Professor K Clements
National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies
University of Otago
P O Box 56 09 NOV 2016
DUNEDIN 9054
Dear Dr Clements,
Your sporadic calls for full firearm registration seem to be prompted by publicity about unlawful
behaviours involving firearms. That is the case in the most recent instance, where a victim had their
house and safe broken into and their registered firearms stolen.

What is obvious about theseunlawful behaviours, is that it impacts the law-abiding who also become victims, but existing laws
and further calls for registration of firearms will not affect unlawful actions by offenders who by
definition are beyond or show no regard for the law.

Brief history

Firearm registration was enacted in New Zealand in the 1860s to prevent warring Maori from
acquiring firearms and ammunition. Then, registration of firearms was enacted in 1920 following
the Bolshevik Revolution, to prevent such uprisings elsewhere in the (then) British Empire.
Violent offending with firearms in the 1960s saw police efforts at using the registration records,
with limited success. A project to check the register began in 1967 and found that 66 percent of
entries were inaccurate in some way, with many guns not found at all. Police thought that the
register was largely useless and that substantial resources would be needed to keep it up-to-date.
An internal police report of 1982 criticised the registration system, saying there was no evidence
that registration helped to solve crimes, and that registration would use resources better spent
elsewhere. This policy was adopted by the government in the 1983 Act.
So prior to the change in firearms legislation in 1983, all New Zealand rifles were registered. When
used in violent offending, many were also cut down (a demonstrably illegal modification), to ease
concealability. Registration neither increased public safety nor helped the police prevent incidents.
The focus was changed in the Act to the firearms owner who then had to be vetted for their
character and licenced accordingly, with the 1983 Act only allowing people deemed fit to own
firearms.

Current requirements for private firearm ownership

I enclose a copy of the “Firearms Code”, prepared by the New Zealand Police and the NZ Mountain
Safety Council, which, although not the law, contains much good advice about firearms, and their
safe handling. Its relationship to the law is similar to that of the “Road Code” to the Road Transport
Rules and transport legislation. Intending firearm owners are required under the Arms Regulations
(1992) to have a knowledge of the seven basic safety rules, as part of the conditions before being
granted an arms licence. Other conditions relate to their personal suitability (verified by interviews
with referees), and meeting approved secure storage requirements. Referees are liable for the truth
of statements they make about applicants.

Your calls for full firearm registration

In your calls for full registration of all firearms, you repeatedly suggest, without supporting
material, that such a measure will reduce violence with firearms. In this open letter could I suggest
we meet to discuss the perceived benefits for making lists of chattels (which is in effect, what
firearm registration entails), and explore some other options for reducing crime in our society.
Unfortunately, registration creates technical (victimless) offences, increasing the number of firearmarmed
offences without being accompanied by any demonstrable declines in reported violent
offending.

How does full firearms registration reduce crime and increase public safety?

Many proponents of firearm registration argue that the tracking of missing firearms is eased by the
creation and maintenance of lists of them, and obviously, due reference to them for official purposes
when they are needed. However, such register contain many errors. Although these can be found
and removed, their persistence is shown by the widely reported errors of the Novopay system used
for the payment of school teachers in state schools. You may know too that following the Arms
Amendment Act (1992), registration of all Military Style Semi-Automatic Arms, (MSSA) was
undertaken. Owners of MSSAs, requiring their E category arms licence endorsement, are liable for
registration checks at any time. It has been found transfers of registered firearms, always requiring
written procurement permission from the Police, take up to two years to be recorded and errors are
often found. As mentioned earlier, consider the Novopay gross errors which have persisted for at
least two years, despite a large government input and at huge cost (hundreds of millions of dollars)
after the private enterprise was found wanting.

Evidence of the value of full firearm registration?

In the late 1990s, following the review of firearms controls conducted by Sir Thomas Thorp, the
New Zealand Council of Licensed Firearm Owners (COLFO) advertised in New Zealand’s major
daily newspapers for people to provide evidence of the value of full firearm registration. The
council was disappointed to obtain absolutely no response from the advertisements!
The potential value of firearm registration as a solution of violent offending is conditional, and
would have to be subject to the following conditions being met:

  • A firearm must be used in the offence (in New Zealand, more than 97% of violent offending
    involves weapons other than firearms);
  • The firearm must be left at the crime scene (this is unfortunately a rare occurrence);
  • The Police must recover the firearm;
  • The perpetrator must escape the crime scene,
  • The firearm recovered at the scene must be the firearm used in the offence;
  • A substantial linkage must be made between the recovered firearm and the offender;
  • The details of the firearm must previously have been correctly entered and recorded in the
    firearm registration system;
  • The firearm owner supplied his/her correct name and contact details, thereby leading Police
    to the offender.

