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The New Zealand Police operate a firearms licensing system, but only certain classes of weapons are registered, namely handguns, military style semiautomatics, and restricted weapons. In order to possess these types of weapons license holders must also obtain license endorsements, which can be granted in limited circumstances.  Permits to procure such weapons must also be obtained.  The licensing system includes background and reference checks, as well as safety training and a written test.  The Police inspect and approve firearm storage before issuing licenses and endorsements.  Law changes in 1992 aimed at further restricting access to firearms included stricter firearm storage requirements, prohibiting the sale of ammunition to non-licensed persons, and new processes relating to mail order purchases of firearms and ammunition.

There are estimated to be about 1.1 million firearms in New Zealand—about one for every four people.  The rate of deaths involving firearms has decreased in the past twenty years, including those resulting from assault, suicide, and accidents. The authors of one study suggested that the 1992 law changes contributed to a “detectable reduction in firearm suicides.”  Another study concluded that New Zealand has seen “the most pronounced decline in firearm homicide over the past two decades” compared to Australia and Canada.

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In New Zealand, the licensing of gun owners and restrictions on firearm sales are governed by the Arms Act 1983[1] and regulations made under that legislation: the Arms Regulations 1992[2] and the Arms (Restricted Weapons and Specially Dangerous Airguns) Order 1984.[3]  Several provisions in these instruments were recently amended by the Arms (Military Style Semi-automatic Firearms and Import Controls) Amendment Act 2012.[4]  The New Zealand Police (the Police) is the body responsible for administering firearms legislation.  There is no right to own or possess firearms under New Zealand law, including for the purposes of self-defense.

The current legal regime for firearms can be characterized as a “licensing but no registration” system since the majority of firearms in the country do not need to be registered.  A range of amendments aimed at further restricting access to firearms were introduced in 1992 following a massacre in which thirteen people were killed by a licensed gunman carrying semiautomatic firearms. 

This report provides an overview of the history of firearms control legislation in New Zealand, sets out details about the licensing and registration systems, and discusses firearms dealing and importation restrictions.  The final section of this report provides statistical information relating to firearm ownership and the number of deaths involving firearms.

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History of Firearms Control Laws in New Zealand

           Early Laws

Early firearms control laws in the mid-1800s in New Zealand were primarily aimed at preventing the acquisition of firearms by Māori.[5]  The legislation included import restrictions as well as a rudimentary system of registration and licensing that was targeted at arms dealers.  However, once the threat of armed conflict between Māori and the colonial government receded, the legislation became largely a “dead letter” by the turn of the century, and settlers could readily acquire firearms without registering them.[6]  Another law was passed in 1908 that consolidated earlier legislation, by which time, in the predominantly rural society, “firearms were familiar and useful tools, which might be needed to protect the far-flung bounds of Empire, but did not pose a social problem calling for active control.”[7]

Labor unrest prior to World War I led to the Police seeking greater controls for firearms, with limited success.[8]  After World War I, the Police continued to push for statutory controls, particularly of handguns, which were being brought back to the country in large numbers by soldiers.  In addition, political concerns regarding socialist revolutionary ideas likely contributed to the enactment of the more detailed Arms Act 1920, which included a system of permits to procure firearms and an obligation to register individual weapons.  The Act also declared automatic pistols to be unlawful and required a license to possess other handguns, which could only be carried with a permit and for a “proper and sufficient purpose.”[9]  Later, in the 1930s, pressure from farmers and sporting shooters led to some relaxing of the registration requirements for shotguns.[10]

The challenges and costs of maintaining an accurate and complete arms register were highlighted during the 1960s when increasing gun crime led the Police to try to make more frequent use of the register, resulting in the identification of widespread issues.[11]  Following various reviews and discussions, the Police also determined in the 1970s that “a closer control of users was desirable to try to reduce access to firearms by unsuitable persons.”[12]  Although the Police did identify that the registration of firearms provided “an invaluable investigative aid,” the agency saw the validation of existing records as an enormous and expensive task that would detract from other work.[13]  The approach of focusing more on tighter screening of firearms license applicants rather than on registering firearms, a reversal of the approach that previously existed, gained political support and was formalized in the Arms Act 1983.[14]

           1983 Legislation

The original Arms Act 1983 provided for lifetime licenses that could be issued to persons over 16 years of age who were considered by police to be “fit and proper” to be in possession of a firearm.  A firearms license allowed the holder to own as many firearms as he or she wished, including pistols and restricted weapons where the person obtained a special license endorsement to possess such weapons.  There was no requirement for the registration of most weapons, apart from pistols and restricted weapons, for which an acquisition permit was also required.[15]

           1992 Amendments

While a number of features of the original 1983 legislation continue to apply today, the laws were amended in 1992 following the 1990 Aramoana massacre in which a thirty-three-year-old licensed gunman killed thirteen people using two “military-style semiautomatic” (MSSA) firearms before being shot dead by police.[16]  The 1992 amendments and associated regulations included new restrictions on MSSAs, introducing a requirement to obtain a license endorsement to possess such firearms along with permits to procure them, similar to the existing requirements for handguns and other “restricted weapons.”  However, “[a] total ban on MSSAs was rejected in the face of opposition from user groups and the estimated cost of such a measure in terms of providing adequate compensation to current owners.”[17]

The 1992 amendment bill and accompanying regulations also required firearms licenses to be renewed every ten years; provided that ammunition sales only be made to firearms license holders; introduced a written permit system for mail order guns and ammunition; added tighter storage requirements along with inspections; and gave police powers to seize weapons in cases of domestic violence.[18]

           1997 Report and Subsequent Actions

Following the 1992 changes, and after two shootings by police officers in 1995, the government ordered an examination of internal police procedures for storing and using firearms.[19]  The government also sought an independent review of firearms legislation, which subsequently took place in the context of gun massacres in Australia and the United Kingdom in 1996.  The resulting 1997 report (the Thorp Report) recommended “radical reform of firearms laws,”[20] including restricting the number of handguns that a licensee can hold; banning all MSSAs; limiting magazine capacity for other semiautomatics; disqualifying persons convicted of certain offenses from holding a firearms license for a set period; and permitting the voluntary disclosure of relevant mental health information by health professionals.[21]

