The New Zealand Arms Bill of 2019 is a red herring.
This bill because creates a dysfunctional and expensive bureaucracy that cannot achieve its stated goals. Moreover, proponents have failed to present sufficient evidence to justify the additional restrictions on the lawful use and possession of arms and ammunition.
I am Gary Mauser, professor emeritus, Simon Fraser University, British Columbia, Canada.
I have published extensively in academic journals on firearms and crime. Among other journals, I have published in the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, Journal of Criminal Justice, Chance, Evaluation Review, Journal of Firearms and Public Policy, and Applied Economics. I have testified as an expert witness on criminal justice issues before the Senate of Canada and the Canadian House of Commons. In addition, I have submitted expert testimony to the UK Parliament Special Committees, and I am accredited with the United Nations as an expert in small-arms control. I was honored to have been invited to the New Zealand International Seminar on Firearm Safety in 2006, sponsored by the Royal New Zealand Police.
In response to a singular atrocity, the Arms Legislation Bill of 2019 creates a regulatory behemoth that focuses exclusively on non-violent, lawful firearms ownership. The Arms Legislation Bill of 2019 appears to be an attempt to divert attention from a critical analysis of current government policy or procedures. No convincing evidence has been presented to justify the numerous restrictions on the lawful use and possession of arms and ammunition. The NZ Herald reports that the New Zealand Treasury admits there is a lack of evidence that either the buy back or more regulations will reduce gun violence.
The Arms Legislation Bill of 2019 displays an impressive faith in complex regulations. If enacted, this legislation will require an enormous bureaucracy to handle the paper burden imposed upon law-abiding people. People who pose virtually no threat to public safety. Such a bureaucracy will be expensive.
I urge the government to realize that complex programs impose costs beyond the obvious direct costs. The proposed bureaucracies involve substantial indirect costs, such as enforcement and compliance costs. Even if law-abiding firearms owners will accept such unjustifiable impositions, the question remains whether taxpayers will tolerate such an increase to their tax burden.
My commentary will draw upon the Canadian experiment with a firearms registry. It is my hope that New Zealand legislators will be able to learn from the Canadian failure and not repeat the same mistakes.
In this brief presentation, my comments will bear on sections of the Arms Legislation Bill that are particularly vulnerable to international research:
the creation of a firearms registry;
imposing harsher restrictions and extending it to cover parts, magazines, and ammunition to strengthen the licensing regime;
create a licensing regime for shooting clubs and ranges;
strengthen the oversight of arms imports and sales;
increase penalties for most firearms offences.
I. Is civilian access to firearms a threat to public safety?
No evidence has been provided to substantiate the principal justification of the New Zealand Arms Act of 2019 that it “will establish a regulatory regime that gets the balance right – making it harder for firearms to be in the wrong hands… This will result in a reduced risk of firearm misuse and improve the safety of New Zealanders.” The government has not produced studies to support their assumptions that law-abiding gun owners are an important source of criminal violence, or that “loopholes” in the present regulations governing importation of firearms, gun stores, or shooting clubs have contributed to criminal violence.
International research undermines the common assumption that civilian access to firearms requires extensive bureaucratic regulation. In general, civilian firearms ownership has not been found to pose a threat to public safety. Here are three examples:
Countries where more civilians are armed have lower homicide rates than do countries where there are fewer armed civilians. In this chart, countries are arranged in this figure from left to right according to increasing firearms availability; homicide rates are indicated by the height of the vertical blue columns for each country. Civilian firearms availability was based on the estimates published by the Small Arms Survey in 2012, and the homicide rates are those reported by UNODC in their 2011 report. Information was available for both variables for 172 countries. As may be readily seen, there is an inverse relationship. There is a strong negative correlation of – 0.33, which shows that countries where civilians own fewer firearms have higher homicide rates. This strong negative relationship holds for regional analyses as well.
Global hom rates civil guns
Second, an extensive study, with American criminologist and constitutional lawyer Don Kates, published in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy in 2007 confirms the findings of previous international studies. Our study compared data from various countries in Europe. We analyzed publicly available data from United Nations studies and the Small Arms Survey from Geneva to examine the link between civilian firearm ownership and homicide and suicide rates.
