearms licence, and only two had a licence when arrested the reasons given for not getting a licence being that they had not thought about it, or that they knew they would not get one;

Ÿ that the weapons most commonly used were shotguns, followed by handguns;

Ÿ that the most favoured weapon for robberies was the sawn-off shotgun, because of its ease of concealment, usefulness as a club, good firepower, high intimidation potential and cheapness;

Ÿ that the cheapest guns are shotguns, which have an average price of around $100;

Ÿ that pistols sell for around $1,000 to $1,250 and their high price is a major reason why they are only used in a minority of gun crimes;

Ÿ that 28 percent of the guns used had been stolen by the offenders themselves; most of the others had been acquired from acquaintances or friends, and were thought probably to have been stolen; only four guns had been purchased legally; gangs provided a common source of guns;

Ÿ that illegal guns are not held for long periods
offenders had seldom held their guns more than a few months before committing the crimes for which they had been convicted; and

Ÿ that about a third said they sometimes carried a gun for self-protection and a similar number that they sometimes carried a gun for security in their criminal activities a second source confirmed an apparent increase in the carriage of handguns for self-protection or security.


A second study was undertaken by an undercover police officer who responded to advertisements in the Trade & Exchange for the sale of firearms, and attempted to purchase firearms without providing evidence of a firearms licence. Three out of the 14 vendors approached were prepared to effect the sale without the production of a licence, further proving the relative ease of acquiring firearms illegally. The same officer, and a second undercover officer, reported on the availability of illegal guns and their present market prices in terms which closely matched the information obtained by the Newbold study.

Another study, by Mr Reece Walters of the Institute of Criminology, Victoria University, endeavoured to determine the types and sources of firearms used in crime. This study involved the collection and analysis of data from the police files for all Crimes Act firearm offences over a 12-month period. Difficulties in obtaining and in analysing the base data meant his report had to be delayed. The draft received does however serve to confirm some matters already indicated by other enquiries, the two presently relevant being:

Ÿ that handguns are being used in crime, or at least in robbery, to a greater extent than their proportion of the national armoury; and

Ÿ that thefts and burglaries are a significant source of firearms used in crime.


Police statistics of lost and stolen weapons are sometimes used to help assess the size of illegal weapons pools, but there are no useable statistics about such weapons in New Zealand. Despite lengthy investigation of possible secondary sources, estimates of gun thefts in the end had to be based on a number of assumptions the accuracy of which cannot be guaranteed. With that qualification, the "best fit" estimate of the current level of reported firearms theft is 1,000 to 1,500 per annum. This leaves to one side any allowance for under-reporting, which is almost certainly occurring, but difficult to quantify.

A recent spate of burglaries of dealers’ and collectors’ premises further emphasises the need for proper records. In a period of just under three weeks leading up to 13 April 1997, burglaries of two firearms dealers, a collector and a gun club resulted in the theft of 125 firearms. Less than a week later police disturbed yet another raid on a dealer’s premises.

Until recently, it was rare to locate any substantial cache of illegal guns. The tendency had been for criminals to conceal these where they were unlikely to be located and seized, and for illegal guns to be turned over frequently. However, also in April this year, four automatic weapons and two MSSAs were discovered during a raid on a cannabis plot in Wanganui. The discovery of such a substantial arsenal matches recent experience in Australia, and is a matter for concern. National records of such findings should be maintained.

Another possible source of information as to illegally-held guns is the police record of firearms recovered during amnesties. The New Zealand Police have held eight arms amnesties since 1972. These have usually been held in conjunction with changes to firearms legislation or some other specific concern. For instance an amnesty held in 1979 was specifically directed at the unlawful possession of firearms by gangs. The results of arms amnesties in New Zealand are set out in the following schedule:

























































Source: New Zealand Police


These are relatively modest recoveries compared, for example, with those achieved in the United Kingdom.

It may also be helpful to consider the percentage of unregistered firearms recovered during the current Australian buy-back of semi-automatic weapons in those States already operating registration systems. Prices for the buy-back were set at a reasonably generous level to encourage compliance. In Victoria, which historically had a reputation of low compliance with the firearm code, the percentage of unregistered firearms recovered was approximately 15 percent. In Western Australia, which has a long-established and reasonably well-accepted code, the proportion of unregistered weapons so far recovered is under 5 percent. In both cases "unregistered" guns would be predominantly of the grey category, but would include some illegal guns, as firearms were bought on a "no questions asked" basis. Those figures, from States not greatly different to our own, point against the accuracy of high estimates of grey and illegal gun numbers which were made before the reforms by those opposing them.

Both the current prices for handguns on the black market, equally as high as new shop prices, and the limited numbers which have come to hand from ordinary police activity or in amnesties, suggest that there is only a limited supply of handguns on the black market. On the other hand, the availability of rifles and shotguns at quite modest prices indicates a more plentiful supply of those types of firearm.

Taken together, the information available suggests para-meters for the numbers of illegal guns of between 10,000 and 25,000, although the possibility exists of numbers in excess of the latter figure.


