Heather Roy

1 September 2019

Getting the balance right in new law is no easy task. Politicians and those assisting with the writing of new laws must weigh up keeping the public safe while not infringing on the rights and freedoms of most of the population. New gun laws announced last month and draft legislation leaked to the National Party last week are a prime example. Perspective is crucial. Most New Zealanders are law abiding and act rationally. The same applies to most gun owners and the government is at risk of alienating many if they overstep the test of reasonableness on this issue.

As I wrote in my blog post “Gun Register will fail at first shot” the public, including many gun owners, were broadly supportive of banning assault rifles and MSSA weapons. Knee jerk legislation written in haste, however, is problematic. This second tranch of legislation, the draft of which has been leaked to National Party MP Brett Hudson shows the government is overstepping the mark. It proposes a gun register, more regulation of gun clubs, harsher penalties (fines and jail time) if gun owners break the law and new rules for doctors with concerns about patients holding gun licences.

There is a section in the draft bill that requires medical practitioners “as soon as practicable” to tell police if they think a patient is an unfit gun owner. Doctors are given permission to pass patient records to police without threat of civil or disciplinary action as long as it is done in good faith. There are several issues with this. First, it places doctors in the position of judge. Second, it over-rides doctor-patient confidentiality. Third, it will have the perverse outcome of stopping some patients from seeking treatment for mental health issues if they think their gun will be taken off them and licence revoked. For a government claiming to be committed to better mental health treatment and outcomes this would be an own goal.

On the face of it the changes may look reasonable following the Christchurch Mosques Massacre. Certainly those who have no use for guns think so, but those who have legitimate and lawful reasons for gun ownership are feeling harassed.

Known for his balance and common sense approach, former MP and National Government Minister Chester Burrows published an excellent article in the NZ Herald this week – Pistols at dawn over gun control debate. He says:

“I do have an issue with police acting as the sole gatekeepers on who gets to keep and who gets to lose firearms licences. I have seen numerous cases where, because of a domestic dispute that may or may not involve family violence, an allegation has been made against a licensed firearms owner.

Allegations are very hard to disprove, especially when made by a spouse. Once a firearms licence has been removed, it can be very difficult and almost always expensive to get it back. The risk aversion of police is such that they deny the return of many licences. The law is at the end of the police officer’s tongue.”

Chester Burrows also makes a very valid point about accusations of ‘playing politics’ and where the gun ownership vote traditionally lies.

“The Police Association has called upon the Leader of the Opposition not to play politics with this issue, yet historically that organisation has been among the best at playing politics of all the unions. And the decision made will be made by politicians in a political environment. Most of the Labour-held seats have the least gun ownership and the vast majority of National-held seats the most gun ownership.”

There is plenty of water to go under this bridge – or shots to go down range – yet. When a government oversteps the mark it should be held to account.  The Labour-NZ First government has public sympathy so far. But to make it harder for gun clubs to accommodate legitimate gun owners, for police to be given ever more powers, for doctors to be expected to judge their patients and dob them in smacks of losing perspective. Let’s hope the National Party does play politics when this legislation comes to the House and advocates for those engaging in legitimate and legal use of weapons. Or will they once again leave it to the lone voice and vote of ACTs David Seymour to defend the law abiding?