European nations with higher rates of gun ownership were not found to have higher murder rates than neighbouring nations with lower gun ownership (Table 1). If anything, the reverse tends to be the case, for reasons discussed in our paper. For example, though Norway has one of the highest rates of firearm ownership per capita in Western Europe, it nevertheless has the lowest murder rate. Other nations with high firearms ownership and comparably low murder rates include Denmark, Greece, Switzerland, Germany, and Austria. Holland has a 50 percent higher murder rate than Norway despite having the lowest rate of firearm ownership in Europe.
Third, an analysis, conducted by Professor Caillin Langmann, MD and presented to the Canadian Senate, demonstrates that Canadian civilian firearms owners are among the most law-abiding individuals in the country. Professor Langmann found that licensed Canadian firearms owners were much less likely to commit homicide than were adult males, the most comparable group. Depending upon the year, the homicide rate for licensed Canadian firearms owners were between 8% and 22% of the homicide rate for Canadian males 18 years or older.
These three studies are consistent with a large body of research has been unable to find a strong empirical link between firearms availability and either criminal violence or suicide (Kleck, 1997; Wellford, 2004; Hahn, 2003; Rand ).
II. Is firearms registration effective?
In no common law jurisdiction has technically high-quality research found support for linking firearm registration with a reduction in criminal violence or firearms violence. Universal registration is expensive, complex, and requires an exceptionally high level of compliance.
The benefits of universal firearm registration are illusory. Consider the views of Judge Thorp and Inspector Joe Green, former Manager: Licensing and Vetting, New Zealand Police, now retired:
A licensing system with more intensive vetting was considered to provide effective arms control. This view has not changed. Despite recommending a universal registration regime in his 1997 Review of Firearms Control in New Zealand Judge Thorp noted that in order to be effective a threshold of 90% compliance was necessary. Judge Thorp (page 178) concluded that ‘at this time there is insufficient evidence to conclude that the assistance which registration would provide to crime prevention and detection would in itself support the costs involved in
establishing it’. The observation of the outcome of legislative changes in other common law jurisdictions has not encouraged New Zealand to change the 1983 decision.
It is doubtful that New Zealand is better able to meet Judge Thorp’s 90% compliance threshold in the 2020s any more than it was in the 1980s. The core challenges are not technical but human.
A few decades ago, New Zealand enjoyed an excellent firearms control system; one of the best in the Commonwealth. What happened? Focusing on the quality of the person is a much more reasonable approach to firearm legislation than attempting to identify which firearms are too “dangerous” for civilians. Assessing individual character is a challenging task, demanding administrative rigor, but it remains true that the best predictor of future good behaviour is a history of past good behaviour.
Unfortunately, the Arms Legislation Bill diverts attention from the more practical and cost-effective effort of a thorough review and assessment of present police licensing procedures.
The Canadian experiment with firearms registration was a failure. Firearm registration proved to be more complex and expensive than planners had predicted. After investing billions of dollars, the registry remained notably incomplete, containing many unavoidable errors, and did not prove useful in preventing or detecting criminal violence. Canada was unable to reach the goal of a 90% threshold even after two decades. No more than 60% of Canadian firearms owners registered their firearms.
Despite enjoying virtually unlimited budgets, the Canadian attempt to create a firearms registry failed to reduce gun violence or mass public shootings. A report by the Auditor General of Canada eventually revealed that the program was shockingly mismanaged. Large complex governmental programs are difficult to manage successfully and offer rich opportunities for corruption. Scandals arising from the failure of the Canadian firearms program was critical in bringing down the Liberal government of the day.
After spending more than 3 billion dollars, Canada abandoned the long-gun registry in 2012. Evidence is insufficient to support claims that the firearms registry, or its elimination, had any effect upon homicide rates. The Canadian experience proved to be an international embarrassment. The failure was written up as a case study that became popular in management training.
III. A canon to kill a flea
The proposed legislation is shockingly disproportionate. The Arms Legislation Bill of 2019 cannot be justified either by a singular atrocity or by the 7 murders, at most, that involved legal firearms over the past 16 years.