International Comparisons

It is frequently reported that firearm ownership in New Zealand is high in comparison with similar countries. It is hard to obtain sound figures for comparison because most countries have difficulties measuring their armouries. For example, in the United Kingdom, where considerable quantities of handguns are illegally brought in from overseas, it has frequently been asserted that the numbers of unregistered firearms exceed the numbers of those registered. However, Lord Cullen in his report questioned whether there was any sufficient factual basis for that view. In Canada, which is affected by an influx of guns across its lengthy border with the United States, the substantial and expensive reforms now under way proceeded on the basis of widely varying estimates of firearm numbers. The most recent estimate made by police was of 12 million firearms, arrived at principally by taking the middle ground between opposing lobby groups. By contrast Canadian Justice Department estimates prior to the introduction of the new reforms were of around 7 million firearms.

A 1995 "Review of Firearm Statistics and Regulations in Selected Countries" undertaken by the Canadian Department of Justice included the following table:


Rates and Numbers of Suicides, Homicides, Accidents

and Firearm Ownership in Selected Countries




Suicide rate/


Suicide with firearm rate


Homicide rate/


Homicide with firearm rate/

Accidents with firearms


Firearms ownership rate/

100,000 (N)

























New Zealand


























































22.6% of households

United States














Source: Department of Justice (Canada)


That table has been subject to attacks not only on the underlying methodology, but also on the accuracy of its base data. It does however show plainly the unique position of the United States, both as to its level of firearm ownership and its level of violent crime, the latter clearly being related to the high proportion of handguns in its armoury. Well over 30 percent of the nation’s firearms are handguns, compared with around 3 percent in New Zealand. This alone would indicate that the important issues for firearms control in the United States are likely to be different from those important to New Zealand.

The table also shows that Canada, Australia and New Zealand all have much lower gun ownership per capita than the United States, and significantly higher gun ownership than Britain.

It has similarly been widely reported that New Zealand’s rate of firearm ownership per capita is 60 percent higher that that of Australia. The Canadian table gives some support for that contention by suggesting, on its face, that the New Zealand rate of ownership is 50 percent higher than Australia’s. However it assesses the Australian armoury at 3.5 million firearms, whereas estimates made by the Australian Police last year suggested a total of 5 million. Adoption of the latter figure would give the two countries very similar rates of ownership.

Other data received from Australia suggests that its rate of gun ownership, even before recent buy-backs, was somewhat less than that of New Zealand, but that the difference between the two countries, if indeed there was one, would have been marginal. Certainly the difference would be less than 60 percent, and insufficient to provide a basis for different firearms policies.




2.4 The Number of Shooters


Number of Licensees

As with the numbers of guns, though in this instance for less obvious reasons, available records proved incapable of providing accurate information.

So far as the records go they state that re-licensing pursuant to the 1992 Act had produced 116,019 licences by 11 December 1996.

In order to calculate the likely final number of persons relicensing under the 1992 Amendment it was necessary to project present estimates of compliance figures forward to the end of 1998, when re-licensing will be completed. A generous estimate of 60 percent compliance (in the sense of relicensing) was adopted, based on the present rate of compliance after three years from call-in.

As at 1991, there were thought to be 355,000 shooters holding lifetime licences under the 1983 Act. However, upon examination many duplications were found and the correct figure appears to have been approximately 327,000. Applying the 60 percent compliance rate to the 327,000 potential licensees, 196,000 shooters will have applied for new licences by 1998.

To this figure must be added an allowance for new applicants. From 1993 to 1996, 21,000 new licences were issued. New applications have been numbering approximately 5,500 per annum, giving a further 11,000 for 1997 and 1998, and a total of 32,000 new licensees.

Account must also be taken of licensee deaths, for which purpose the rate of 1.5 percent per annum was adopted. A further deduction was then made for revocations, based on the average number of 218 revocations per annum since the inception of Project Foresight in 1984. The result was:


60% of 327,000 196,200

Add New licensees 1993–1996 21,000

1997–1998 11,000



(Less) Deaths @ 1.5 % p.a. (over 18)

1993–1998 = 9% (20,538)

(Less) Surrenders and revocations (3,052)


Total: 204,610


If that calculation is approximately correct, and only 204,000 licensees have applied for new licences under the 1992 Amendment by 1998, around 120,000 of the original licensees will not have re-licensed.

The Police believe that approximately 10 percent of the licensees notified have indicated the desire to surrender their licences but, until 1994, the records of such licensees were simply cleared off the computers. This figure cannot be checked as no records have been kept as to the fact of or reason for such clearances. The Police also contended that de facto surrenders had occurred upon failure to re-licence, but accept that virtually no revocation action has been taken on that ground. On a best fit basis an allowance of 10 percent for both actual and de facto surrenders would seem warranted.

This would reduce the number of "outstanding" licensees from 120,000 to 90,000. Some of the 90,000 may not have received call-in notices, due to change of address for example. Others may have passed their weapons on to a licence holder or dealer, but it can hardly be assumed that more than 50 percent are in this category. Proceeding on the (probably generous) assumption that 50 percent may have done so, that would still leave approximately 45,000 firearms holders, with approximately 90,000 to 100,000 weapons, outside the system. This estimate is supported by the May 1996 Review:


A result of the relicensing process is that a large number of surplus firearms have been generated. It is estimated that 100,000 firearms will be surplus by the end of the project.


A police estimate made in 1982 put the then number of firearm owners at around 300,000. And as stated above, the number of licensees as at 1991 was around 327,000. On the basis of the estimated 206,000 licensees at the beginning of 1999, there would then have been a decline of over one-third in the number of licensees over 14 years. Such a decline would only in part be the result of non-compliance with the 1992 re-licensing. It also represents a significant decline in the number of applications for new licences, which have declined from 10,483 in 1989, to 5,801 in 1996.

