Heather Roy

28 July 2019

Registers and health screening programmes have two things in common.  First, they both cost a lot to establish and administer.  Second, they are both effective only when compliance is at or very close to 100 percent. It follows then that excellent compliance should be assured before a gun register is put in place. Are the gangs really going to register their weapons, having already refused to surrender those that have been banned? Of course not. And having aggravated the rural community and law abiding gun owners the government should expect civil disobedience from many. An effective, well-functioning register needs buy-in. The $42 -$52 million cost of a gun register quoted by Police Minister Stuart Nash is taxpayer money down the gurgler.

Monday’s announcement by the Prime Minister about changes to gun licencing (gun owners will likely pay 2-3 times more for half the preseent licence period) and establishment of a gun register is the latest part of the government’s package to (as the PM herself proclaimed) ensure there will never be another terrorist attack like the 15 March Christchurch Mosque massacre again. We all hope she is right, but a politician, no matter how well meaning, cannot make any such assurance. Putting in place law and regulations to prevent an attack that has already occurred penalises others in the community, most of whom are law abiding and responsible. If such a guarantee could be made, many would support intrusions into our free and fair democracy but no-one, including the PM, has a crystal ball.

Establishment of a gun register follows the banning of assault rifles and military style semi-automatic (MSSA) weapons and a buy-back scheme. The public, including many gun owners, were broadly supportive of the banning of MSSA weapons. Knee jerk legislation written in haste, however, is problematic. One of the strengths of our democracy lies in allowing people to have their say. Truncated consultation has two effects. It deprives debate of collective expertise and wisdom and fails to take the public along with the process. It is the basis of poor lawmaking that ends with unintended consequences. The buy-back scheme is flawed and unlikely to achieve its aim. Initial indications are that a gun register is supported by those it is unlikely to affect while those who should have been engaged in the process have been ignored.

The lawmakers must also listen to their advisors. I’m awaiting the Regulatory Impact Analysis (RIA) that provides advice to Ministers on the enabling legislation for a gun register and gun licencing changes.  A RIA provides a high-level summary of the problem being addressed, the options and their associated costs and benefits, the consultation undertaken, and the proposed arrangements for implementation and review.  If the rationale and numbers don’t stack up New Zealand shouldn’t go down this path.

The best indicator of how successful a New Zealand gun register will be is to look at what has happened internationally. Australia’s experience is a fragmented system because registers operate at state level. Canada’s experience is more relevant in New Zealand because it was a centralised system. Journalist Kate MacNamara wrote recently about the Canadian flop. Established in 1995 after a mass shooting with C$2m funding and eventually abandoned in 2012 after $2 billion had been spent, it failed for a raft of reasons including failure to recognise the real cost and poor compliance due to gun owners feeling unfairly conflated with criminality. There are certainly lessons to learn here.

I accept it is easy to criticise, so what should happen? The New Zealand gun community should be widely consulted and be included in finding a reasonable solution. Many contend $50 million would be better spent on enforcement of the laws we already have. I believe that developing a more cohesive national security strategy that joins up the various security related agencies in an independent unit headed by a National Security Advisor is essential to identifying terrorist threats and activities. In other jurisdictions that have tightened access to firearms, terrorists have adapted and employed a wide range of weapons from home-made bombs to vehicles. The 15 March events actually showed that New Zealand doesn’t have a firearms problem; it has an intelligence problem. But no law will remove the risk of a determined lone-wolf attack.

Politicians have a burning desire to be seen to do the right thing. This often doesn’t result in fixing the problem. Microchipping of dogs is an excellent example – despite legislation put in place to stop vicious dog attacks people are still being bitten. Let’s not spend $50 million on a gun register to fool ourselves it will prevent bad people running amok.