Many of the recommended changes in the 1997 report, including a return to a full firearms registry, were included in a bill that was introduced in 1999.  However, due to intensive opposition during the parliamentary process, this bill did not advance.[22]  A pared-down bill was later introduced in 2005, which was primarily aimed at enabling New Zealand to comply with the minimum legislative requirements of the Protocol against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Their Parts and Components and Ammunition (supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organised Crime).[23]  This bill also has not advanced.[24

           2012 Amendments and Current Discussions

Amendments were passed in 2012 following a 2010 High Court finding against a Police interpretation of the definition of MSSAs that reclassified particular weapons as MSSAs.[25]  The High Court decision created uncertainty about whether some semiautomatic firearms were MSSAs or not, particularly regarding an exclusion for firearms having a “sporting configuration,” which included firearms that did not have certain features such as “a military pattern free-standing pistol grip.”[26]  The amendments covered four main areas: a clearer and more adaptable definition of MSSAs; an extension of regulation-making powers so that the Police can declare a firearm or type of firearm to be an MSSA; a right of appeal to enable firearms owners to challenge a classification of a firearm as an MSSA; and restrictions on the importation of airguns that have the appearance of being pistols, restricted weapons, or MSSAs.[27]

During the select committee process for the 2012 amendments, and in the Police annual report for that year, the Police indicated that it was considering the establishment of an advisory group “to improve communications between Police and the firearms community.”[28]  The annual report also stated that a review of the Arms Act 1983 is being conducted by the Police “to identify other amendments that could help to address operational issues that have emerged since the Act was last significantly amended in 1992.”[29]

New Zealand is one of a small number of countries in which police officers do not routinely carry firearms.[30]  The debate about arming officers reignites from time to time following incidents in which police officers are killed or injured, including most recently in December 2012.[31]  The current Police Commissioner has stated that, while he supports providing greater access to Tasers and firearms, including by having gun safes in more police vehicles, he does not support police officers routinely carrying firearms while on standard patrol.[32]  In September 2012 he stated his belief that “routine arming of New Zealand Police would radically alter the relationship between police and public, without making the policing environment safer.”[33]

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Current Firearm Control Laws

           Licensing System

All persons in possession of a firearm must hold a license in accordance with the Arms Act 1983.[34]  Unlicensed persons may, however, be in possession of a firearm or ammunition if they are under the immediate supervision of a license holder.[35]  General rules relating to firearms licenses include the following:

  • Firearms license applicants are required to provide a photo, which is displayed on the license;[36]
  • License holders are required to produce their license when required to do so by a member of the Police;[37
  • Persons in possession of a firearm must give their full name, address, and date of birth if requested by a member of the Police;[38]
  • License holders are required to notify the Police of a change of address (Persons holding an endorsement as described below must also inform the Police of the arrangements made for safe custody of the firearm during the shift to the new address);[39] and
  • A person must notify the Police if any firearm is lost or stolen.[40]

The Arms Act and associated regulations are silent regarding the ownership or possession of firearms for the purposes of self-defense.  However, the Arms Code (a firearms safety manual and guidance document produced by the Police and the New Zealand Mountain Safety Council (NZMSC) and provided to license applicants) states the following:

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-defence.

Citizens are justified in using force in self-defence in certain situations. The force that is justified will depend on the circumstances of the particular case. Every person is criminally responsible for any excessive use of force against another person.

A firearm is a lethal weapon. To justify the discharge of a firearm at another person the user must hold a honest belief that they or someone else is at imminent threat of death or grievous bodily harm.[41]

Standard License

A standard firearms license allows the holder to obtain any number of sporting-type rifles and shotguns (referred to as “A category” firearms).[42]  Any person over the age of 16 years may submit an applicationfor a firearms license to the Police.[43]  People aged 16 and 17 years must also hold a license in order to possess an airgun.[44]  A member of the Police (Arms Officer) may issue a license if he or she is satisfied that the applicant is a “fit and proper person to be in possession of a firearm or airgun.”[45]

Firearms licenses expire after ten years and can be renewed prior to their expiration.[46]  A firearms license may be revoked if an Arms Officer considers that the holder is not a fit and proper person to be in possession of a firearm.[47]  A license can also be revoked if an officer considers that it is “reasonably likely” that a firearm in the license holder’s possession could be obtained by someone that is not a fit and proper person to possess a firearm.[48]  Amendments to the legislation as a result of the Domestic Violence Act 1995 also provide for refusal or revocation of a license where the Police are satisfied that there are grounds for making an application for a protection order, or where such an order is in force.[49]

In applying for a license, a person must supply various details, including whether he or she has been convicted of any offense or been refused a firearms license, whether in New Zealand or any country, and the name and address of two referees (references): one a near relative of the applicant, and the other a person “of whom inquiries can be made about whether the applicant is a fit and proper person to be in possession of a firearm.”[50]

The Arms Code states:

               People who have

  • history of violence or
  • repeated involvement with drugs or
  • been irresponsible with alcohol or
  • a personal or social relationship with people who may be deemed to be unsuitable to obtain access to firearms or
  • indicates [sic] an intent to use firearms for self defence

             may find it difficult to satisfy the Police that they are fit and proper to have a firearm.[51]

While there are no provisions that deal directly with psychiatric assessments of firearms license applicants, a history of mental illness may also provide reason for the Police to refuse or revoke a license on the grounds that the person is not fit and proper to possess a firearm.[52]

There is no set waiting period to obtain a firearms license.  The Police set performance standards for various services and activities, with the target standard for firearm licensing in the 2011/2012 fiscal year being 90% of licenses issued within thirty days of receipt of the application.  The reports for the last two years show that the average period is considerably longer, being 104 days in 2010/2011 and 120 days in 2011/2012.[53]  During 2011/2012, the Police also revoked 599 firearms licenses from persons deemed no longer fit and proper to hold a firearms license.  An additional seventy-nine licenses were revoked in response to actions under the Domestic Violence Act 1995.[54]

Pistols and Restricted Weapon Endorsements

A person must apply to the Police for a license endorsement if they wish to possess a pistol or “restricted weapon.”[55]  An Arms Officer can make the endorsement if he or she is satisfied that the applicant “is a fit and proper person to be in possession of the pistol or restricted weapon to which the application relates.”[56]