In 1985 Forsyth estimated an annual increase in the numbers of firearms licensees of around 3.6 percent. It is doubtful whether there is any increase today. If there is, it will not exceed the rate of increase in population. The result is likely to be a gradually aging gun-user population, which will not increase in the future unless there is a reversal of the present trends.


Source: New Zealand Mountain Safety Council


Number of Owners

A survey conducted in 1989 revealed that 9 percent of firearm licensees did not own any firearms. If that situation still subsists in 1999, only 185,000 of the expected 206,000 licensees will be owners of firearms.


Number of Users

The survey conducted by AGB McNair for the purposes of this Review reported that 20 percent of New Zealand’s 1.17 million households have at least one firearm, and that on average there are 1.8 users of the firearms in each household. That translates into approximately 350,000 to 400,000 users of firearms, and suggests that more consideration should be given to multiple use, and ensuring that all users have an understanding of the responsibilities attached to gun use.



2.5 Firearms Organisations


Gun User Groups

Shooters and others interested in firearms have organised themselves into a large variety of different societies, clubs and associations, many of which continue to develop particular interests in firearms in an active way.

In 1985 Forsyth set out the history, particular objectives and then size of 15 of the principal organisations. Nearly
all continue to operate, though some amalgamations and rearrangements have since occurred.

At this time the four organisations which warrant particular mention are as follows.


New Zealand Mountain Safety Council (NZMSC): Concern over the increasing number of accidents in the bush and mountains led to the formation of the NZMSC in 1965. Its
principal objective is to promote safety in outdoor adventure activities. Its Firearms Advisory Committee is broadly based and includes representatives of governmental and non-governmental agencies and individuals with special expertise and interest in the use of firearms. Through its full-time manager it organises a team of 500 volunteers who administer the firearms safety training course and test settled by NZMSC with the Police in over 128 locations throughout New Zealand. As is noted in part 5.1, its contribution to improved firearms safety is a major strength in the existing system.


New Zealand Council of Licensed Firearms Owners (COLFO): The New Zealand Council of Licensed Firearms Owners was formed in 1996 with the intention of establishing an organisation which could bring together and represent in a collective way the views and interests of New Zealand shooters. Its members include the National Rifle Association of NZ, NZ Ammunition Co Ltd, NZ Antique Arms Association, NZ Black Powder Shooters Federation, NZ Deerstalkers Association, NZ Pistol Association, NZ Shooting Federation, Sporting Shooters Association of NZ, Wellington Service Rifle Association, and the International Military
Arms Society. In that manner, the Council represents
the collective interests of around 10,500 licensed firearm
owners who collect, hunt or shoot competitively or for recreation.


New Zealand Pistol Association (NZPA): The NZPA is responsible for the control and management of pistol shooting in New Zealand and the participation of pistol shooters in international competitions. It has a supervisory relationship with over 80 affiliated pistol clubs, with a total membership in excess of 2,400. A survey conducted in April 1997 by NZPA (of one-third of its members) suggests that they hold approximately 8,500 of the 25,400 registered pistols, an average of 3.5 pistols per member. The nature and extent of NZPA control of pistol shooting in New Zealand is discussed later.


Sporting Shooters Association of New Zealand Inc (SSANZ): This Association represents the interests of over 5,000 listed members. It is a successor of NZ Shooters Rights Inc. and is the organisation which has most energetically opposed controls over the civilian use of firearms, which it believes are counter-productive.


Other Firearms Organisations: Of the other shooting organisations, NZ Deerstalkers Association, formed in 1937, is probably the oldest of the organisations representing hunting interests. A considerable number of the others represent those interested in different forms of target shooting, and there is also a relatively small but enthusiastic group representing collectors of firearms and ammunition.


Gun Control Supporters

The principal flag-bearer for these interests in New Zealand has been the lobby group Gunsafe, which was started by Mr Philip Alpers, and is supported by groups with a particular concern about violence within society. It says that its active membership is "in the hundreds", but it has a wider influence than those numbers would suggest through its contacts with other anti-violence groups. It has an association with similar groups overseas, such as the National Coalition for Gun Control in Australia, and the Coalition for Gun Control in Canada, which were promoters of the recent reforms of gun control in their respective countries.

In 1994 Mr Alpers left Gunsafe to engage full-time in gun policy research. He remains a determined advocate of closer control of firearms. He has probably the largest collection of literature on firearms use and misuse in New Zealand, and he offered to make this available to the Review. He maintains close contacts with overseas organisations with similar views to his own.


All those discussed above from time to time assisted the Review by providing written material and by providing information derived from their particular experience and expertise.

2.6 Types of Use

Hunting, Farming and Pest Control

Hunting: A survey by Nugent in 1991 concluded: that hunters and former hunters were still the predominant owners of firearms in New Zealand; that 77 percent of all firearms had been used for hunting at some stage; but that only about half were owned by individuals who remained interested in hunting. He expressed the belief that a substantial number of weapons, although originally purchased for hunting, were unused or were used for other purposes such as target shooting.

The trend since 1991 appears to have been some reduction in hunting, as evidenced by the decline in the number of game licences issued over recent years, and the comment from the NZ Deerstalkers Association that its membership seems to be getting older. This trend has been variously attributed to the reducing availability of game, and to competing recreational pursuits and lifestyle changes.

