There has just been another mass killing in the United States. Within a few hours, and completely unrelated, criminals in Auckland were firing shots at the police. After the American incident, John Key went on to lament the difficulties of gun control in the US but forgot about the same problem in New Zealand.

There are about one million guns in our country. Ten thousand imports add to the total each year. Two hundred and thirty thousand of us are licensed to own and use such weapons, including about 36,000 pistols and 7800 military-style, semi-automatic weapons.

Around 100,000 of these weapons have drifted away from those originally registered to hold them to non-criminals, but unlicensed people. The risks for this non-licensed group, from children to the mentally ill, being involved in accidental or intentional death of themselves or others are considerable.

The risks with criminals holding the 25,000 unlicensed weapons believed to be in their possession is much greater. New Zealand criminals appear to be undergoing a culture shift in the use of firepower. At least 14 per cent of guns in our organised crime now range from pistols to machine guns.


Criminals obtain these weapons by trading among themselves, importation or theft. Customs intercepts nearly 2000 illicit attempts to bring firearms into the country each year. Theft secures about 900 weapons a year. Dealers or specialised collectors who store high value weapons are preferred targets.

While most dealers are honest and unsuspecting targets, others are not. John Mabey faked the burglary of 121 restricted firearms and sold the weapons on the black market at four times the legal price.

New Zealand has not recently witnessed a gun-related catastrophe like in Aramoana in 1990, when a 33-year-old licensed gunman killed 13 people before being shot dead by police. Nevertheless, it is foreseeable that we are going to see more deaths from gun violence.

The question is what to do about the foreseeable deaths? Best practice from overseas tells us the answer is in three parts.

First, the gun holder must be licensed. New Zealand performs well on this count. Our licensing system, vetting and general safety requirements are good practice. However, we need to be vigilant. Most mass killings are done by licensed killers.

In addition, our penalties for those involved in illegal sale, transfer or possession are inadequate. The change in Australia following the Sydney siege, creating a new offence for the possession of a stolen firearm with a maximum of 14 years in jail should be followed here.

Second, all weapons should be registered. In New Zealand, only automatic weapons, military-style semi-automatics and handguns are effectively tracked. No records exist for the remaining 96 per cent of firearms.

The international community recognises the necessity of adequate tracking for all firearms as an essential tool to combat organised crime. Unlike countries such as Australia and Britain, our lack of an adequate system leaves us unable to adhere to the appropriate international laws. This is a mistake.


We are already familiar with the need to license items that are valuable, potentially dangerous or likely to get stolen, such as cars or dogs. We should treat guns the same way, creating a modern and comprehensive record of firearm ownership which gives a full description of each firearm, its ownership history and where it is kept.

When the weapon is traceable, those who are registered to it are much less likely to allow it to get misplaced or modified as they will be held to account. Also, knowing where the weapon is will help police called to locations where firearms may be present.

Finally, we require a gun amnesty combined with a buy-back programme. While amnesties go some distance, real success comes with economic incentives. Overseas experience has shown that when money is offered for the handing in of firearms, thousands of guns, legal and illegal, are handed in to police.

This has worked in Britain and large parts of the US. The buyback programme in Australia, after the Port Arthur massacre of 35 civilians by a lone gunman, resulted in the destruction of more than 631,000 firearms.

Alexander Gillespie is a professor of law at the University of Waikato.