A pistol is defined as “any firearm that is designed or adapted to be held and fired with 1 hand; and includes any firearm that is less than 762 millimetres [30 inches] in length.”[57]  “Restricted weapon” refers to any weapon, firearm or not, which is declared to be a restricted weapon by way of a government order.[58]  Once a weapon is declared to be a restricted weapon, a person in possession of such a weapon or its parts must dispose of them or obtain a license endorsement within one month of the notification being published.  Compensation can be paid if the items are surrendered to the Police.[59]

The Arms (Restricted Weapons and Specially Dangerous Airguns) Order 1984 provides a list of restricted weapons in a schedule.  The list includes anti-tank projectors; grenade launchers; incendiary grenades; mines; rocket launchers; devices designed for the purpose of discharging toxic gas or smoke; and “machine carbines or guns, submachine carbines or guns, and machine pistols, of any kind whatsoever, including those operated by gas or compressed air and including all other firearms capable of full automatic fire.”[60]

License endorsements with respect to pistols and restricted weapons can be obtained in limited circumstances, including where the applicant is a member of a pistol shooting club recognized by the Commissioner of Police (known as a “B” endorsement[61]; or is a “bona fide collector of firearms,” or an approved employee or member of a broadcasting body, theater company, or cinematic or television production company, or a person to whom the weapon has special significance as an heirloom or memento (known as a “C” endorsement[62]); or a licensed dealer (or an agent or employee of a licensed dealer) (known as an “F” endorsement[63]).[64]

Endorsements with respect to pistols are subject to conditions that the license holder “may use the pistol only for target pistol shooting on a pistol range approved by the Commissioner for the purpose,” and that they actively participate in the pistol shooting club by taking part in range activities on at least twelve days each year.[65]  Where an endorsement with respect to pistols or restricted weapons is granted to other categories of person described above, the endorsement is subject to a condition that no live ammunition be used under any circumstances.[66]

MSSA Endorsements

As noted above, the definition of an MSSA firearm in the Arms Act 1983 was amended in 2012.  It is now expressed in the positive rather than the negative, is more detailed, and provides for greater flexibility.  The definition states that an MSSA is

(a)     a semi-automatic firearm having 1 or more of the following features:
     (i)      a folding or telescopic butt:
     (ii)     a magazine designed to hold 0.22-inch rimfire cartridges that—
          (A)    is capable of holding more than 15 cartridges; or
          (B)    is detachable, and by its appearance indicates that it is capable of holding more than 15 cartridges:
     (iii)      a magazine (other than one designed to hold 0.22-inch rimfire cartridges) that—
          (A)    is capable of holding more than 7 cartridges; or

          (B)    is detachable, and by its appearance indicates that it is capable of holding more than 10 cartridges:

     (iv)    bayonet lugs:
     (v)     a flash suppressor:
     (vi)      a component of a kind defined or described by an order under section 74A as a pistol grip for the purposes of this definition; or

(b)      a semi-automatic firearm of a make and model declared by an order under section 74A to be a military style semi-automatic firearm for the purposes of this Act; or

(c)      a semi-automatic firearm of a description declared by an order under section 74A to be a military style semi-automatic firearm for the purposes of this Act; or

(d)      a semi-automatic firearm that has a feature of a kind defined or described in an order under section 74A as a feature of military style semi-automatic firearms for the purposes of this Act.[67]

An applicant for an MSSA license endorsement (known as an “E” endorsement[68] must be over the age of eighteen years and must satisfy the Police that he or she is a “fit and proper person to be in possession of the military style semi-automatic firearm to which that application relates.”[69]

           Safety Training and Testing

The Arms Regulations 1992 require that all firearms license applicants undergo a firearms safety course conducted by a member of the Police or other approved person.[70]  The NZMSC’s Firearm Safety section is currently the sole organization authorized to deliver firearms safety training, with individual volunteer instructors approved by the Police.[71]  The NZMSC also administers the Firearm Safety Test; a written test that must be passed to obtain a firearms license under the regulations.[72]  The test is based on the contents and safety rules of the Arms Code and involves multiple choice questions.  There is no fee for either the training or the test, and people can attend even if they are not applying for a license.[73

           Security Requirements

Standard Rules

The Arms Regulations 1992 set out conditions relating to safety precautions that apply to all licenses.  These conditions require that license holders[74]

  • not put a firearm in such a place that a young child has ready access to it;
  • take reasonable steps to ensure that ammunition is not stored “in such a way that a person who obtains access to the firearm also obtains access to the ammunition,” or, where ammunition is stored with the firearm, ensure that the firearm is not capable of being discharged;
  • take “reasonable steps” to ensure that firearms are secured against theft, which includes using a lockable cabinet, container, or stout receptacle; or a lockable steel and concrete storeroom; or a display rack in which firearms may be immobilized and locked so that none can be fired; and
  • ensure that no firearm in the holder’s possession is left in an unattended vehicle.

The Arms Code states that the Police will ensure that an applicant can provide safe storage prior to granting a firearms license.[75]

The legislation provides that it is an offense, subject to a fine of up to NZ$5,000 (about US$4,200) and/or imprisonment of up to four years, to carry or be in possession of any firearm, airgun, pistol, restricted weapon or explosive “except for some lawful, proper, and sufficient purpose.”[76]  Carrying or possessing firearms or ammunition in a public place without a lawful purpose carries the same penalties.[77]  A similar provision, with a lesser penalty, applies with respect to carrying an imitation firearm.[78]  It is also an offense to carry a loaded firearm in a motor vehicle.[79]

             Pistols, Restricted Weapons, and MSSAs

The Arms Regulations 1992 contain additional security requirements in relation to pistols, restricted weapons, and MSSAs.[80]  The regulations allow the Police to inspect any pistol, restricted weapon, or MSSA “and the place where it is kept.”[81]  Persons entitled to possess such weapons must keep them in either[82]

  • a steel and concrete strong room “of sound construction” and of a type approved (either generally or in the particular case) by a member of the Police;
  • a room “of stout and secure construction capable of being secured against unlawful entry” that meets certain specified requirements; or
  • a locked steel case, box, or cabinet of a type approved by a member of the Police that is bolted or securely fixed within a building (again in a manner approved by a member of the Police). 

