Firearm law reform | The Jackal

13 Jan 2012

Firearm law reform

Guns found in Jan Molenaar's bedroom.
Firearm law reform is a hugely controversial issue, with many views on what is the best way forward. This article will explore the relevant arguments for and against firearm law reform in New Zealand.

You might be surprised to learn that there were 7074 reported prohibited and regulated weapons and explosive offenses recorded in New Zealand last year, and that most of the weapons used in those crimes came from licensed owners.

So what can be done to curb this problem? A major 1997 review of Firearms Control in New Zealand (PDF), recommended:

That the present licensing system be replaced by a combined licensing/registration system based upon three-year firearm-specific licenses, the new system to be introduced over three years, commencing on 1 July 1999.

Obviously the recommendations were not implemented, with Police preferring to rely on the largely unenforceable requirement for gun owners to secure their firearms. Some progress was made with the Arms Amendment Act, but unfortunately the positive effects the 1992 law change initiated did not last. 558 people committing suicide in the year to June 2011, 38 of these using a gun or explosives.

The figures for other gun crime are just as sobering, with New Zealand now the fifth highest rating country in the OECD for mortality from assaults.

For every violent death there's a thousand violent crimes that are reported to Police. This is particularly relevant in context to family violence, where according to an University of Auckland study (Pay-walled PDF), 50% of reported family violence incidents using a firearm are committed by gun license holders:

Half of the perpetrators involved in domestic disputes were licensed. Of the 100 firearms, 44 per cent were classified as “legal firearms’ and 56 per cent were classified as “illegal firearms’. These findings suggest that strategies aimed at reducing or preventing injury due to firearm misuse must focus on both licensed and unlicensed individuals and both legal and illegal firearms.

That's only the family violence incidents using a firearm that are reported. Three separate studies in New Zealand support the proposition that the majority of those who use firearms in family violence incidents are licensed shooters. Here's an excerpt same Auckland of University study linked above:

In February 1997, police surveyed family violence coordinators from 17 districts, covering approximately two-thirds of the country. The coordinators indicated that in their experience only a small proportion of respondents with firearms are unlicensed.
The coordinators indicated that in their experience only a small proportion of respondents with firearms are unlicensed. The average estimate was 4 percent; however, this finding should be viewed with some caution: of 16 coordinators who made an estimate, 11 estimated 0 percent, while the other five estimated between 5 and 20 percent. The variation in the data makes the average of 4 percent somewhat open to question.
Although it is possible that some women avoid disclosing that their partners are in possession of firearms without a licence for fear that this may make their situation worse, the result does provide some support for the proposition.

The average rate of family violence using a firearm by licensed perpetrators is 96% compared to 4% for unlicensed. This atrocious percentage of family violence committed by license holders is despite the positive effect previous legislative changes had, which reduced casualty rates from firearm assaults dramatically.

According to a study into the Trends in Firearms deaths in New Zealand (PDF), there has been a huge reduction in casualty rates from firearm law reform:

A final finding of note relates to our analysis of the impact of the legislative changes in 1983 and 1993 on casualty rates. Although the main impact of this shock was felt in the immediately following years, our results indicate that its influence was not entirely transitory, with casualty rates in general down by over 40% following the Arms Act 1983 (and 30% following its Amendment) on an ongoing basis.

When that study was conducted, the nine-year mean annual number of deaths by firearm was 79, of which 62 (79%) were by suicide, 9 (12%) the result of criminal endeavour, 0.7 (1%) by legal intervention and 4.2 (5%) by accidental (unintentional) means. (A further 3 (3%) were unable to be identified between intentional and unintentional shootings).

These figures have increased dramatically in recent years, clearly showing that something is still wrong with our current firearms law. Evidence points towards the main problems being that the vetting system is inadequate and many guns used to commit crimes are either sold inappropriately or stolen because of inadequate safety precautions.

A person’s home that is built to house people, can never be as secure as a purpose built facility with 24/7 security. Most gun owners have jobs that they have to leave their homes to undertake and many people who are active enthusiasts and/or hunters cannot hide the fact that they own guns from the general public.

