Bang! Bang! — Guns in New Zealand

In the middle of the night, I heard a noise.

Back in the US, I would have instinctively reached for the Glock 19 and high-intensity flashlight on my bedside table, and made the decision whether to hole up in the bedroom or go out and investigate.

But here in New Zealand, I have no guns and—to be fair—it is highly unlikely to be a burglary or home invasion, at least where we live. The noise turned out to be the swaying, second-floor balcony door, which we often leave open at night, something we also might not do back in the US.

Back in the United States, along with owning guns, both my wife and I have concealed carry gun permits. For example, I might carry a fully-loaded semi-automatic handgun in a holster beneath my shirt when I go out; my wife might carry a 5-shot stubbie revolver in her purse, or in the car when she travels long distances. Why do we own guns and carry them? Self-defense. There are bad people out there and we don’t want to be victims.

The Second Amendment in the United States Constitution gives citizens the right to have guns. This grew out of the belief by the Founding Fathers, the sage individuals who wrote the US Constitution, that one of the few ways to check a potentially tyrannical government is for the citizens to remain armed. Regardless of one’s personal opinion of guns, this right of the individual remains enshrined in the US Constitution, and is not something to be arbitrarily abrogated by any temporary leader or governing body.

You can own guns in New Zealand; a gun ownership license is required. In New Zealand, the individual is first vetted and licensed and then allowed to purchase firearms with certain restrictions based on his or her license. By contrast, in the US, any adult can technically buy any legal firearm. At the time of purchase, a background check, primarily consisting of searches of FBI databases, is performed on the individual. If he or she passes,the purchase is allowed.

Currently, there are somewhere around 230,000 licensed gun owners (5% of a total population of 4.5 million) who own more than a million guns in New Zealand (24 guns per 100 residents). Compare this with the US where it is estimated that somewhere around 105 million (30% of a total population of 320 million) own more than 320 million guns (100+ guns per 100 residents). Indeed, the US could be considered the Wild West.

Gun licensing here is handled by the New Zealand Police Department. To obtain a gun ownership license, you are required to pay a small fee (about $150), read a booklet, attend a four-hour orientation session, and pass a 30-question test. Once those requirements are fulfilled, a police Arms Officer visits your residence, interviews you in depth, along with all other members of the household. Two referees (the British word for references) are also interviewed. The Arms Officer also inspects the premises and assures that you have a secure, lockable place to store firearms—generally a safe—and a separate secure, lockable location to store ammunition (ammunition must be stored separate from the firearm). If everything is okay, after about a month, you are issued a Category “A” license that allows you to purchase long guns (rifles and shotguns—not handguns) and ammunition.

Acceptable reasons to want to own a firearm in New Zealand are hunting and target shooting. The New Zealand Police Arms Code Section 4 states, “Self-defence is not a valid reason to possess firearms. The law does not permit the possession of firearms ‘in anticipation’ that a firearm may need to be used in self-defense.” There are no concealed carry gun permits.

“Self-defence is not a valid reason to possess firearms.”

Purchasing a pistol (handgun) is more complicated. Along with having your “A” license, you need to join one of the 83 pistol clubs in New Zealand, part of the New Zealand Pistol Association. After actively participating in the club for six months time and using their weapons, the club can recommend that you be allowed a “B” endorsement. Along with an additional fee, a more in-depth vetting process ensues: the police require additional references, family members are interviewed again, and a background check is made. The requirements for storage of handguns are more stringent. A safe bolted to the floor is required, and there are other requirements such as all doors to the residence must have deadbolts. An alarm system is recommended.

Again, if all goes well, you are issued a “B” endorsement, and can then purchase a pistol. After buying a pistol, a special Permit to Procure, however, signed by a police officer is required before you can actually take possession of your purchase.

Use it or lose it—you have to shoot at least twelve times a year at the pistol club to keep your “B” endorsement, and you can only shoot your handgun at a pistol club range.

You can only shoot a handgun at a pistol club range.

A “C” endorsement is for collectors of firearms such as museums or for owners of guns used for theatrical purposes.

“D” is for dealer.

The “E” gun owners license endorsement is for what is termed Military-Style Semi-Automatics (MSSAs), more commonly simply called assault rifles. MSSAs are characterized in the New Zealand Arms Code as semi-automatic rifles or shotguns having one or more of the following: folding or telescopic butt, bayonet lug, military pattern pistol grip, flash suppressor, and a magazine holding more than seven rounds. To obtain this endorsement, you have to show why you . . . just forget it.

The MSSA category was created to limit ownership of assault rifles after the Aramoano tragedy, a deadly shooting spree in 1990 outside Dunedin in which a man using an assault rifle killed 13 people including a police officer.

You can, however, obtain assault-type rifles here in a modified form, termed a “sporting configuration,” under the basic class “A” license. These weapons are simply built by the manufacturer to not have any of the elements that make them MSSAs.

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Typical assault rifle.

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Example of an assault rifle acceptable as a Category “A” firearm.

Certainly, the weapons in this modified form are no less lethal than true assault rifles. They shoot the same type ammunition, and it is not difficult to modify or obtain a magazine which shoots more than seven rounds.

As an interesting aside, silencers, technically called suppressors, are allowed on weapons. Apparently, at a gun orientation class when it was asked why this was allowed, the answer was given, “How else can you expect to shoot the rabbits without scaring the sheep?”

“How else can you expect to shoot the rabbits without scaring the sheep?”

New Zealand is a safer country than the United States. There is less crime here. But how can you defend yourself if necessary? Pepper spray? Nope—it’s illegal here. How about a knife? No, you can’t carry a knife.

Every person is liable to a term of imprisonment not exceeding 3 months or a fine not exceeding $2000 who, in any public place, without reasonably excuse, has any knife in his or her possession.

Section 13A of the Summary Offences Act 1981

What are reasonable excuses for carrying a knife? Picnics, barbeques and farm-work are listed. The police also have the right to search you at any time if they suspect you might have a knife or other prohibited offensive weapon.

So how does one defend oneself here if necessary? Again, the Arms Code: “Contact your local Citizens Advice Bureau or City or District Council for advice on how to defend yourself. They can advise you of self defence courses or groups in your area.”

Well, at least if the police arrive in time, they can help you. Maybe. The police don’t routinely carry guns here; they often have them available in their cars but not on their person.

What can I say? New Zealand isn’t the United States, and the United States isn’t New Zealand.

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