Where the weapon is stored in a steel case, box, or cabinet, ammunition must be stored separately.[83

In addition, all endorsements with respect to restricted weapons include a condition that the holder of the license “ensures that every restricted weapon in his possession is both rendered inoperable by the removal of a vital part and maintained, by reason of the removal of a vital part, in an inoperable condition.”[84]  It is also an offense for a person to carry a pistol or restricted weapon outside of the boundary of his or her property other than in accordance with the conditions endorsed on his or her license.[85]

           Permits to Procure and Registration of Pistols, Restricted Weapons, and MSSAs

In addition to requiring an additional endorsement to possess a pistol, restricted weapon, or MSSA, a permit to purchase such a weapon must be obtained from the Police.  These acquisition permits expire after one month.[86]  A person who sells or supplies these firearms to someone that does not have a permit to procure the weapon is liable on conviction to a fine of up to NZ$4,000 (about US$3,350) and/or a term of imprisonment up to three years.[87]

An application for a permit to procure a pistol, restricted weapon, or MSSA must include various details, including a description of the weapon to be procured, its location, and the full name of the current owner.[88]  Once a permit has been issued the holder must deliver it to the seller, who must write various details on the permit, including a description of the firearm and the number of his or her firearms license.  The purchaser must then return the permit to the relevant Police office and produce the firearm for inspection.[89]  All pistols, restricted weapons, and MSSAs are required to have a serial number or other number by which it can be identified.[90]

Although license holders are not required to report “A” category firearms to the Police, the Arms Code contains a recommendation that people record the make, model, and serial number of all firearms, and states that the Police can record the information in their database if requested.[91]

           Dealer Licenses and Record Keeping

A dealer’s license (known as a “D” license) can be issued where the Police consider the applicant to be a fit and proper person to carry on a business as a dealer or manufacturer of firearms.[92]  A dealer’s license is personal to the holder and cannot be transferred;[93] therefore, all employees or agents of a dealer must also hold a license.[94]  Dealer licenses must be renewed annually[95] and can be revoked at any time by the Commissioner of Police.[96]

A dealer’s license applies to one place of business only.[97]  However, a special license of up to five days’ duration can be granted to dealers for the purposes of a gun show at another location.[98]  A firearms dealer cannot take possession of a pistol or restricted weapon unless he or she obtains an import permit or permit to procure.[99]

The Arms Act 1983 requires that dealers comply with regulations regarding record keeping, and must permit any member of the Police to inspect and make copies of any records.[100]  Records must be kept of the details of each item received, manufactured, and sold, with each entry required to be made “at or immediately following the time of the transaction to which it relates” and every book kept for at least five years after the date of the last entry.[101]

It is an offense to sell or supply a firearm or airgun,[102] or ammunition,[103] to an unlicensed person.  Furthermore, in order to sell firearms or ammunition through mail order, the seller must obtain a written order that has an endorsement from a member of the Police stating that the purchaser’s firearms license has been inspected.[104

It is also an offense to import any firearm, pistol, MSSA, restricted weapon, or restricted airguns,[105] or any parts of such weapons, without first obtaining a permit from the Police.[106] Various details must be included in the permit application under the regulations.[107]  Permits expire twelve months after they are issued[108] and can be revoked at any time.[109] The Police have broad discretion to refuse to grant such permits[110] and can require the importer to produce samples for testing.[111]  Furthermore, in order to grant a permit to import a pistol, MSSA, restricted weapon, or restricted airgun,[112] or any parts, the Commissioner of Police must be satisfied that there are “special reasons” why the weapon to which the application relates should be allowed into New Zealand.[113]  When these types of weapons are imported, the importer must ensure that each bear a serial number by which they can be identified[114] and must provide a written notice to the Police that includes this number.[115]

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Statistical Information

            Number of License Holders and Firearms

Because sporting-type rifles and shotguns are not formally registered, the total number of such firearms can only be estimated broadly.[116]  Estimates for the total number of firearms in New Zealand have remained relatively steady since the mid-1990s.  For example, in the context of the 1997 Thorp Report, it was estimated that, as of 1996 (when the population was about 4.17 million people[117], there were between 700,000 and 1 million firearms in New Zealand, including 6,919 registered MSSAs.[118]  The total figure included an estimated 10,000 to 25,000 illegal guns.[119] The report stated that about 3% of the country’s firearms were handguns,[120] with handguns, restricted weapons, and MSSAs therefore making up a total of “no more than 4 percent of the total armoury.”[121]

The 1997 Thorp Report also noted the difficulty of calculating the number of license holders at that time, about four years after the start of the implementation of the 1992 amendments, which saw lifetime license holders needing to reapply for a ten-year license.[122]  The report estimated that, given various available information, there would be about 206,000 license holders by 1999.[123]  Thorp also noted that a draft United Nations report included the figures of 1.1 million firearms and 250,000 license holders for New Zealand, which he suggested should only be used as a “guide, to be considered along with any other information available.”[24]

About ten years later, in 2006, the Police reported to Parliament that there were at that time 227,704 firearms license holders and about 1.1 million firearms in New Zealand, including about 8,500 registered MSSAs as well as nine anti-tank projectors and sixteen grenade launchers.[125]  The Police spokesman stated that many of the larger firearms would likely be collectors’ pieces or have nonexplosive shells.  He also said that there was an active policy not to increase the number of MSSAs and that “[t]he people that are in possession of them are subject to rigorous vetting and their security must be of a higher standard.  Very few new people get these licenses.”[126]

The following year, in 2007, the Small Arms Survey research project estimated that there were approximately 850,000 to 1 million firearms in civilian ownership in New Zealand, with an average ownership rate of 22.6 firearms per 100 people (the twenty-second highest rate of the countries surveyed).[127]

The most recent information located is from May 2010, when the Police provided a breakdown of firearm numbers and license holders to the website.[128]  The statement records that at that time there were about 223,000 holders of a current firearms license, with this number fluctuating daily.  Of these people, 3,477 held B endorsements (target pistol shooters); 3,689 held C endorsements (pistols and/or restricted weapons as a collector, heirloom, museum curator, or for theatrical performances); and 5,171 held E endorsements (MSSAs).  There were also 457 dealers’ licenses.[129]  The population of New Zealand at the end of 2010 was about 4.39 million people.[130]