All of these conditions must be met if the registration system is to be of any value in linking the firearm to the putative offender.

Firearm-armed offending before and after abolition of registration

Dr Lech Beltowski and I analysed the five years of firearm-armed offending immediately before the
abolition of the registration system as a result of the 1983 Arms Act, and two five year periods after
the introduction of user-licensing (Beltowski and Forsyth, 1997). We looked at six violent classes,
and found only one offence, robbery, surpassed its pre-abolition level. The increase was in the early
1990s, when economic recession, high unemployment and job scarcity may have contributed to
increased suicide attempts (suggestive of increasing social stress and mental unwellness). The rates
of offending in the other five offence classes, (homicide, grievous assault, serious assault, minor
assault and intimidation and threats) had all declined.

Comparison with other registry systems

If we turn now to the value of the motor vehicle registration system, which admittedly was
developed for revenue purposes rather than motor vehicle control, we find that more than 35,000
motor vehicle thefts are reported annually, with an unknown number never recovered. In contrast to
firearms, motor vehicle misuse leads to 1.5 fatalities daily, and between 50 and one hundred injuries
daily, every day of the year.

Invitation

I’d be happy to discuss the points I have raised in this letter, and to explore ideas on how to reduce
the annual casualty rate by firearm misuse. At present, I have found that fewer than 300 New
Zealanders fall victim from firearm misuse annually, and of these, a third are fatal. Approximately
fifty are intentionally self-inflicted fatalities, in suicides. One of your professorial colleagues,
Annette Beautrais, of Christchurch, has documented a sharp decline in suicides by firearm since the
passage of the Arms Amendment Act (1992), and Stengel (1970) noted the changes in suicide
method consequent upon law changes and access to favoured modes of suicide. It is likely that the
increased security provisions enforced by the 1992 Arms Amendment Act have worked to reduce
the incidence of suicide by firearm.

A successful working system

Education and training, rather than legislation, hold the key for safe firearm ownership and use.
The concept of the “fit and proper” person, with vetting supported by referees, has been tried and
proven since the 1983 Act was signed into law. Your repeated calls for adding another layer, at
considerable expense in resources, has demonstrably lacked success as a crime control measure in
many administrations, including those of the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia. Indeed,
registration systems generally seem to be bedevilled by imprecise data, threats from unauthorised
access (“hacking”) and the high cost of establishing and maintaining the computer-based systems
needed for such records.
Impositions like full firearm registration have never been accompanied by the public good
outcomes earnestly desired by their proponents. In short, the concept is flawed because it will only
impact those who are already demonstrably law abiding. Criminal offenders will not be affected.
Yours sincerely,
Chaz Forsyth

References cited
Beltowski, L., and Forsyth, C. (1997), Registration of Firearms is Not Crime Control. Unpublished
monograph sent to all Members of Parliament.
Fine, J.D. (1988), Gun Laws – Proposals for Reform. Sydney, Australia: The Federation Press, in
Forsyth, C. (2011), New Zealand Firearms – An exploration into firearm possession, use and misuse
in New Zealand. Wellington, New Zealand: New Zealand Deerstalkers’ Association National
Heritage Trust.
Forsyth, C. (2011), New Zealand Firearms – An exploration into firearm possession, use and misuse
in New Zealand. Wellington, New Zealand: New Zealand Deerstalkers’ Association National
Heritage Trust.
Howat, J. (1998), The Registration of Firearms – A Compendium of Available Fact from Australia,
Canada and New Zealand. Wellington, New Zealand: Monograph prepared for the New Zealand
Council of Licensed Firearm Owners. In Forsyth, C. (2011), New Zealand Firearms – An
exploration into firearm possession, use and misuse in New Zealand. Wellington, New Zealand:
New Zealand Deerstalkers’ Association National Heritage Trust.
Stengel, E. (1970), