Week in politics: Politicians seize the moment with gun law reform

2:22 pm on 5 April 2019

By Peter Wilson*

Analysis - There's huge momentum behind the government's decision to change gun laws and nothing is going to stop Parliament pushing the legislation through.

At the select committee hearing on the proposed new gun laws were (clockwise from top left: Federation of Islamic Associations of NZ president Mustafa Farouk; Gun City owner David Tipple; select committe chair Michael Wood and National MP Judith Collins.

At the select committee hearing on the proposed new gun laws were (clockwise from top left: Federation of Islamic Associations of NZ president Mustafa Farouk; Gun City owner David Tipple; select committe chair Michael Wood and National MP Judith Collins. Photo: Ana Tovey / RNZ

Most bills take at least six months to go through Parliament and some take years. The bill that will ban military-style semi-automatic weapons was introduced on Monday and will be in law on Friday next week.

There's huge public and parliamentary momentum behind it after the 15 March mosque shootings that left 50 Muslims dead, shocking the nation and the world.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had the political will to ban the weapons and the government wants the law change in place before time starts to heal the horror of what happened.

On Tuesday, only one of Parliament's 120 MPs voted against the bill, ACT's David Seymour. He opposed it not because of what it does but because of how quickly it is being processed.

Labour, National, New Zealand First and the Greens strongly support the bill. They have sensed the public mood and seized the moment.

Police Minister Stuart Nash, in charge of the bill, told Parliament during the first reading debate the Christchurch massacre had shown up serious flaws in current law.

"The most critical weakness in our firearms law is that too many people have legal access to too many semi-automatic firearms capable of causing significant harm," he said.

"It is important to reiterate the legislation is not directed at law-abiding firearms owners who have legitimate uses for their guns. Our actions, instead, are directed at making sure March 15 never happens again."

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Police Minister Stuart Nash. Photo: RNZ / Ana Tovey

The bill also bans high-capacity magazines, and any parts that can be used to turn weapons into semi-automatics.

National's Chris Bishop, the party's police spokesman, said the public wanted action, and Parliament had heard the call.

The speed with which the bill is moving appeared to surprise the Council of Licenced Firearms Owners, although it should have known, immediately after the attack, that a rapid response was inevitable.

The lobby has successfully stalled proposed law reform in the past. It won't succeed this time.

Its initial reaction was that there wasn't enough time for public consultation. That has been its complaint in the past, when it was seen as a delaying tactic. This time it has a point, but there isn't going to be any delays with this bill.

Another complaint, that the legislation would make criminals of 250,000 licenced gun owners, was treated with the contempt it deserved.

Mr Nash described it as "disingenuous scaremongering" and said the vast majority of gun owners would not be affected at all because they didn't own military-style semi-automatic rifles.

After the bill had passed its first reading it was handed to Parliament's largest and strongest select committee, finance and expenditure.

It gave one day for oral submissions and set 6pm Thursday as the deadline for written submissions.

That's very tight, but the timeline was approved unanimously by Parliament which gives it unquestionable authority.

Putting it on such a fast track by consensus could have been thwarted by a single objection - which would have come from Mr Seymour if he hadn't been talking to the media outside the debating chamber when it was put to Parliament.

If he had stopped it, the government would have achieved the same result by putting Parliament into urgency but that is a tiresome procedural business.

During the debate several MPs voiced their outrage at the attitude of the Mongrel Mobs' Waikato president Sonny Fatu, who said members wouldn't hand in their guns under the amnesty that lasts until the end of September.

He admitted many of the gang's estimated 1000 associates held illegal firearms and said they needed them for their own protection.

Mr Nash said he took this intention to flout the law "very, very seriously" and opposition MPs joined him.

National's Judith Collins said a 2017 parliamentary inquiry recommended firearms prohibition notices, which would allow police to go into gang houses and seize firearms, whether or not they were certain they were there.

Judith Collins.

Judith Collins has been calling for stronger action against gangs with guns amid the Arms Amendment Bill. Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

"The best way forward is to give the police the powers, give them the firepower, to do it and get on and take them," she said.

She hoped this could be done when the government draws up phase two of its gun law reforms.

Her colleague Mark Mitchell, a former police officer, said he fully supported taking the strongest possible line against gangs.

"I had a lot to do with gangs during my 14 years in law enforcement," he said.

"There is nothing good about gangs. There is no upside to being a member of a gang. There is no upside for our communities in which gangs operate."

Mr Mitchell said a gang patch sent a message - "the fact that they've been prepared to commit violent crime to earn the right to wear that patch".

He too hoped legislation would be developed "to give the police the powers they need to really go after these guys".

Mr Bishop wrote to Mr Nash asking for firearms prohibition notices to be added to the bill, but the prime minister and the police minister turned that down.

According to Stuff, they said the notices could fall under measures to be discussed for the second tranche of gun law legislation.

Will the gangs hand in their guns, and what will happen if they don't? That could be a serious problem to handle not far down the track.

*Peter Wilson is a life member of Parliament's press gallery, 22 years as NZPA's political editor and seven as parliamentary bureau chief for NZ Newswire.

Chris Cahill from NZ Police Association showed MPs a photograph of 74 uzis at the Finance and Expenditure Select Committee.

Chris Cahill from NZ Police Association showed MPs a photograph of 74 uzis at the Finance and Expenditure Select Committee. Photo: RNZ / ANA TOVEY

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