Universal Firearms Register for NZ – A Good Idea?
22 June, 2020
A universal register in NZ for all firearms will be introduced through the Arms Legislation Bill 2019, which has passed its 3rd reading and will be enacted. The register will be implemented in 3 years from the enactment of the legislation. This universal register is, however, being strongly opposed by many within the civilian licensed firearms owning community.
But why? It would appear to be a good idea to have a record of every firearm in the country, surely?
Every legally imported firearm requires a police permit & every legally manufactured firearm in NZ has a serial number which is registered with police, so there is a register of legally imported & locally manufactured firearms going back decades.
That police permit for importation requires the details of every firearm, the dealer or individual importing the firearm and the reasons for importation (for personal use, for sale, for use in theatrical productions, etc). Further, every dealer has a record of the serial number of each firearm sold & the purchaser's firearms licence.
The Minister of Police Stuart Nash has repeatedly stated that the absence of a universal registry means “we” don’t know how many guns are “out there”.
If all the firearms in the country consisted only of legally imported and legally manufactured firearms, we should know exactly how many firearms there are. That Mr Nash, Chris Cahill (current President of the NZ Police Association, a union leader) and other registry advocates repeatedly point to a universal registry as the solution to knowing “how many guns are out there”, would then logically mean they are referring to the number of ILLEGAL firearms.
The problem then is of course that illegal firearms would never be captured by a register.
Stuart Nash has also most recently stated that we register cars & dogs, so why not guns?
The stated purpose of a firearms register is to prevent or solve crime. Cars are registered for tax reasons and dogs are registered because dangerous dogs can cause harm on their own, without any human intervention. Not so for guns. Neither the vehicle nor the canine registers prevent theft, nor use of a car or dog in the commission of a crime. And if illegal firearms are not on a register anyway, the register would be useless for crimes involving those and it will certainly not be able to prevent crimes involving them either.
Of the 3,141 firearms seized by NZ Police in accordance with s6 or s18 of the Search and Surveillance Act 2012 between 1st June 2018 & 22nd April 2020, 1,454 (or 46%) had no serial number recorded.
This was revealed in an OIA response from Mike McIlraith, Arms Act Service Delivery Group, NZ Police, dated 11th May 2020 to Mike Loder of the Kiwi Gun Blog.
The reason for the start of the date range (1st June 2018) was because the police Firearms Search and Seizure database only had a serial number field added from that date. The field is not compulsory to be filled in as the OIA response states that “some firearms do not have serial numbers (they could have been removed or never existed, such as in the case of home-made or replica firearms), so it is impossible to differentiate whether the firearm had the serial number removed or it was not recorded.”
Note also that “replica firearms”, i.e. non-functioning toys, are included in the number of seized firearms. This has the obvious effect of artificially inflating the figures of seized firearms.
It is unknown if any of the remaining 1,687 seized firearms had ever been legally imported. It is possible and likely that they were not, which would partly explain why the criminals who had them never bothered to remove the serial numbers, as they would then have been untraceable. These firearms would then simply have been smuggled into the country, along with the vast amounts of illicit drugs.
It is important here to note the vast strides that have been made in 3D printing in recent years, which have meant that a 3D printed fully-functioning firearm is now a reality. This makes a mockery of all the attempts at controlling the illegal manufacture of firearms.
A serial number on a firearm is the only unique identifier of a particular firearm. Removing the serial number renders the firearm anonymous. With up to 50% of seized firearms lacking a serial number, it would appear logical that any database ostensibly targeting illegal firearms, would be useless in tracking up to half of all seized firearms, if not more.
The NZ Auditor-General has found inaccuracies in the existing registry of formerly E-category of over 14%.
In May 2020, the NZ Auditor-General released a report entitled “Implementing the firearms buy-back and amnesty scheme”, which states that “Police's records of the numbers of firearms covered by an E endorsement are not certain, ranging from 13,175 to 15,037” (https://oag.parliament.nz/2020/firearms-buy-back).
In a High Court affidavit by Mike McIlraith dated 26th November 2019, he stated that as at 31st March 2019, 7,566 people held E-endorsements on their licences.