By contrast there appears to be a growing interest in target shooting, which is more accessible and convenient to our increasingly urbanised population. Pistol shooting in particular has become increasingly popular, and will be discussed in more depth later.


Farming uses: The special value of firearms to the farming community persists, as is indicated by the AGB McNair survey summarised in appendix 6. It reported that households in "small towns/rural" areas had just under three times as many firearms as those in "metropolitan" areas, a result which matches those obtained in similar studies in Australia. The factors which underlie the special situation of rural gun users are unlikely to change. Firearms will continue to be useful and used tools around the farm, for the humane killing of animals which have to be put down, for pest control, to enjoy the hunting opportunities which rural life commonly provides, and for a variety of other purposes. That being said, security checks continue to show a lower recognition in rural areas of the need for firearms security. Moreover, as the percentage of our population living on farms continues to fall, so too does acceptance of the firearm as a familiar and useful tool.


Pest control: Discussions with the Animal Health Board, the Department of Conservation and Land Care Research confirm that firearms also remain an important part of animal pest control.

Their relative importance varies according to the species of pest. Firearms are the principal method of controlling deer, the populations of which are being controlled at a reasonable level by a combination of commercial helicopter shooting and ground shooting. The pig population is controlled by the use of dogs, knives and rifles, the last being considered a necessary part of the overall control. Goat control is generally dealt with in an "on farm" situation with dogs and rifles. Opossum and rabbit control cannot be achieved with firearms, but all three organisations consulted considered it necessary to have continued availability of firearms to limit the proliferation of these pests until better forms of control are available. Certainly those involved in animal pest control, while generally wishing to avoid involvement in such controversial issues as the availability of MSSAs, were firmly of the view that any new controls should allow appropriate exemptions to avoid prejudice to pest control programmes.

Pistol Shooting

From very modest numbers in 1970 the number of pistol shooters grew to 1,646 in 1989, 2,261 in 1991, 2,327 in 1996, and 2,427 at 31 March 1997, assisted by the relaxation in 1983 of previously stringent controls on the use of pistols.


The history of pistol controls: Effective controls over handguns were introduced in 1920, when the Police and the Government had concerns about the number of pistols which had entered the country and their possible use to promote civil disorder. Those controls permitted and resulted in only very restricted use of pistols until 1960, when approval was granted for a trial with .22 target pistols. The absence of any resulting problem persuaded the Police in 1970 to allow larger calibre shooting both with single-shot revolvers and self-loading pistols, though still under strict controls. This led to New Zealand becoming involved in international competition, with considerable success.


From 1980 the NZPA endeavoured to get police approval of a reduction of the remaining restrictions. The Police approved service pistol matches and metallic silhouette shooting in 1982, and largely adopted NZPA submissions in the pistol sections of the 1983 Act which further relaxed the restrictions on pistol shooting.

In 1988 action and silhouette competitions were approved. It was from about this time that multi-weapon shoots (pistols, shotguns and long guns) became a common part of NZPA competitions. Commissioner Jamieson in 1989 expressed his approval of the manner in which the NZPA governed its members. He said that they were conducting over 50 different competitions, and that an active shooter might require 12 pistols (the number which the Police had at that point fixed as a maximum number without special approval) to meet the needs of the different competitions.

The 1992 Amendment reduced lifetime licences to ten years, but did not otherwise substantially limit the arrangements for pistol shooters settled in 1983.


NZPA control of pistol shooting: The NZPA supervises a considerable number of pistol clubs which together have about 2,400 members. Three clubs, having a combined membership of less than 100 members, operate outside its auspices. The NZPA says that those clubs were unhappy with the strict controls and the requirement of regular and active participation in club activities which are central features of NZPA activity. It accepts that no notable misconduct or other difficulty has arisen from the activities of the breakaway clubs, but would prefer to have total control vested in the one organisation.

The NZPA constitution is carefully drawn and unusually detailed. So far it has succeeded in avoiding any injury arising in the course of club activities.

Members must complete a six-month probationary period before they are given full membership and before the club will consider supplying a certificate approving the grant of a B endorsement and a permit to buy a handgun. During the probationary period the probationer uses club guns on the club’s range in order to become familiar with different types of handguns and to decide whether or not to become a full member. If and when club approval to membership is given, further vetting by the NZPA and the Police means that it is at least another three months before a pistol can be purchased.

If a B endorsee does not maintain regular attendances (12 times a year) the club notifies the Police, who can and generally do require the surrender of the licence and handguns, the former member being given three months to find a purchaser.

Members are required to obtain club approval of subsequent purchases of pistols, that approval form being a prerequisite to obtaining a permit to acquire from the Police, although the Police are said to have granted some permits to persons they know and believe to be in good standing without requiring production of club approval.

The NZPA and club controls result in a more disciplined environment than any other sports organisation of which I am aware. Disciplinary action is initiated for all apart from truly trivial breaches of any of the rules and regulations of the NZPA or the club concerned, and is not only restricted to cases where the breach involves danger or the potential for danger. That discipline has repeatedly been the subject of favourable comment in police reviews of pistol club operations and has been maintained notwithstanding the fact that B endorsements have almost doubled over the past decade.


