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Arms (Military Style Semi-Automatic Firearms and Import Controls) Amendment Bill

First Reading

Tuesday 10 May 2011 Hansard source (external site)

PowerHon SIMON POWER (Minister of Justice) Link to this

I move, That the Arms (Military Style Semi-automatic Firearms and Import Controls) Amendment Bill be now read a first time. At the appropriate time, I intend to move that the Arms (Military Style Semi-automatic Firearms and Import Controls) Amendment Bill be referred to the Law and Order Committee for consideration, that the committee report finally to the House on or before 4 August 2011, and that the committee have the authority to meet at any time while the House is sitting except during oral questions, and during any evening on a day on which there has been a sitting of the House, and on a Friday in a week in which there has been a sitting of the House, despite Standing Orders 187 and 190(1)(b) and(c).

This bill amends the Arms Act 1983 to place controls on the importation of airguns that look like real pistols, military-style semi-automatic firearms, or restricted weapons, and it clarifies the definition of “military-style semi-automatic firearms”, or MSSAs—which I am sure Mr Assistant Speaker Roy is familiar with. The bill will preserve the rights of legitimate firearm users while at the same time protecting the public from the illegal use of firearms.

The bill will enhance public safety by clarifying and strengthening import controls on airguns that look like real pistols, restricted weapons, or military-style semi-automatic firearms. Because of their appearance, such airguns are used by criminals for intimidation purposes. Although no official statistics on this are collected, police estimate that there is up to one incident a week where a member of the public has presented an airgun that looks like a real pistol, restricted weapon, or military-style semi-automatic firearm that has prompted an armed police response.

The bill will require those who import airguns that can be mistaken for real pistols, restricted weapons, or military-style semi-automatic firearms to have a permit from police. A permit will be granted only if the Commissioner of Police is satisfied that there are special reasons why the airgun should be imported. Permits will be issued to allow for the legitimate importation of airguns for sporting and collection purposes and the like. These measures will reduce the availability of these types of airguns for criminal purposes, and it is expected that within a relatively short period of time most of the cheaper imitations already in New Zealand will be lost, broken, or discarded.

The bill’s restrictions on the importation of airguns will not apply to airguns that are clearly designed to be used for airsoft and paintball sports and could not be mistaken for real pistols, military-style semi-automatic firearms, or restricted weapons. It is also intended that these provisions would not restrict the importation of airguns that are clearly manufactured solely as toys. These tend not to look anything like real pistols, military-style semi-automatic firearms, or restricted weapons.

The bill includes a consequential amendment to eliminate the unnecessary regulation of fully automatic airguns used for airsoft and paintball sports. Fully automatic airguns used for these sports are currently declared restricted weapons in the Arms (Restricted Weapons and Specially Dangerous Airguns) Order 1984—although I am sure the Hon Clayton Cosgrove was aware of that. However, this does not accurately reflect their lower power and reduced ability to cause harm. The bill removes the classification of these as restricted weapons to reflect their lower risk, but they would still be subject to the proposed import controls on airguns that look like real pistols, military-style semi-automatic firearms, or restricted weapons.

The bill will also clarify the definition of military-style semi-automatic firearms. In 2010 the High Court decision in Lincoln v Police highlighted problems with the way the Arms Act 1983 defines military-style semi-automatic firearms. The current definition has resulted in confusion and created difficulties for police who need to be able to determine in a consistent manner which semi-automatic firearms are military-style semi-automatic firearms.

This amended definition in the bill will clarify the definition and bring the situation back to a classification regime very similar to that administered between 1992 and 2008, which was generally understood and accepted by the firearms community. This will greatly assist with the enforcement of provisions relating to military-style semi-automatic firearms, including the obligations on those who possess them.

The new definition first of all defines a “military-style semi-automatic firearm” in the positive, as a semi-automatic firearm that has one or more specified features rather than, as is the case now, in the negative with a list of features that a firearm in sporting configuration, that is, not a military-style semi-automatic firearm, must be without. That is a very confusing way of approaching the situation, you would agree, Mr Assistant Speaker Roy. The phrase “sporting configuration” is rendered redundant and will be repealed.