In terms of firearm numbers, the 2010 information reported that there were about 36,000 pistols and 7,800 MSSAs in the possession of endorsement holders.[131]  The increase in MSSAs compared to the figures in the 1997 Thorp Report were reported to be primarily due to the change of understanding of what constituted a “military pattern free standing pistol grip” during 2009 and early 2010.[132

In November 2012, it was reported that “[h]undreds of illegal firearms are being seized each year in police raids.”[133]  According to a National Strategic Assessment paper obtained by the news media, “[r]esearch indicates there is already a large pool of illegally held firearms in New Zealand and that firearms of almost any type can be obtained relatively easily from within the criminal fraternity without needing to source illicit firearms from overseas.”[134]

           Firearm Deaths

There are various sources of information available regarding firearm deaths in New Zealand, including annual crime statistics produced by the Police and Statistics New Zealand, the National Injury Query System operated by the Injury Prevention Research Unit at Otago University,[135] and international studies. Analysis of the data from these sources may produce slightly different results due to differences in definitions and counting methods.  The following sample of the available data and analysis is provided for information purposes and is not intended to be exhaustive.


Using the National Injury Query System, a search for fatalities resulting from assaults involving firearms between 1988 and 2009 shows that the crude rate was 0.5 per 100,000 people in 1988 (a total of eighteen deaths), increasing to 0.7 in 1990 (twenty-four deaths, including thirteen people killed in the Aramoana shooting massacre).  During the 1990s the rate ranged from 0.5 per 100,000 people in 1994 (seventeen deaths, including five members of the Bain family killed in a shooting massacre) down to less than 0.1 in 1998 (four deaths).  Throughout the 2000s the rate was between 0.1 and 0.2 per 100,000 people, up until 2009 when the crude rate was 0.3 (twelve deaths).[136]

The results for deaths resulting from assaults involving all external causes also show some fluctuations in the rates over the period between 1988 and 2009 (e.g., 1.7 per 100,000 people in 1988, 2.3 in 1992, 1.3 in 1995 and 1999, 1.2 in 2004 and 2008, and 2.0 in 2009).[137]  However, comparing the two sets of data shows that the percentage of assault deaths involving firearms dropped from 31% in 1988 to 14% in 2009.

Using the most recent crime statistics published by Statistics New Zealand to calculate the percentage of recorded murders involving firearms compared to total recorded murders produces the following results for the period from 1994 to 2011:[138]

  • 1994: 16 (27.6%)
  • 1995: 9 (23.1%)
  • 1996: 9 (18.8%)
  • 1997: 13 (21.7%)
  • 1998: 4 (8.2%)
  • 1999: 5 (11.1%)
  • 2000: 7 (13.5%)
  • 2001: 6 (11.8%)
  • 2002: 10 (16.7%)
  • 2003: 7 (15.9%)
  • 2004: 4 (8.9%)
  • 2005: 9 (14.8%)
  • 2006: 9 (18.4%)
  • 2007: 5 (10.4%)
  • 2008: 7 (13.5%)
  • 2009: 11 (16.9%)
  • 2010: 7 (15.2%)
  • 2011: 3 (7.7%)

The Police reported to Parliament in 2006 that firearms were involved in less than 1.3% of all violent offending in the previous year.[139]  In 2011, the crime statistics released by the Police and Statistics New Zealand showed that New Zealand’s murder rate was the lowest in twenty-five years.[140]

A 2011 study that compared long-term firearm homicide trends in “three countries with similar social histories but different legislative regimes: Australia, Canada, and New Zealand,” concluded that “the most pronounced decline in firearm homicide over the past two decades occurred in New Zealand.”[141]

Accidental/Unintentional Deaths

A search for unintentional deaths involving firearms using the National Injury Query System shows that there were eighteen such deaths in 1988, a crude rate of 0.5 per 100,000 people.  In 1992 the rate was 0.3, and since that time the rate has been below 0.1 in most years, ranging from zero deaths in this category in 1997 to seven in 2003 (a rate of 0.2).  In 2009, there were four unintentional deaths involving firearms, a rate of less than 0.1.[142]  Comparing these results to the results for unintentional deaths involving all external causes[143] shows that about 1% of such deaths involved firearms in 1988.  In 2009, this figure was just 0.3%.

Suicide/Self-inflicted Deaths

The results of the National Injury Query System search for self-inflicted deaths involving firearms between 1988 and 2009 shows that there were much higher rates of such deaths compared to those resulting from assaults or accidents involving firearms.  However, the numbers reduced significantly over that period.

In 1988 there were 102 self-inflicted deaths involving firearms; a crude rate of 3.0 per 100,000 people.  The rate dropped to around 2.0 per 100,000 people during the first half of the 1990s, and by the 2000s had reduced further to being between 0.9 (thirty-six deaths in 2000) and 1.3 (fifty-one deaths in 2001).  In 2009, the rate was 1.2, reflecting fifty-three deaths.[144]  When compared to the results for self-inflicted deaths involving all external causes,[145] the results show that about 21% of self-inflicted deaths involved firearms in 1988.  In 2009, this same figure was about 10.4%.