According to the New Zealand Police reports, over the past twenty years, there have been approximately 40-45 murders annually in New Zealand, with around 1 in 10 involving a firearm. Few of the firearm homicides involved legally possessed firearms. Supplementing the annual Police reports with the Homicide Report, we find that very few licenced owners were accused of homicide. Between 2004 – 2019, 12% of accused murderers who used a firearm were licenced). In other words, based on analyzing “recovered firearms,” just 6 – 7 legal firearms owners were accused of committing homicide during this 16-year period. This is a slender reed upon which to base a massive increase in governmental bureaucracy.
It is important to note that this is an overestimate. Because police are unable to recover all of the firearms used (e.g., particularly those used on gang-related killings), information from “recovered firearms” necessarily overestimates the number of legal firearms involved in homicide. Even when recovered, information on legal ownership may not be known or reported for one reason or another.
It should not surprise that law-abiding NZ firearms owners do not pose a significant threat to public safety. Legal firearms owners in are exceptionally law abiding. Based on official reports, less than 10% of recovered firearms involved in murder in Australia were legal; in England and Wales it was under 15%; in Canada the percentage was found to be below 7%.
IV. The effectiveness of strict firearm regulatory regimes
There is no convincing research in any country in the world that supports the assertion that strict gun regulations are effective in reducing criminal violence. Bureaucratic regimes are expensive and drain support from more important crime fighting efforts. It should be immediately obvious that anyone bent on committing murder – or mass murder — can readily find deadly means. Focusing on firearms is myopic. Unfortunately, large scale killings are achievable using other destructive methods, e.g., bombs constructed of propane canisters, pressure cookers, vans, automobiles, trucks or, even poison.
Given that few legislators have backgrounds in science, or statistical methodology, it would be understandable if they found methodological arguments unconvincing. Nevertheless, I urge committee members to assess the methodology used to produce evidentiary claims.
Research of technically high-quality tends to find that gun laws are ineffective. Whether in Australia, Canada, Europe, the UK, the US. As Florida State Professor Gary Kleck points out, technically weak research mostly supports the assumption that gun control works, while stronger research does not.
Australia offers an excellent case study. Australia, like Canada, brought in stricter controls on firearms during the 1990s, banning self-loading firearms and pump-action shotguns. The 1996 firearms legislation sharply restricted legal ownership of firearms in Australia. It established a firearms registry, banning and confiscating over 650,000 firearms; it is estimated that over one million firearms were surrendered to police and destroyed.
The head of the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, Don Weatherburn, said that there was “no definitive evidence that a decade of restrictive firearms laws has done anything to reduce weapon-related crime” in New South Wales.
Homicide rates (including firearm homicide rates) continued to fall after the introduction of the firearms law. But, given that the homicide rates had already been falling prior to 1996, it is illogical to believe that this drop was due to the gun law.
Dr McPhedran, to determine the impact of the 1996 law, analyzed five independent studies of the Australian firearm legislation have been conducted. Each of these studies not only did rigorous before-and-after comparisons, but they also conducted high quality time-series analyses, attempted limited multivariate analyses, and controlled for a variety of other influences such as police force and incarceration rates, and unemployment rate.
Not one of these studies could find evidence that the 1996 firearms legislation had a significant influence on the continuing decline in Australian firearm homicide rates, according to a recent review. Not one found statistical evidence of an actual impact of the legislative changes. It is worth remembering a fundamental premise of scientific practice: the assumption that the null hypothesis is “true” until sufficient statistical evidence indicates otherwise.
The danger of semi-automatic rifles (e.g., the AR-15) has been wildly exaggerated. In the USA, according to Gallup, 43% of households have one or more firearm, and at least 25% of rifles in the US are semi-automatic. Nevertheless, according to the FBI, rifles (of all kinds) were used in less than 3 percent of firearm homicides, and just 2% of all homicides in 2018. Thus, semi-automatic rifles, including the AR-15 (the most popular sporting rifle in the country), were used even less frequently in murder.
V. The government has not provided convincing evidence that public safety is at risk due to either  the current 5-year licence period,  harsher restrictions on parts, magazines, or ammunition, or  the present regulatory system for firearms dealers or gun clubs.
Vague “concerns” are insufficient justification. Tax-payers, as well as the responsible firearms community, may well resent paying additional taxes to support an expensive, ineffective governmental bureaucracy.
It is disappointing that legislators would propose harsher penalties for non-violent administrative offences related to firearms when the evidence remains unpersuasive that harsher penalties for violent criminal acts are effective in reducing violent crime rates.
Do New Zealanders want a police force that can raid homes based merely on accusations of non-violent concerns or “paper crimes,” in this case, weapon possession status? This legislation sets a precedent for a powerful police force. Once created, why couldn’t such a police power be used in the future to enforce other “paper crimes”?
VI. The bill enables New Zealand to accede to United Nations Protocol against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, their Parts and Components and Ammunition.
Agreeing to this UN Protocol will not improve public safety in New Zealand or contribute to a reduction in violence in the world. It commits New Zealand to agreeing with future decisions that will be made beyond its control.
The “standards” asserted in the UN Protocol are arbitrary and fail to meet basic requirements for international agreement. This assessment is based on my personal experience after working as a technical expert with the International Small Arms Control Standards (ISACS), United Nation program instituted to develop standards for Arms Trade Treaty.
Despite claims in the introduction that, “ISACS modules were drafted in accordance with the rules set out in ISO/IEC Directives, Part 2, Rules for the structure and drafting of International Standards,” the proposals in this module, like other ISACS modules, fail to meet the requirements of International Standards because the development process is a parody of consultation. Despite claims in the introduction, the proposed module does not represent standards or best-practice guidelines, but merely the wish list of internally favoured participants. There are widely accepted procedures for developing “standards, best practice guidelines” but, as has been pointed out earlier by another member of the Expert Reference Group, ISACS does not respect nor follow them. Instead of legitimate consultation, ISACS modules are based upon the opinions and feelings of activists from a small number of predetermined NGOs. The words of an earlier critique are worth reiterating here: “By circumventing careful debate and by ignoring contrary points of view the drafters of the ISACS modules have either willfully or ignorantly embraced judgmental and factual errors that defeat the credibility of the end product and the role of those involved in its preparation.”
A case in point is that the United Kingdom now regrets having signed onto the United Nations Protocol against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, their Parts and Components and Ammunition.
It is never wise to rush to pass legislation. That is a recipe for failure. The Arms Legislation Bill of 2019 looks suspiciously like scapegoating. Scapegoating has been used for thousands of years when societies are faced with problems they cannot resolve.
The international evidence is clear: civilian firearms ownership does not pose a public safety hazard. More guns in civilian hands does not mean more criminal violence. There is no convincing evidence that the introduction of strict regulations on firearms ownership acts to reduce criminal violence or suicide rates. Scapegoating rural residents may win votes from urban voters, but blaming guns for criminal violence is not an effective policy.
The question for New Zealand legislators is what will you do when the next mass public killings happen? Firearms are not unique. Terrorists have used a variety of methods to murder large numbers of people in other countries. Mass murders are rare and impossible to predict, but unfortunately they are likely to occur. How will the billions of dollars spent on creating an ineffective if massive police bureaucracy be justified?
Dixon, J. (January 8, 2003) “A gang that couldn’t shoot straight,” Globe and Mail, p. A11.
Duvall, M (July 2004) “Armed Robbery,” (Case No. 126), Baseline, The Project Management Center, pp 55 – 57. (www.baselinemag.com)
On Dec. 6, 1989, Marc Lepine walked into the University of Montreal’s engineering school and fired a semi-automatic military rifle at every woman he saw. Before turning the rifle on himself, Lepine shot 27 women. Fourteen died.
Fraser, S. (2002) Office of the Auditor General of Canada. Auditor General Reports 2002. Chapter 10. Department of Justice – Costs of Implementing the Canadian Firearms Program. December 2002. (http://www.oag-bvg.gc.ca/domino/reports.nsf/html/02menu_e.html).
Fraser, S. (2002) Office of the Auditor General of Canada. Auditor General Reports 2002. Chapter 11. Other Observations – Royal Canadian Mounted Police — Firearms Program. pp 8 – 10. (http://www.oag-bvg.gc.ca/domino/reports.nsf/html/02menu_e.html).
Fraser, S. (2006) Office of the Auditor General of Canada. Canadian Firearms Program.
Chapter 4, Report of the Auditor General of Canada, 2006 (Status Report). <http:// www.oag-bvg.gc.ca/domino/reports.nsf/html/20060504ce.html>.