2.7 Attitudes to Firearms and Firearms Control

Public Attitudes

Few public submissions were received by the Statutes Revision Committee in the hearings preceding the 1983 Act. This may in part have been due to the extensive consultations between police and interested groups prior to a Bill being drafted. The results of a Heylen poll conducted in 1982 suggested there was some concern amongst the general populace as to the proposed lifetime licences and the unlimited number of weapons able to be obtained by any one licensee. However, there was no indication in the recorded submissions of any concern about the overall level of gun ownership.

By 1991 there had been a significant shift in public attitudes to firearms control, no doubt in part stemming from the 1990 massacre at Aramoana, which aroused public fears about firearms and, in particular, the availability of semi-automatic weapons. The Justice and Law Reform Select Committee received from a variety of interested groups numbers of submissions on the Arms Amendment Bill which expressed broad concerns about the numbers of firearms within the community. The National Council of Women, which had made brief submissions on specific aspects of the 1983 legislation, reported:


A re-occurring theme from our members has been a concern about the large number of firearms already in New Zealand of which no specific record or registration is kept. … We wish the Police and the Minister well as they proceed with the proposed changes, but we do ask that further restrictions be placed on the supply and possession of all firearms.


In order to ascertain the current attitude of the public towards guns and gun control, submissions were invited by the Minister at the commencement of this Review. In all 2,884 submissions were received, with a substantially larger number of signatories.

It is necessary to keep in mind that those submissions represent the views of that small minority of New Zealanders who chose to respond to the Minister’s invitation, not the views of the nation as a whole. In particular, as was only natural, the proportion of submissions from shooters (56.8 percent) far exceeded their proportion of the total population (12 percent). Of the remaining submissions, 24 percent came from people who did not specify whether they were shooters or non-shooters, and 11 percent were from individuals who specified that they were non-shooters. Others came from government agencies, clubs and organisations.

There were considerable numbers of "common form" submissions. 954 submissions were made by signing and addressing a printed card, available at gun shows, which urged the retention of the present system but with better enforcement. As over two-thirds of the submitters who declared their shooter/non-shooter status were shooters, it is not surprising that the same proportion of submitters generally supported the status quo, and opposed further controls and any increase in licence fees.

The 1996 submissions can usefully be compared with those received in 1982 and 1991, which were less in number but also numerically weighted towards shooters.

That comparison shows an intensification of the concern first expressed in 1991 about the number and availability of guns in society. That concern is again being expressed most strongly by women and women’s organisations, but has a substantial support base: 34 percent of all submissions.

It also shows that there are still strong feelings on both sides of the argument. Most gun users want to retain the simplicity, limited restrictions and inexpensiveness of the present system. Non-shooters, on the other hand, express concerns about the level of violence within society and, perceiving firearms to be instrumental in this trend, argue for tighter gun controls as part of overall measures to reduce violence. However there was in the 1996 submissions a significant measure of acceptance by gun users, particularly those who made individual as distinct from common form submissions, of the need to consider further controls. Thus, although 270 gun users opposed banning MSSAs, 85 supported that step, and a similar number supported a return to the registration of firearms.

During the consultative process which proceeded the introduction of the 1983 Act, the shooting community generally supported the Greenwood view that conventional controls simply hampered law-abiding gun users without affecting the criminal usage of firearms. The licensing and no registration system introduced by Project Foresight was seen as sensibly reducing unnecessary and ineffective controls, thus making the sale and purchase of firearms within New Zealand much less complicated. Moreover, the adoption of lifetime licences provided indefinite authorisation for shooters to acquire as many firearms as they wanted for a relatively nominal expenditure of time and money.

By contrast the 1992 Amendment was not well received by user groups, who saw it as a knee-jerk reaction to Aramoana, adopted without consideration of shooters’ interests. The cancellation of lifetime licences, which had been one of the major selling points of the 1983 Act, and the imposition of increased licence fees were perceived as gross breaches of good faith. Those views explain in part the mediocre response to the 1992 re-licensing scheme.

The 1996 submissions reveal that some part of the 1992 angst remains. This probably underlay the common and emphatic objections to any increase in fees for "yet another system of arms control", notwithstanding that firearms licence fees are substantially lower than for other similar licences. And as noted in the preceding section, the shooters’ submissions by an overwhelming majority supported the status quo, and by a large majority (76 percent) opposed the registration of firearms and a ban on MSSAs, though a significant minority favoured those moves.


Police Attitudes

The Police were by no means of one mind over the 1983 Act. While the 1982 report already mentioned argued firmly in favour of deregistration and user licensing, numbers of police now claim to have opposed the abandonment of registration at the time, and there is no doubt that registration in some form was incorporated in all police proposals on file from 1977 through to 1982.

After 1983, and well before Aramoana, Commissioner Jamieson and others within the police ranks became concerned about the influx of military assault rifles into New Zealand. In 1990, having had no success with an appeal to Parliament, Jamieson used his powers as Commissioner to limit the importation of MSSAs. His action met with vehement opposition from shooting groups and was overturned upon judicial review. This struggle was overtaken by legislation when the furore over Aramoana prompted swift political response in the form of the 1992 Amendment.

Notwithstanding a series of reports from the Firearms Co-ordinator about increasing problems with the 1992 Relicensing Project, the May 1996 Review did not support significant changes to the current system. It was content that the problems with the administration of the Relicensing Project had been identified, and that "strategies" would be put in place to ensure the project was completed in a timely fashion. The amendments it suggested generally had merit but were of less than major significance to the system as a whole. Major change was not favoured, as being likely to raise user opposition and be counter-productive.

By contrast the numerous submissions made to the Review by individual police officers were less supportive of the present system. Almost without exception they maintained that arms work was under-resourced and accorded a very low priority both at PNHQ and district levels. Most reported that shooters could not understand the decision to abandon registration. Several took the view that this step had "given away any prospect of control over firearms".

Similar views about under-funding and inadequate recognition of arms control work were expressed by a DAO’s meeting called to inform the Review of the views of those involved in arms control at the grass roots level. The DAOs also saw a need for better information from HQ; for a manual related to the current legislation and regulations; and for better training and liaison between HQ and the arms officers and between the different arms offices themselves.

Submissions by the Police Association, the industrial wing of the Police, sought the provision of substantially greater resources to arms control and a number of broad changes, including registration. The Association also supported a ban on MSSAs, whether sporterised or not, in conjunction with the introduction of a government buy-back scheme, and an amnesty period to encourage surrender by unlicensed persons. It recommended that some aspects of re-licensing, such as administration, be outsourced, subject to retaining the personal vetting of applicants and the ultimate decisions on licensing in the hands of the Police.

Notwithstanding the view expressed by police in their May 1996 Review, a perusal of police records persuaded me that the present system was plainly defective, that its main deficiencies and their causes could be reasonably defined, but that identifying appropriate alternatives would be more difficult. In November 1996 I so advised the Minister of Police.

In April 1997 the Police advised by letter that a conference of senior officers held to settle a police submission to the Review had decided that there was a case for radical reform of the current system, and that:


[T]he political and public climate is such that radical change is acceptable and desirable, led by the Police. We do not however have the resources to implement a programme such as individual firearm registration. It was considered that police must play a major role in the registration of firearm owners, but firearms registration could well be out-sourced.


As this was in sharp contrast to the position taken in the May 1996 Report, I responded, asking whether their position paper amounted to an acceptance of the view which I had previously formed, that:


[A] principal reason for present inadequacies has been that over the past three or four decades, during which period I accept that the demands on the Police to meet other commitments increased greatly, they accorded arms control a progressively lower priority in their overall planning.


The letter then set out that in my view the consequences of this low priority were:

1. A preference for persuasion and consensus rather than the enforcement of arms laws, and a reluctance at district level to prosecute except for gross breaches of them;

2. The 1983 decision to abandon registration of individual firearms, a change contrary to trends in similar jurisdictions;

3. The failures both in 1983 and 1992, despite recognition by senior offices of the dangers of taking responsibility for new systems without securing appropriate resources to establish and maintain them, to access and obtain the resources necessary for the new systems;

4. The gradual abandonment after 1983 of systems collecting data about firearms, so that it is now at best difficult and sometimes impossible to get accurate information about quite basic firearms issues; and

5. The failure in May 1996 to recognise the deficiencies in the current system and the likely cost of correcting them.


I also asked, if indeed that position were accepted, for police consideration of alternative methods of administering arms control ranging from the addition of a broadly based consultative committee to a totally independent arms authority. This led to my receipt on 2 May of a letter from the Commissioner forwarding a ten-page "Police Response".

The letter confirmed a "considerable change in the police position from that which has existed in past years". The reason was "[q]uite simply, your review and our associated work has caused us to re-evaluate police firearms strategies and in particular international trends in arms compliance".

The Response reported police support for a broad range of new controls, for active steps to reduce the number of firearms in New Zealand, and for contracting out some of the administrative labour of registration, while keeping effective control in police hands:


Police propose that they continue with and complete the present system of licensing of firearm owners required by the 1992 Amendment to the Arms Act 1983 but with the necessary enhancements to achieve an acceptable com-pliance rate …


Police advocate and support measures to reduce the numbers of firearms available for use in New Zealand …


Police support the view that all firearms of every type should be registered in a central database for tracking and control of use and ownership …


Police support the overall reduction in the number of firearms in the community by purchasing as many firearms offered for sale as can be negotiated. Those weapons would be destroyed in all cases …


Police propose conducting public education programs to further change public attitudes towards the safe possession and use of firearms …


Police consider that some of the activities related to the registration of firearms be out-sourced to a contractor but that Police retain control as its lead customer and its most dependent user …


The proposals in this submission require changes in Arms legislation and related statutes to enable firearms registration, control and storage to be enforced …


Police believe there is an urgent need to develop working protocols with other agencies to promote a free flow of essential information for the determination of Firearms Licence holders’ ability to meet the criteria to be regarded as "fit and proper" to have control of firearms …


That police data gathering and analysis must be substantially improved in order to enable better decision-making in relation to firearms and violent offending.


It is of course entirely appropriate, and indeed helpful, for the Police to change their position when they see grounds for doing so. Further, as their work for myself and Review staff will have told them, most of the reforms now supported by them fit my own inclinations.

However, the extent of those changes seems to me more than the information presently available would justify. They would effect a dramatic movement from a very low to a very high level of control. Such a movement would be similar in magnitude, though opposite in direction, to the shift in police policy in 1982 which produced the "licensing but no registration" system which bedevils us today.

The issue of gun control is a complex one. It is commonly much easier to identify deficiencies in gun control systems than to design better alternatives. That is the case in New Zealand today. My judgment is that the determination of a system of controls suitable to our circumstances will require staged and careful development, taking advantage of better information as it comes to hand, rather than a single leap. The approach which is followed in this report is to consider the merits of each of the areas of reform suggested by the Police and any other submissions which warrant serious consideration. It will endeavour to determine which can sensibly proceed at this time, which are unlikely to produce overall benefit, and which require further investigation or research.