A study by staff of the Canterbury Suicide Project published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry in 2006 analyzed the possible impact of the 1992 amendments to the firearm laws on firearm-related suicide in New Zealand.  The study covered an eighteen-year period from 1985 to 2002.  The authors stated that the figures “clearly suggest that the introduction of the 1992 firearms legislation led to a detectable reduction in firearm suicides.”[146]  The trends were most marked for youth suicide, with the authors calculating that the figures for fifteen to twenty-four years olds implied that, “when compared with the pre-legislation period, rates of firearm suicide were reduced by 39% in the implementation period [1993-1996] and by 66% in the post-implementation period [1997-2002].”[147]

In its advice on the Arms (Military Style Semi-Automatic Firearms and Import Controls) Amendment Bill, the Police discussed the impact of the new requirements relating to firearm storage and security under the Arms Regulations 1992.  The agency referred to the above findings and further stated that “[d]espite firearms leaking to the criminal community the misuse of firearms continues to decline as a percentage of all violent crime, and across the board is either steady or reducing. The number of incidents remains relatively static. Non-intentional death and injury in the home has decreased to single figures.”[148]

2019 Updates


Prepared by Kelly Buchanan
Chief, Foreign, Comparative, and
International Law Division I
February 2013


  1. Arms Act 1983, [Back to Text]
  2. Arms Regulations 1992, DLM168889.html. [Back to Text]
  3. Arms (Restricted Weapons and Specially Dangerous Airguns) Order 1984, http://www.legislation. [Back to Text]
  4. Arms (Military Style Semi-automatic Firearms and Import Controls) Amendment Act 2012, [Back to Text]
  5. T.M. Thorp, Review of Firearms Control in New Zealand: Report of an Independent Inquiry Commissioned by the Minister of Police 9 (1997), [Back to Text]
  6. 10.  See Arms Act 1860 (24 Victoriae 1860 No 38), aa186024v1860n38188/. [Back to Text]
  7. Thorp, supra note 5, at 10. [Back to Text]
  8. Id. [Back to Text]
  9. Id.; Arms Act 1920 (11 GEO V 1920 No 14), 14140/aa192011gv1920n14140.html. [Back to Text]
  10. Thorp, supra note 5, at 11. [Back to Text]
  11. 13. [Back to Text]
  12. 14. [Back to Text]
  13. 15–16. [Back to Text]
  14. 16. [Back to Text]
  15. 16–18. [Back to Text]
  16. See id. at 19–20. [Back to Text]
  17. Id. at 20. [Back to Text]
  18. 21–22; Arms Amendment Act 1992, /0095/latest/DLM278351.html. [Back to Text]
  19. Thorp, supra note 5, at 2. [Back to Text]
  20. 237. [Back to Text]
  21. 238–47 (Appendix 1: Recommendations).  For an analysis of the Thorp Report, see Greg Newbold, The 1997 Review of Firearms Control: An Appraisal, 11 Soc. Pol. J. of N.Z. (1998), about-msd-and-our-work/publications-resources/journals-and-magazines/social-policy-journal/spj11/1997-review-of-firearms-control-an-appraisal.html. [Back to Text]
  22. See Kerry Williamson, Why No Action on Guns?, (May 13, 2009),; Kerry Williamson, Registry Idea Shelved After Pro-Gun Lobbying, (May 16, 2009), [Back to Text]
  23. See New Zealand Parliamentary Library, Bills Digest No. 1228: Arms Amendment Bill (No 3) 2005, [Back to Text]
  24. See Arms Amendment Bill (No 3), New Zealand Parliament, (last visited Jan. 9, 2013); Arms Amendment Bill (No. 3): Report of the Law and Order Committee (Mar. 2012), SCR_5371_ArmsAmendmentBillNo32481_8853_5.pdf (recommending that the bill not proceed); Question for Written Answer 465 (2012), Hon. Phil Goff to the Minister of the Police (Feb. 15, 2012), (stating that the 2005 bill does not constitute the current Government’s policy). [Back to Text]
  25. Lincoln v. Police [2010] NZHC 183 (1 Mar. 2010), [Back to Text]
  26. See New Zealand Police, Arms (Military Style Semi-Automatic Firearms and Import Controls) Amendment Bill – Initial Briefing,  For information on the passage of the bill along with associated documents, see Arms (Military Style Semi-automatic Firearms and Import Controls) Amendment Bill, New Zealand Parliament, (last visited Jan. 9, 2013). [Back to Text]
  27. See Commentary, Arms (Military Style Semi-Automatic Firearms and Import Controls) Amendment Bill (2011), as Reported by the Law and Order Committee,; Arms (Military Style Semi-Automatic Firearms and Import Controls) Amendment Act 2012, s 12 (inserting new sections 74A and 74B).  Under the amendments, orders that declare specific semi-automatic firearms to be MSSAs must by confirmed by an Act of Parliament. (Footnote updated Oct. 2015) [Back to Text]
  28. New Zealand Police, Annual Report 2011–2012, at 22 (2012), sites/default/files/resources/annual/new-zealand-police-annual-report-12.pdfSee also Letter, Kevin Kelly to Jacqui Dean MP paras. 2–8 (July 22, 2011), [Back to Text]
  29. New Zealand Police, supra note 28. [Back to Text]
  30. See Peter Marshall, The Debate About Arming Police, New Zealand Police (July 14, 2010),; John Kelly, Why British Police Don’t Have Guns, BBC News Magazine (Sept. 18, 2012), [Back to Text]
  31. See, e.g., Michael Daly, Armed Police Calls ‘Scaremongering’, (Dec. 28, 2012),; Michael Daly & Jody O’Callaghan, No Move to Arm Police Despite Attacks, (Dec. 29, 2012), nz/national/crime/8127288/No-move-to-arm-police-despite-attacks; Editorial, Do Not Arm Police, The Press (Dec. 28, 2012),; Editorial, Attacks on Police Unacceptable, Otago Daily Times (Jan. 4, 2012), [Back to Text]
  32. See Peter Marshall, We’re Not About to Short-Change Staff, New Zealand Police (June 14, 2012), [Back to Text]
  33. Peter Marshall, A Question of Responsibility, New Zealand Police (Sept. 20, 2012), [Back to Text]
  34. See generally, Firearms Safety – Firearms Licence, New Zealand Police, service/firearms (last visited Jan. 9, 2013). [Back to Text]