According to a three year Victoria University study into Firearms Theft in New Zealand, Lessons for Crime and Injury Prevention (Pay-walled PDF):

Insecure storage of lawfully held weapons by licensed owners poses a significant public health and safety risk. Furthermore, this paper concludes that the failure of the police to enforce New Zealand gun security laws, and the government’s hesitancy to develop firearm education and regulation policies, exacerbates insecure firearm storage, a key factor in firearm-related theft, injury, suicide, violence and criminal activity.

Opponents of gun law reform say that the determined killer will just substitute a gun for a knife or other weapon, and without people having guns to use as protection (currently against the law in New Zealand) there will be more and not less firearms homicides. Their common slogan to this effect is; 'Guns don't kill people, people kill people'.

That argument has been disproved. According to The Influence of the Weapon Substitution Hypothesis (PDF), a comprehensive thesis by Nestar John Charles Russell:

The results suggested that without guns, determined firearm assailants were less likely to be as capable of lethal weapon substitution in comparison to determined knife assailants. Therefore, it was initially concluded that inhibiting determined firearm assailants from accessing guns would be likely to reduce the rate of homicide.
[...]
As a result, this thesis updated its initial conclusion to the following: inhibiting all potential firearm assailants from accessing guns would be likely to reduce the overall rate of homicide. Based on this conclusion it was therefore recommended that those most at risk of committing homicide with guns need to be identified and such people must be prevented from accessing these deadly weapons.
[...]
Irrespective of what may have caused the proportion of firearm assailants with firearm licenses to diminish, the proportion of firearm assailants without licenses has, except for 1995 and 1998, remained relatively constant. One possible explanation for this constant pattern is that irresponsible storage and handling practice by licensed owners has directly or indirectly enabled unlicensed users to access firearms.
Support for the ‘irresponsible storage’ possibility is provided by Alpers and Walters (1998: 93) who found that out of the 88 incidents of incidents of firearms theft they investigated, 52 percent of the weapons were insecurely stored by the licensed owner. As a result, the authors concluded that: ‘[licensed] New Zealand gun owners, either accidentally or intentionally, continue to leave firearms unsecured.’ And in relation to irresponsible handling practices, Thorp (1997) discovered that a significant proportion of a small sample of licensees were willing to sell their firearms to a buyer who said they held a firearm license.
Based on the above information it is of little surprise that Alpers (1996) identified that a large proportion of assailants who committed firearm homicides who did not have firearm licenses unlawfully acquired their guns from the collections of licensed owners. This observation is reinforced by Newbold’s (1999: 75) survey on the acquisition of illegal firearms by prison inmates when he said ‘It appears that the bulk of sporting guns available on the black market have originally been stolen from legitimate owners.
Therefore, although indicators suggest that the Arms Amendment Act has possibly improved the ‘fitness’ of those who have the easiest access to firearms, other indicators suggest it may be failing to ensure licensees are as ‘responsible’ as they could be in regards to the storage and handling of their firearms. Importantly, with the identification of this potential deficiency in the legislation regarding irresponsible storage and handling practices by some licensees, independent advisors have already provided the New Zealand Government with potential solutions to these problems.

So what can other countries teach us in regards to the proposed changes in New Zealand?

England

Banning handguns appears to be a real solution if England is to be taken as a test case. Gun crime was already relatively low in England before the private ownership of most handguns was banned in 1997 after a couple of terrible massacres, which killed 35 people.

In 2005/6 the number of murders in England and Wales (population 53.3 million) was just 50, a reduction of 36 per cent on the year before and lower than at any time since 1998/9.

Attempted murders in 2010 using knives dropped by 57 to 206, 22% less than the 263 recorded in 2009. Crimes using knives in 2010 across England and Wales fell 4.26%; total ‘knife crimes’ was recorded by police as 29,259 for 2010, which is 1,301 less than in 2009.