Secondly, the new definition of “military-style semi-automatic firearm” provides for the use of regulations to designate a firearm or type of firearm as a military-style semi-automatic firearm, and to define or describe features of a semi-automatic firearm that would classify it as a military-style semi-automatic firearm.

The designation of specific types of firearms as military-style semi-automatic firearms in regulations would be used only in rare instances where firearms or firearm-makers are unable to be clearly classified under the new definition and the classification is in line with the policy intent of the Arms Act as amended in 1992. This is very confusing and I suspect that those who have specialist knowledge in this area will be following it more closely than those of us who are not as well informed on such complex descriptions and matters as that contained in the Minister’s speech.

The definition of a military-style semi-automatic firearm in the bill also addresses a situation that has arisen over magazine capacity. For a firearm to remain classified as being in sporting configuration, and therefore not a military-style semi-automatic firearm, it must have a magazine that is not capable of holding more than seven rounds—although I suspect, Mr Assistant Speaker, that you are already aware of that—and does not appear capable of holding more than seven rounds, unless it is designed to hold .22 inch or less cartridges.

Many firearm owners possess magazines designed to hold 10 rounds, but in order to maintain a firearm in sporting configuration, either the manufacturer or the firearm owner has internally modified those magazines so that they can hold only seven rounds. The bill ensures that firearm owners and manufacturers who take that action will not be found to be operating outside of the law. That will be done by retaining the current limit of seven rounds that the magazine of a semi-automatic firearm can hold before it is classified as a military-style semi-automatic firearm, but allowing a limit of 10 rounds in respect of what the magazine appears to be capable of holding. This is not getting any less complex, Mr Assistant Speaker.

The bill provides for a right of appeal to the District Court when a firearms owner who is affected by a determination by police that a firearm is a military-style semi-automatic firearm wishes to challenge that decision. I think it might have been more straightforward to rewrite our entire criminal procedure.

The bill improves the ability of the Arms Act to continue to protect the rights of legitimate firearms users while at the same time protecting the public from the illegal use of firearms. Clarifying the definition of military-style semi-automatic firearms is in the interests of gun owners, as it removes uncertainties about the types of weapons that have additional requirements for their possession. At the same time it improves the ability of police to apply controls on the possessions of military-style semi-automatic firearms.

I am confident that restricting airguns that can be mistaken for real pistols, restricted weapons, or military-style semi-automatic firearms will improve public safety and limit their availability for criminal use. I commend this bill to the House.

CosgroveHon CLAYTON COSGROVE (Labour—Waimakariri) Link to this

I am sure I am joined by other colleagues on this side of House in complimenting the Minister of Justice, who has just resumed his seat, on his well-researched dissertation. Obviously, he has become somewhat of an expert in this field. I am not, and as we proceed through the processes on the Arms (Military Style Semi-automatic Firearms and Import Controls) Amendment Bill the House will look to him to—

PowerHon Simon Power Link to this

I could be an expert witness at the select committee hearings.

CosgroveHon CLAYTON COSGROVE Link to this

He has offered to be an expert witness at the select committee. Without bringing you into the debate, Mr Assistant Speaker Roy, I suspect that you, as a firearms user, may wish to consider that option. We look forward to the Minister of Justice appearing before the learned Law and Order Committee. It will be a first. It is difficult enough to get Ministry of Justice officials to appear before the Law and Order Committee even on justice issues, so we are reaching a new level of quality with the advice we will receive, given the Minister’s commitment to appear before us. I will ensure that the select committee issues an invitation forthwith, and I know it will be accepted.

The Labour Opposition will support this bill with one rider, which is that, obviously, given the select committee process, we will want to see that it receives a high degree of scrutiny, and that it returns back to this House as a practical bill that will do what it is intended to do, which is to allow those folks who are law-abiding citizens to continue to be able to participate in their chosen legal activity or sport, whilst also protecting the public from those who would engage in nefarious activity in respect of the importation of those items. I will not labour the point.