Return to the Project Table of Contents



  1. Clarke, "The Right to Bear Arms", unpublished thesis, University of Otago, 1995, at 11.

  2. NZPD C 1858- 60, 757.

  3. NZPD 1920, 186, at 754.

  4. Supra at note 1, at 13.

  5. O’Connor, "Arms Control in New Zealand, 1845- 1930", submission to 1983 Police proposals, 1981, at 4.

  6. Department of Justice, Crime in New Zealand, 1965.

  7. Supra at note 1, at 14.

  8. Ibid, at 15.

  9. McCallum (NZPNHQ), Firearms Registration in New Zealand, September 1982, at 8. Since commonly known as "the McCallum report".

  10. Supra at note 1, at 19.

  11. Ibid.

  12. Ibid.

  13. Proceedings of the International Shooting Sports Symposium, Wellington, 1980, at 16.

  14. Greenwood, Firearms Control: A Study of Armed Crime and Firearms Control in England and Wales, 1972 (1st ed).

  15. Supra at note 13, at 62.

  16. Supra at note 9.

  17. Ibid, appendix G, at 3.

  18. Ibid, at 16.

  19. Ibid, at 32.

  20. Arms Act 1983, Long Title.

  21. A non-licensee is entitled to be in possession of a firearm if under the "immediate supervision" of a licensee or, in the case of airguns, a person over the age of 18 years: s 22(2), Arms Act 1983. It is an offence punishable by up to three months’ imprisonment or a fine of up to $1,000 to possess a firearm without a licence. In addition, it is an offence for anyone, including a licensee, to be in possession of a firearm without "lawful, proper, and sufficient purpose": s 45, Arms Act 1983.

  22. Section 20(3), Arms Act 1983.

  23. Section 43, Arms Act 1983.

  24. Section 24(1)(b), Arms Act 1983.

  25. Section 27, Arms Act 1983.

  26. Supra at note 1, at 31.

  27. Regulation 27 and Schedule 1, Arms Regulations 1984, and New Zealand Police, Important Information For All Firearms Owners, Project Foresight pamphlet, 1984.

  28. Once the Police are satisfied that the applicant is a fit and proper person to possess a pistol, s 30 provides that "a member of the Police may, subject to any direction from the Commissioner, make the endorsement". This may be contrasted with s 24 which provides that "a firearms licence shall be issued if a member of the Police [is satisfied that the applicant is a fit and proper person]".

  29. Section 35, Arms Act 1983.

  30. Section 2, Arms Act 1983.

  31. Section 21, Arms Act 1983. It is an offence under s 21(2) to be in possession of an airgun if: (i) under the age of 16 years; or (ii) between 16 and 18 years and not the holder of a firearms licence.

  32. Section 22(1)(b), Arms Act 1983. An antique firearm is defined as:

  33. (a) Any firearm that

    (i) Is held in the possession of any person solely as an antique (but not as a copy or replica of an antique); and

    (ii) Is not designed for firing, and is not capable of firing, rimfire or centrefire cartridge ammunition; or

    (b) Any firearm declared by regulations made under this Act to be an antique firearm for the purposes of this Act.

  34. Guns Review, 1985 (June) 415, at 416.

  35. A Norinco 84S 5.56mm (.223) semi-automatic rifle with a 30-shot magazine and a Remington model Nylon 66 .22 semi-automatic rifle.

  36. On 19 August 1987, in Hungerford, England, Michael Ryan used an AK47-style semi-automatic to kill 16 people, and on 8 December that year Frank Vitkovic killed eight people in Melbourne, Australia, using an M1 SAR. See Clarke, supra at note 1, at 42.

  37. Ibid, at 40- 41.

  38. Ibid, at 43.

  39. Section 30b, Arms Act 1983.

  40. Section 35, Arms Act 1983.

  41. See s 2, Arms Act 1983.

  42. Supra at note 1, at 50.

  43. Regulation 19, Arms Regulations 1992.

  44. Regulation 28, Arms Regulations 1992.

  45. Regulation 8, Arms Regulations 1992.

  46. In the case of long arms, such a breach would have to justify a decision that the licensee was no longer "fit and proper" to possess firearms (see s 27, Arms Act 1983). In the case of MSSAs, pistols and other restricted firearms, however, observance of security precautions is a condition of the endorsement, and any such breach will justify revocation of the endorsement. See ss 32, 33, 33a and 33b, Arms Act 1983.

  47. Section 43b, Arms Act 1983.

  48. Section 43a, Arms Act 1983.

  49. Section 60a, Arms Act 1983.

  50. Section 27a, Arms Act 1983.

  51. Section 25, Arms Act 1983.

  52. Section 8, Arms Act 1983.

  53. Supra at note 1, at 46 (citing police publicity pamphlet "What You Need to Know About the New Firearms Laws").

  54. Donnelly, "Study into the Number of Registered Sporting Rifles in New Zealand" (appendix J to McCallum, supra at note 9).