Having less handguns available has resulted in less people using knives to commit murder.

England's death rate from firearms is now below the EU average and over four times lower than that of the United States, which has far more guns available to the public.

Canada

The firearm murder rate more than halved in Canada after the registration system was implemented… this despite only around 65% of gun owners registering their weapons.

According to the RCMP Canadian Firearms Program, the Supreme Court of Canada (PDF), says:

The combination of the two parts of the scheme is intended to ensure that when a firearm is transferred from one person to another, the recipient is licensed. Absent a registration system, this would be impossible to ascertain. If a gun is found in the possession of an unlicensed person, the registration system permits the government to determine where the gun originated.
With a registration scheme in place, licensed owners can be held responsible for the transfer of their weapons…. If someone is found guilty of a crime involving violence, or is prohibited from possessing a weapon, the registration scheme is expected to assist the police in determining whether the offender actually owns any guns and in confiscating them.
The registration scheme is also intended to reduce smuggling and the illegal trade in guns. These interconnections demonstrate that the registration and licensing portions of the Firearms Act are both tightly linked to Parliament’s goal in promoting safety by reducing the misuse of any and all firearms. Both portions are integral and necessary to the operation of the scheme.

Wikipedia, shows that Canada's law changes requiring the registration of hand guns in 1930 and further reforms in 1995 when you had to register all firearms, were highly beneficial:

The murder rate in Canada peaked in 1975 at 3.03 per 100,000 and has dropped since then, reaching lower peaks in 1985 (2.72 per 100,000) and 1991 (2.69 per 100,000) while declining to 1.73 per 100,000 in 2003. The average murder rate between 1970 and 1976 was 2.52, between 1977 and 1983 it was 2.67, between 1984 and 1990 it was 2.41, between 1991 and 1997 it was 2.23 and between 1998 to 2004 it was 1.82.[36] In 2007, the murder rate was 1.98. These statistics do not discuss the impact of social, political, economic, gun law or other factors as causative factors for the drops in overall homicide.
Spousal murder rates have fallen significantly as well. For females in a relationship the rate of homicide fell from 1.65 per 100,000 in 1974 to 0.71 per 100,000 in 2004 while for males in a relationship the rate dropped from 0.44 per 100,000 in 1974 to 0.14 per 100,000 in 2004.[37] Spousal homicides committed with firearms dropped by 77% for women between 1974 and 2000 and by 80% for men during the same time period.[38] In the U.S. increased awareness, reporting and publication of domestic violence incidents, as well as police campaigns to crack down on domestic violence, have been the primary factors on the reduction of domestic violence homicides.[39]
While the murder rate using firearms dropped by over half from 1977, homicide rate using other methods declined less sharply. The firearm homicide rate was 1.15 per 100,000 in 1977 and dropped to 0.50 in 2003 while the non-firearm rate went from 1.85 per 100,000 to 1.23 per 100,000 in the same time period. It is not specified how social, political, economic or other factors such as gun laws have affected rates of crime.

The firearm homicide rate was 1.15 per 100,000 in 1977 and dropped by more than half to 0.50 in 2003. Although other societal dynamics could also be responsible, the reduction in firearm homicide in regards to firearm law reform cannot be ignored.

The Canadian population was 31.7 million people in 2003, while the Canadian gun registration program cost $76.3 million. The approximate cost of each life saved (totaling 206 less firearm homicides for 2003) is $370,579 for the same year.

United States

The US is a very bad example. New Zealand had 2.2 homicides per 100,000 in 2010 while the US had over 5 homicides per 100,000 people.

Most firearms deaths in the USA are suicides, over 17,000 in 2007, a comparison here would be over 200 such deaths per year.

It appears that the US having twice as many gun owners as a percentage of population equates to more than twice the homicide rate of New Zealand.

Conclusion

Increasing procedures to ensure a robust three yearly licensing system and a gun registration process would help to reduce societal harm from the misuse of firearms. More research needs to be done into the viability and cost effectiveness of purpose built gun storage facilities in urban areas.