There are estimates of between 1 million to 1.5 million firearms in NZ, more if one includes the number of illegal firearms. Given police were unable to keep track with greater than 90% certainty, the legal firearms held by fewer than 8,000 people, it would appear unlikely that a universal registry of up to 1.5 million firearms held by almost 250,000 people would be accurate enough to be useful. It is important to reiterate that such a registry would not include any illegal firearms and definitely none without serial numbers.
There have been statements by police & government ministers that any registry now implemented would be far more accurate due to modern technology, avoiding the up to 66% inaccuracy found in the firearms register that NZ abandoned in the 1970s (“Review of Firearms Control” by TM Thorp, June 1997).
There are now multiple reports of licensed firearms owners who had already turned in their firearms in the recent buy-back & amnesty scheme, being repeatedly contacted by police to turn those firearms in. This is despite having every turned-in firearm recorded against a central database (with modern technology, that was breached in December 2019) and a receipt issued to the owner.
Rather bizarrely, police in fact have no record of how they obtained the firearm that was used by police themselves, to demonstrate to Parliament’s Select Committee, the importance of registration.
It would seem that the far more modern registries currently implemented by the police still fall far short of the level of accuracy required for them to be truly useful.
Canada implemented a universal firearms register in 1995 and abandoned it completely in 2012 (with all records destroyed by 2015).
Universal firearms registers are not a new idea. Canada’s universal firearms registry began with a cost estimate of C$2 million. Current estimates are that the registry has cost up to C$3 billion. Reasons why the Canadian universal registry was ultimately abandoned in favour of a restricted registry such as already applies in NZ, can be found in this article in Forbes from 2013
Stuart Nash has announced that NZ’s universal firearms registry is likely to cost $43-53 million over 10 years. It is worth noting that NZ police estimated that the administration of the firearms buy-back & amnesty scheme would cost $18 million, while the NZ Auditor-General found it will actually cost up to $35 million.
It is thus highly likely that any universal registry now implemented, will cost many more times than initially expected, with the cost blowout possibly anywhere from twice to 1000 times. While there will be some cost recovery from NZ firearms owners directly, it is highly likely that the remainder will be borne by the tax paying base overall.
The Arms Legislation Bill requires not just the serialisation of firearms but also all parts and magazines (s 41A).
The definition of “parts” in the Bill includes grips, frames, magazine loaders, silencers. However the definition also includes “any component that, of itself, is essential to the discharge of any shot, bullet, missile, or other projectile from the firearm”.
This would mean that triggers, ejectors and other small components would have to be serialised as well. Some of these components are very small and each firearm will have many such parts that require serialisation. It would be like trying to serialise watch springs.
Further, there is no standard for serialisation and it is well-known that prohibited magazines that have been allowed to be retained, have been serialised with identical serial numbers in many instances.
As the Council of Licensed Firearms Owners (COLFO) has pointed out in many submissions & press releases over the past 14 months, the level of compliance for such serialisation requirements will be very low. It would be so low in fact that all this legislation would succeed in doing is destruction of property and turning ordinary law-abiding NZers into criminals.
Even if all this data was collected, would it be secure?
Not really. Police have accessed various databases for personal gain, for stalking and for the paying criminal.
On 2nd December 2019, a well-publicised breach of the firearms buy-back & amnesty database resulted in private data being open to access for a period. Private data revealed included 37,125 individuals’ names, addresses, dates of birth, contact phone numbers, bank account information, firearms licence numbers and the types of firearms turned in.
In August 2019, more than 300 people had their private details compromised, who had applied to be part of the Tuia 250 sailings around the New Zealand coast. Leaked documents included 228 passports, 55 driver licences and 36 birth certificates, firearms licence information as well as other information such as secondary school IDs and residential visas.
In December 2019, a corrupt police officer who admitted illegally accessing the NZ police National Intelligence Application database to leak information to an organised criminal group, was sentenced & imprisoned
(https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/crime/117976366/corrupt-auckland-cop-who-sold-police-database-information-to-gangs-jailed). The police NIA system stores the personal information and criminal histories of about 40 per cent of NZers, including those who hold firearms licences.
If there is one, there will be more. These compromised individuals have now been placed at heightened risk for years to come.
by Victoria O'Brien, NC Firearms Spokesperson