Hahn, Robert A., et al. (2003). First Reports Evaluating the Effectiveness of Strategies for Preventing Violence: Firearms Laws. Findings from the Task Force on Community Preventive Services, Centers for Disease Control, Atlanta, Georgia (October 3).
Kates, Don and Gary Mauser. (2007). Would Banning Firearms Reduce Murder and Suicide? A Review of International Evidence. Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy. https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=998893
Kleck, Gary (1997). Targeting Guns: Firearms and Their Control. Aldine de Gruyter.
Langmann, Caillin. (2012). Canadian Firearms Legislation and Effects on Homicide 1974 to 2008. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, Vol 27, Issue 12, pp. 2303 – 2321, February-10-2012
Canadian Firearms Legislation and Effects on Homicide 1974 to 2008 Caillin Langmann, MD, PhD – Journal of Interpersonal Violence, Vol 27, Issue 12, pp. 2303 – 2321, First published date: February-10-2012, 10.1177/0886260511433515 34 Pages Posted: 10 Oct 2017 Date Written: February 10, 2012 Canada has implemented legislation covering all firearms since 1977 and presents a model to examine incremental firearms control.
Mauser, Gary. (2007). Hubris in the North: The Canadian Firearms Registry
Fraser Institute of Vancouver Research Paper Series
80 Pages Posted: 19 Jul 2007 Last revised: 10 May 2011 Date Written: June 1, 2007 The recent shootings at a Montreal school have reignited the controversy over the firearm registry and has prompted the Conservative government to review its earlier pledge to scrap the registry.
Mauser, Gary. (2012). A Presentation to Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, The Senate of Canada
5 Pages Posted: 16 Apr 2012 Date Written: March 2012 This presentation addresses four points: (1) Responsible gun owners are less likely to murder than other Canadians; (2) The police have not demonstrated the value of long-gun registry; (3) The long-gun registry has not been effective in reducing homicide rates; and (4) The data in the long-gun registry are of poor quality and should be destroyed.
Mauser, Gary. (2017). Do Triggers Pull Fingers? A Look at the Criminal Misuse of Guns in Canada
31 Pages Posted: 25 Jul 2017 Date Written: July 16, 2015 Advocates of restrictive gun laws contend that simply having a firearm available can precipitate violence, transforming an angry encounter into murder, or a fit of depression into an impulsive suicide. In other words: triggers pull fingers.
Mauser, Gary. (2015). The Canadian Long-Gun Registry: A Preliminary Evaluation. Journal on Firearms and Public Policy,
19 Pages Posted: 11 Mar 2015 Date Written: March 9, 2015 In 2012, eleven years after its introduction, Canada scrapped its controversial long-gun registry that had required the registration of long guns (shotguns and rifles). This paper briefly reviews the politics behind the demise of the registry and explores the linkage between the long-gun registry and murder rates.
McPhedran, Samara. (2016) A systematic review of quantitative evidence about the impacts of Australian legislative reform on firearm homicide. Aggression and Violent Behavior, Volume 28, May–June 2016, Pages 64-72
Mouzos, Jenny. (2000) The licensing and registration status of firearms used in homicide. 05/2000
The licensing and registration status of offenders and firearms used in homicide are examined using data held as part of the National Homicide Monitoring Program. The findings of the report show that since 1997 licensed firearm owners have not been responsible for over 90 per cent of firearm related homicides.
Rand Corporation. (2018) Gun Policy in America. What Science Tells Us About the Effects of Gun Policies.
RAND researchers have systematically reviewed empirical research on the effects of 13 types of state-level gun policies on eight outcomes, including outcomes related to public health and safety and those of interest to hunters, sport shooters, and the gun industry.
Thorp, T.M. (June 1997) Review of Firearms Control in New Zealand. Report of an Independent Inquiry Commissioned by the Minister of Police, Wellington, New Zealand.
Wainwright, Robert (2005). Gun Laws Fall Short in War on Crime. Sydney Morning Herald (October 29).
Gun ownership is rising and there is no definitive evidence that a decade of restrictive firearms laws has done anything to reduce weapon-related crime, according to NSW’s top criminal statistician. The latest figures show a renaissance in firearm ownership in the state – a 25 per cent increase in three years.
Wellford, Charles F., John V. Pepper, and Carol V. Petrie, eds., (2004) Firearms and Violence: A Critical Review (National Academies Press). <http://books.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=10881>.