I note the Minister’s point that there appears to be a safeguard for legitimate users who are turned down in respect of the importation of military-style semi-automatic firearms. They can appeal to the District Court. The question I have is whether that will indeed provide a safeguard, because that is a significant and expensive process through which ordinary, law-abiding Kiwi users will have to go—appearing before the District Court, appealing to it, and hiring lawyers et al. at great expense.

I note that this bill is about protecting the public interest. I have seen the blog traffic, as I am sure other members of Parliament have, from various associations representing firearms users. Those organisations will be making submissions, I am sure, to the select committee, and we will welcome that—and I see my colleague on the select committee Shane Ardern nodding. Firearms issues generally come with a reasonable amount of controversy. I note that a constituent in my electorate, the principal of Woodend School, Graeme Barber, who is a collector and user of firearms—for legitimate purposes, obviously, in sport—is quite an authority on these issues. I would say that he and his organisation—not the school, of course, but his rifle club—will make submissions. Obviously, we would welcome Mr Barber as an expert in this field to look at these matters.

I make a couple of further points. A trend has developed with this Government whereby legislation in respect of law and order and justice has been wheeled into the House in rather a piecemeal way. I think the point has been made that we have leapt from double-bunking issues to the “three strikes” legislation. In the case of Mr Hide and Mr Garrett, of course, we have had one strike, two strikes, and three strikes, and Mr Hide is now out. So I suppose that that is one benefit in political terms of that legislation. We look forward to him hastening his departure from this Chamber.

In terms of legislation from this Government, there does not appear to have been a coherent and coordinated plan on justice matters. There has been a lot of populism, I would say, especially from the ACT Party and its former leader, as that party clasped together with the Sensible Sentencing Trust. But when we look at the overall issues in respect of justice—offending, the prevention of offending, incarceration, rehabilitation, and the whole package of goods—we see that there has never been a coherent strategy or plan from this Government.

Apart from populism—and I bundle this bill into that as well, although I acknowledge that this bill is a practical measure—there has never been a coherent strategy or plan. Instead, there has been the next populist idea that Rodney Hide, or David Garrett before he acquiesced under cover of darkness, or some other person from the Government pulled out, thinking it would grab a nice headline, and decided to bang through because it will get their party up a couple of points in the polls.

There are some very, very serious issues in the whole criminal justice sector that need to be addressed—

HayesJohn Hayes Link to this

You need more than a couple of points, Clayton.

CosgroveHon CLAYTON COSGROVE Link to this

—especially by that member over there. He would know, of course; he would know indeed. The passing of piecemeal bits of legislation like boy-racer legislation, on the one hand, from the Minister of Police, and serious pieces of legislation like this, on the other hand, does not reek of a coherent plan or strategy. It reeks, I think, of the sort of rugged popularism that the ACT Party and National have been engaged in ad nauseam.

I acknowledge, of course, that the Minister of Justice has done a significant amount of work in respect of bringing justice legislation into this House. That is the positive. But I also acknowledge the process by which that legislation has been brought to the House and the restrictions on select committee processes. I am referring to the Law and Order Committee not being able, for instance, to get corrections advice on corrections bills, or justice advice on justice bills; the total abrogation of select committee protocols in respect of submitters; the abuse of parliamentary protocols in terms of members of Parliament; and select committees not being able to put in minority reports or even have a minority view.

But that, I take it, is in the past, and the Law and Order Committee has a new chairperson, Jacqui Dean. To give her credit, she has acted, to date, in a way that her predecessor never did, in trying to bring, I think, some parliamentary process back to that committee, to allow democracy to flow, to allow members to have a fair go, and to allow submitters their right to submit and have an opinion. So, in fairness, I acknowledge the new chairperson of the Law and Order Committee. God help us—it would not take a huge leap of faith to do better than did the last chairperson we had.

In essence, Labour will support this legislation. I am sure there will be, as I have said, some controversy and some concern from legitimate users in relation to this bill. Our view is that that should bubble up in the select committee and that those people should be listened to. But at the end of the day my view is that we have a duty in this House—on balance, of course—to protect those individuals and our community from those who would do wrong and endanger others, either violently or in practice—the criminal elements. But, again, it is the role of this House to balance that against those people who are, in a sporting sense and a hobby sense, legal and legitimate users

At the end of the day, in my view, safety comes first. We have seen some of the difficulties the police have had in respect of these firearms. We note that there is uncertainty, and it is the role of this Parliament to clarify, in legislative terms, any uncertainty that exists. That has to be a good thing for legitimate users and for those who are charged to protect our communities—the police.

The Labour Party will support the legislation, and I am sure I am joined by the chair of the Law and Order Committee in requiring and welcoming a full and open submission process so that all stakeholders in the sector, if you will, will have the opportunity and time to make submissions. That process will ensure that the legislation that comes back to the House is appropriate and practical in its nature, and that it gives effect to the aims and objectives that I would have thought at least most parties in the House—some odd ones, maybe, might take a different view—would support and would accept are for the protection of our communities, the protection of our police, and the rights of those folks to act legitimately in their chosen sport or activity.

DeanJACQUI DEAN (National—Waitaki) Link to this

The Arms (Military Style Semi-automatic Firearms and Import Controls) Amendment Bill is clearly about arms safety, and I do not think that anybody across the House, or indeed any member of the Law and Order Committee, will be at odds with that basic principle. Indeed, Mr Cosgrove’s contribution just now confirms that, I suspect, we will have broad agreement about the requirements of this bill to capture elements of firearms safety, for many reasons. We know that these military-style semi-automatic firearms and replica firearms are used in the passage of crime. That does not make life easy for the police; therefore, we need to do some work on that issue.

It seems to me, having a look at the bill for the first time, that there is a need to define what is meant by a military-style semi-automatic firearm as opposed to one with a sporting configuration. I imagine, Mr Assistant Speaker Roy, you may well know this, as well: a sporting configuration means that one holds the firearm to one’s shoulder and goes out to shoot ducks with it, and other pursuits. That is a sporting configuration. The pistol grip configuration, on the other hand, is something that I imagine, as it is described, is held in the hand but is not balanced against the shoulder, and is used—no; you see already I am finding myself wallowing in the mire of not understanding the difference in definition between a pistol grip and a sporting configuration. That is exactly why we need to have a good select committee process in examining the contents of the bill. What I do understand is that the inclusion of the definition of “pistol grip” in regulation provides some flexibility going forward so that when there are different manufacturing standards in relation to pistol grips, that can be encapsulated so that manufacturers of pistol grip firearms cannot get ahead of the legislation. The legislation is anticipating different styles of pistol grip.

I think the gentleman who came to see me a year ago in Waimate and who was very concerned about air pistols and replica firearms had a very important message for me. I certainly listened to him with a great deal of close attention. He had a great and genuinely held concern about the number of firearms that were coming into New Zealand, and he had quite a thick magazine or catalogue of those firearms. His concern was that there was little regulation in relation to the import of those firearms. I listened to that gentleman with close interest, and, in fact, I raised the issue in Government. I was able to tell him that yes, there was some work being done on that issue, and, indeed, here we are this evening with the first reading of this bill. I notice that his concerns will also be addressed within the contents of this bill.

My contribution will be short because, clearly, the select committee will be spending a lot of time receiving expert advice on the contents of this bill. I too hope we have a number of submitters. I will be listening to them very closely. This is a good bill. We must remember that the reason this bill has been brought to the House is this Government’s desire to enhance firearms safety. I commend the bill to the House.

WallLOUISA WALL (Labour) Link to this

Kia ora. I reiterate what my colleague the Hon Clayton Cosgrove said as a member of the Law and Order Committee. I have aspirations to be on that committee.

WallLOUISA WALL Link to this

Very esteemed. I agree. Labour supports the Arms (Military Style Semi-automatic Firearms and Import Controls) Amendment Bill, which amends the Arms Act 1983 to change the definitions and regulations in relation to what constitutes a military-style semi-automatic firearm.