  55. Supra at note 9.

  56. A permit to procure permitted the purchase of any number of shotguns by the permit holder.

  57. Forsyth, Mountain Safety Manual Firearms in New Zealand, July 1985.

  58. Nugent, "Hunting Firearms in New Zealand A Survey" (appendix E2 to Coote (PNHQ), Arms Amendment Bill, 1992).

  59. Coote (PNHQ), Arms Amendment Bill, 1992.

  60. Operations Support Group (PNHQ), "Universal Registration of Firearms" (appendix A in A Review of Firearms Control in New Zealand).

  61. Sources: undercover police officers and fishermen. The evidence related to the South Island only.

  62. See appendix 6.

  63. Nugent estimates the percentage of rifles as being around 66 percent, as compared with 30 percent for shotguns (fig 1 to Coote, supra note 58). Forsyth estimates that 45 percent of firearms were rifles, while 30 percent were shotguns (fig 5B to Forsyth, supra note 56, at 118).

  64. There were 30,512 licences issued for game-bird hunting in 1996, a decrease of 17 percent since 1990. This figure does not include any allowance for the numbers of landowners/occupiers who are entitled to hunt on their own property without a licence.

  65. See the discussion on "Grey and illegal guns".

  66. In their "sporterised" state these became A category weapons and thus did not require an E endorsement.

  67. PNHQ count of firearms on the record of licensees, January 1997.

  68. Supra at note 59, at 4.

  69. Import figures, appendix 2.

  70. A survey conducted in April 1997 by NZPA of one-third of its members suggests that they hold approximately 8,500 of the 25,400 registered pistols, an average of 3.5 pistols per member. NZPA understands that the international average for the members of pistol clubs which participate in international competitions is approximately 2.7 pistols.

  71. See part 2.4 the calculation of the number of licensees.

  72. Newbold, "The Criminal Usage of Firearms", March 1997.

  73. Ibid, at 3.

  74. Heron, "Review of Firearms Control: Covert Purchases", April 1997.

  75. Advice from undercover officers suggested that stolen weapons were generally passed on rather than collected in any considerable number February 1997 discussions. Oral submissions of the Police Association, during hearings in Wellington, suggested that gangs store their firearms in "safehouses" and bury them, as well as concealing them in gang headquarters.

  76. Amnesty figures from PNHQ, March 1997.

  77. Amnesty figures from the United Kingdom recovered 48,000 weapons in 1998, while the most recovered in amnesties in New Zealand was 2,090 in 1993. See submission of Home Office to Lord Cullen’s inquiry, at 51 (Lord Cullen, The Public Inquiry into the Shootings at Dunblane Primary School on 13 March 1996).

  78. Supra at note 71, at 17.

  79. Advice from undercover officers, February 1997.

  80. Alpers, for example, asserts that New Zealand has 11 times as many guns per capita as England and Wales, and 60 percent more than the Australians: Alpers, Policing Gun Laws, 1996, at 4.

  81. Greenwood, "Evidence submitted to Lord Cullen’s Inquiry", supra at note 76, at 40 (para 124). In his 1972 publication, Firearms Control in England and Wales, Greenwood had concluded from amnesty figures that the number of illegally-held pistols exceeded those registered: at 235- 239. Stevenson also asserts that illegal holdings substantially exceed legal ownership: "Evidence submitted to Lord Cullen’s Inquiry", ibid, at 41.

  82. Lord Cullen, supra at note 76, at 107 (para 9.5).

  83. Report of Superintendent Cox from visit to Firearms Registration Unit in Ottawa, dated 26 November 1996.

  84. Department of Justice, Canada, "Background Information on Firearms Control", at 4.

  85. Research, Statistics and Evaluation Directorate, Department of Justice Canada, "A Review of Firearm Statistics and Regulations in Selected Countries", 25 April 1995.

  86. Department of Justice, United States of America, "Weapons, Crime and Violence in America", at 67.

  87. Supra at note 79.

  88. Firearms Comparisons between New Zealand and Australia, NZ Police 30 May 1996; and discussions between Inspector JM Coote and Commissioner in Canberra, at 4.

  89. PNHQ, internal memo of Licensing and Vetting Operation Support Group, dated 17 December 1996, at 4.

  90. PNHQ, fax, dated 12 February 1997; and "Resources/Costs/Revenue Relicensing Project", 30 June 1996.

  91. Or, for example, if the Police learnt that the licensee had died. These would result in the cancellation of the original entry without any record being kept.

  92. Supra at note 59, at 16.

  93. Supra at note 9. This estimate was based on the records of 280,000 registered firearm owners; at the same time 96,500 permits to procure shotguns had been issued.

  94. Supra at note 56, at 159.

  95. Supra at note 57, at 1.

  96. The survey of licensees conducted for this Review showed 2.1 percent of licensees owned no firearms. However, this is a "bottom estimate" because the form did not request a response from those who owned no firearms.

  97. Interviewers rang 4,518 randomly selected households until 1,000 respondents agreed to take part in the survey. The objectives of the survey were to ascertain: the proportion of New Zealand households where at least one person owns a firearm; the types of firearms owned; and the number of persons who use firearms.

  98. Supra at note 56, at 102- 114.

  99. Supra at note 57, at 6.

  100. Supra at note 63.

  101. "Hunter Number Declining", NZ Herald, 3 May 1997.

  102. Supra at note 1, at 27.

  103. Notes of meeting of Justice and Law Reform Select Committee, 9 June 1992.

  104. Supra at note 1, at 26.

  105. Practical Shooting Institute (NZ) v Commissioner of Police [1992] 1 NZLR 710.

  106. Letter to Commissioner, 7 April 1997.