  35. Arms Act 1983, ss 43(3) and 43B(3). [Back to Text]
  36. See id. s 34A; Arms Regulations 1992, reg. 30. [Back to Text]
  37. Arms Act 1983, s 26. [Back to Text]
  38. Id.s 40. [Back to Text]
  39. Id. s 34. [Back to Text]
  40. Id. s 39. [Back to Text]
  41. New Zealand Police, Arms Code 41 (Wellington, 2010), /services/firearms/NZP-Arms-Code-R3.pdfSee also Thorp, supra note 5, at 102-103 for a discussion of firearms and self-defense under New Zealand law. [Back to Text]
  42. Arms Code, supra note 41, at 42. [Back to Text]
  43. Arms Act 1983, s 23(1). [Back to Text]
  44. Arms Code, supra note 41, at 42. [Back to Text]
  45. Arms Act 1983, s 24(1)(b). [Back to Text]
  46. Id. s 25(1). [Back to Text]
  47. Id. s 27(1)(a). [Back to Text]
  48. Id.s 27(1)(b). [Back to Text]
  49. Id. s 27A. [Back to Text]
  50. Arms Regulations 1992, reg. 15(2). [Back to Text]
  51. Arms Code, supra note 41, at 40. [Back to Text]
  52. See, e.g., id. at 53 (recommending that license holders discuss with family or doctors any reasons, “including mental health problems,” that may mean they will be judged unfit to hold a firearms license); Thorp, supra note 5, at 166–76 (discussing the impact of mental illness on violence and options for reducing the risk of misuse of firearms by the mentally disordered), 252 (referring to a multiple shooting carried out by “a young man with a psychiatric history which had earlier resulted in the revocation of his firearms licence”), and 253 (referring to a shooting incident where the individual’s license and firearms had previously been removed “as a police officer believed Radcliffe not a fit and proper person by reason of his mental illness.”). [Back to Text]
  53. New Zealand Police, supra note 28, at 40. [Back to Text]
  54. Id. [Back to Text]
  55. See Arms Act 1983, s 50 (offense of unlawful possession of pistol, military style semiautomatic firearm, or restricted weapon). [Back to Text]
  56. Id. s 30. [Back to Text]
  57. Id. s 2. [Back to Text]
  58. Id.  The Governor-General may make such a declaration under section 4 of the Act. [Back to Text]
  59. Id. s 37. [Back to Text]
  60. Arms (Restricted Weapons and Specially Dangerous Airguns) Order 1984, sch. [Back to Text]
  61. Arms Code, supra note 41, at 43. [Back to Text]
  62. Id. [Back to Text]
  63. Id. at 44. [Back to Text]
  64. Arms Act 1983, s 29(2). [Back to Text]
  65. Arms Regulations 1992, reg. 22(1). [Back to Text]
  66. Id. reg. 22(2). [Back to Text]
  67. Arms Act 1983, s 2 (as amended by Arms (Military Style Semi-automatic Firearms and Import Controls) Amendment Act 2012, cl 4).  The previous definition of an MSSA firearm was “(a) a firearm which, after being loaded, fires, ejects, and chambers a cartridge with each pull of the trigger; but (b) does not include— (i) a pistol; or (ii) a semi-automatic firearm that, with its magazine (if any), is maintained at all times in a sporting configuration.” [Back to Text]
  68. Arms Code, supra note 41, at 43. [Back to Text]
  69. Arms Act 1983, s 30B. [Back to Text]
  70. Arms Regulations 1992, reg. 14(a). [Back to Text]
  71. Arms Code, supra note 41, at 1. [Back to Text]
  72. Arms Regulations 1992, reg. 14(b). [Back to Text]
  73. Arms Code, supra note 41, at 41. [Back to Text]
  74. Arms Regulations 1992, cl 19. [Back to Text]
  75. Arms Code, supra note 41, at 40, 45. [Back to Text]
  76. Arms Act 1983, s 45. [Back to Text]
  77. Id. s 51. [Back to Text]
  78. Id. s 46. [Back to Text]
  79. Land Transport (Road User) Rule 2004, cl 7.21, 2004/0427/latest/DLM302188.html. [Back to Text]
  80. Arms Act 1983, ss 32 & 33A; Arms Regulations 1992, reg. 28. [Back to Text]
  81. Arms Regulations 1992, reg. 29(1). [Back to Text]
  82. Id. reg. 28(1). [Back to Text]
  83. Id. reg. 28(2). [Back to Text]
  84. Arms Act 1983, s 32. [Back to Text]
  85. Id. s 36. [Back to Text]
  86. Id. s 35. [Back to Text]
  87. Id. s 44. [Back to Text]
  88. Arms Regulations 1992, reg. 24. [Back to Text]
  89. Id. reg. 26. [Back to Text]
  90. Id.reg. 27. [Back to Text]
  91. Arms Code, supra note 41, at 52 & 53. [Back to Text]
  92. Arms Act 1983, s 5. [Back to Text]
  93. Id. s 6. [Back to Text]
  94. Id. s 11. [Back to Text]
  95. Id. s 8. [Back to Text]
  96. Id.s 9. [Back to Text]
  97. Id. s 7. [Back to Text]
  98. Id. s 7A. [Back to Text]
  99. Id. s 10. [Back to Text]
  100. Id. s 12. [Back to Text]
  101. The relevant regulations were amended by the Arms (Military Style Semi-automatic Firearms and Import Controls) Amendment Act 2012, s 15 (inserting new reg. 7 into the Arms Regulations 1992). [Back to Text]
  102. Arms Act 1983, s 43. [Back to Text]
  103. Id. s 43B(1). [Back to Text]
  104. Id. s 43A.  This provision does not apply to any pistol, restricted weapon, or MSSA. [Back to Text]
  105. Added by section 5 of the Arms (Military Style Semi-automatic Firearms and Import Controls) Amendment Act 2012. [Back to Text]
  106. Arms Act 1983, s 16. [Back to Text]
  107. Arms Regulations 1992, reg. 10. [Back to Text]
  108. Id. s 18A. [Back to Text]
  109. Id. s 18(4). [Back to Text]
  110. Id. s 18(1)(b). [Back to Text]
  111. Id. ss 18(1)(a) & 18B. [Back to Text]
  112. Added by section 7 of the Arms (Military Style Semi-automatic Firearms and Import Controls) Amendment Act 2012. [Back to Text]
  113. Arms Act 1983, s 18(2). [Back to Text]
  114. Arms Regulations 1992, reg. 12. [Back to Text]
  115. Id. reg. 13. [Back to Text]
  116. See Thorp, supra note 5, at 24–25 (discussing the issues with obtaining data on the number of firearms in New Zealand). [Back to Text]
  117. Statistics New Zealand, National Population Estimates – December 2006 Quarter (Feb. 2007), [Back to Text]