Given that I had an opportunity to speak about this legislation, I thought I would do a little bit of research. I found an article by Dr Greg Newbold from the University of Canterbury about the criminal use of firearms in New Zealand. It was quite interesting looking back at our history. Dr Newbold states that “The foundations of New Zealand’s arms legislation were laid with the passage of the Arms Act in 1920. This act provided for the registration of firearms to specific owners.” So it was very much about the firearm being aligned to a specific owner. That legislation endured up until 1983. The police kept a record of all firearm owners, the weapons they possessed, and where they lived. Then, in the fruition of time, it was decided we should have a review, so “in the 1960s and early 1970s an arms check revealed that approximately seven percent of all registered rifles could not be located and that up to 36 percent of registration certificates contained errors.” That spawned the development of a new bill. In 1983 we had a new Arms Act drafted. It was about deregistering “all firearms except pistols and restricted weapons owned by people such as collectors.”, but registering firearms users. There was a bit of a change in philosophy. I guess over time these things have to occur. The most recent amendments came after the tragic Aramoana massacre. We know that in 1990 there was that unfortunate event in our history, but, in turn, it provided another opportunity for us as a country to look at our firearms legislation.

I found really interesting one of the fun facts that our research people were able to find out for us. During the debate on the 1992 amendment to the Arms Act, the Labour Opposition considered that the balance was not struck properly between the safety of the public and the ability of reasonable users of firearms to pursue their work or sport without unnecessary restriction. Many speeches in the House stated that there was no legitimate sporting use for any military-style semi-automatics and that they should be completely banned. Now we are obviously in another place in our history where we have an opportunity to debate that fact.

I will reiterate the background to the legislation and why Labour will support it. The Government has asserted that police estimates indicate that there could be up to one incident a week where a member of the public presents an airgun that looks like a real pistol, military-style semi-automatic, or restricted weapon, requiring an armed police response and sometimes involving our armed offenders squads. I was fortunate a couple of weeks ago to go out with the police in Manurewa. I know what a sterling job they do, and we support any measure that ensures their safety and the safety of all New Zealanders. It is a good opportunity for us to assess again the relevance of our firearms legislation and whether it is protecting New Zealanders, whilst at the same time ensuring that those who use firearms are able to do so and that their liberties are not at all compromised.

I also note that the change to the definition of military-style semi-automatics is necessary, it seems, because of the 2010 High Court decision in Lincoln v New Zealand Police, which created uncertainty as to whether some semi-automatic firearms were military-style semi-automatics. The bill provides us with an opportunity as a country to debate that definition and to be very clear about what is and what is not a military-style semi-automatic so that there is no ambiguity, and, again, to ensure that our police and the people who are there to serve and protect our communities have the powers and tools they need to do their jobs. Under the current law, a semi-automatic firearm in a sporting configuration is not considered a military-style semi-automatic. Therefore, those with firearms licences can own and use them without the need for an additional endorsement from the police as is the case with military-style semi-automatics.

I hope to be on the select committee considering the bill and I look forward to the engagement with members of the community whom this legislation is relevant to. Kia ora. Thank you.

ArdernSHANE ARDERN (National—Taranaki - King Country) Link to this

It is a pleasure to rise and speak on the Arms (Military Style Semi-automatic Firearms and Import Controls) Amendment Bill. I would like to follow on from the Minister of Justice and indicate that my knowledge on this issue is extensive, just as his clearly is.

I look forward to the submission process in the Law and Order Committee, because, clearly, when we set out on a well-meaning path with new legislation, there will always be some unintended consequences that the wisdom of the House tonight may not be able to filter out. I hope that those who participate in gun clubs and sporting activities using firearms, and who understand the ramifications of the bill—particularly to do with military-style semi-automatic - type arms and the more powerful airguns today, which have become a major feature in some crimes in recent times—will take part in that submission process. I myself have been surprised to learn of the power of some of those more modern guns. I look forward to that matter being debated in the select committee, and await the submissions with great interest.

It is also interesting to note that the bill is attempting to define a military-style or military firearm - type risk, as opposed to the risk from a gun that might be used as a sporting gun.

Debate interrupted.


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