  118. Thorp, supra note 5, at 27.  Note that this figure does not include MSSAs that were “sporterised” following the 1992 amendments.  It was estimated that, as of 1996, between 33 and 44% of MSSAs were registered as such, making the total number of both registered and “sporterised” MSSAs between 16,000 and 21,000.  However, Thorp considered this to be conservative, with the likely total being between 20,000 and 25,000.  Id. [Back to Text]
  119. Id. at 29–33. [Back to Text]
  120. Id. at 34. [Back to Text]
  121. Id. at 117. [Back to Text]
  122. Id. at 35–37. [Back to Text]
  123. Id. at 35, 37, & 109. [Back to Text]
  124. Id. at 109. [Back to Text]
  125. See Mike Steere, Kiwis Go for the Big Guns; 1,100,1000 Licensed Firearms, The Dominion Post (Nov. 7, 2006), available at LexisNexis Library Express (by subscription). [Back to Text]
  126. Id. [Back to Text]
  127. Ch. 2, Annex 4: The Largest Civilian Firearms Arsenals for 178 Countries, in Small Arms Survey 2007: Guns in the City, [Back to Text]
  128. E-mail from Inspector Joe Green, NZ Police Licensing and Vetting Manager (May 24, 2010), available at [Back to Text]
  129. Id. [Back to Text]
  130. National Population Estimates: December 2010 Quarter, Statistics New Zealand (Feb. 14, 2011), [Back to Text]
  131. E-mail from Inspector Joe Green, supra note 128.  See also the Regulatory Impact Statement on the Arms (Military Style Semi-Automatic Firearms and Import Controls) Amendment Bill, written by the Police in 2010, which states that there were at that time approximately 7,800 MSSAs in the possession of firearms license holders and just over 227,000 firearms license holders.  Regulatory Impact Statement: Arms (Military Style Semi-Automatic Firearms and Import Controls) Amendment Bill paras. 3 & 9 (2010), available at [Back to Text]
  132. E-mail from Inspector Joe Green, supra note 128. [Back to Text]
  133. Jared Savage, Police Seize Hundreds of Illegal Guns a Year, The New Zealand Herald (Nov. 6, 2012), [Back to Text]
  134. Id. [Back to Text]
  135. National Injury Query System, Otago University Injury Prevention Unit, (last visited Jan. 10, 2013).  This system enables database searches to be conducted for both fatal and non-fatal injuries arising from various causes and as a result of different “intents” (unintentional, self-inflicted, assault, undetermined intent, other), with breakdowns also possible by region, age, and gender.  The system covers the years from 1988 to 2009.  For further analysis of pre-1993 figures relating to firearm deaths and injuries, see Robert Norton & John Langley, The Epidemiology of Firearm Injuries in New Zealand, 4(3) NZ Public Health Report (Mar. 1997),$file/pvol4no3.pdf. [Back to Text]
  136. National Injury Query System search Jan. 8, 2013 (1988 to 2009 New Zealand Fatalities, Firearm, Assault intent, both genders, all age groups, all regions). [Back to Text]
  137. Id. (1988 to 2009 New Zealand Fatalities, all external causes, Assault intent, both genders, all age groups, all regions). [Back to Text]
  138. New Zealand Recorded Crime Tables, Statistics New Zealand, tools_and_services/tools/TableBuilder/recorded-crime-statistics/ASOC-offence-calendar-year-statistics.aspx#National (last visited Jan. 9, 2013).  To build the relevant tables click “National Annual Recorded Offences for the Latest Calendar Years (ANZSOC)” then “Murder”; clicking “Murder” in the next table provides a breakdown by method.  The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) also reported the following results for the percentage of homicides by firearm in New Zealand, based on information provided by the Police: 1995: 22.5%; 1997: 19.7%; 1998: 7.5%; 1999: 10.0%; 2000: 13.5%; 2001: 11.8%; 2002: 16.7%; 2005: 14.8%; 2006: 18.4%; 2007: 10.4%; 2008: 13.5%.  UNODC, Percentages of Homicides by Firearm, Number of Homicides by Firearm and Homicide by Firearm Rate per 100,000 Population, unodc/en/data-and-analysis/homicide.html (click “Homicides by firearm”) (last visited Jan. 9, 2013). [Back to Text]
  139. See Steere, supra note 125.  For the most recent summary of overall offense statistics and trends see New Zealand Police, New Zealand Crime Statistics 2011/2012 (Oct. 2012), http://www.police. [Back to Text]
  140. See Michelle Cooke, Murder Rate at 25-year Low, (Oct. 3, 2011), national/crime/5723405/Murder-rate-at-25-year-low. [Back to Text]
  141. Samara McPhedran, Jeanine Baker, & Pooja Singh, Firearm Homicide in Australia, Canada, and New Zealand: What Can We Learn From Long-Term International Comparison?, 26(2) J. Interpersonal Violence 348, 348 (2011).  This paper referred to a 2008 report by Inspector Joe Green of the New Zealand Police entitled “Arms Control Strategies.”  A presentation relating to this report is available on the website of the New Zealand Council of Licensed Firearms Owners.  Joe Green, Arms Control Strategies: Debunking the Myths (2008), available at [Back to Text]
  142. National Injury Query System search Jan. 8, 2013 (1988 to 2009 New Zealand Fatalities, Firearm, Unintentional intent, both genders, all age groups, all regions). [Back to Text]
  143. Id. (1988 to 2009 New Zealand Fatalities, all external causes, Unintentional intent, both genders, all age groups, all regions). [Back to Text]
  144. Id. (1988 to 2009 New Zealand Fatalities, Firearm, Self-inflicted intent, both genders, all age groups, all regions).  In comparison, self-inflicted deaths by suffocation increased from a crude rate of 4.2 per 100,000 people in 1988 to 7.0 in 2009, while self-inflicted deaths by poisoning decreased from a rate of 5.4 per 100,000 people in 1988 to 2.5 in 2009.  Id. [Back to Text]
  145. Id. (1988 to 2009 New Zealand Fatalities, all external causes, Self-inflicted intent, both genders, all age groups, all regions). [Back to Text]
  146. A.L. Beautrais, D.M. Fergusson, & L.J. Horwood, Firearms Legislation and Reductions in Firearm-related Suicide Deaths in New Zealand, 40(3) Aus. & N.Z. J. of Psych.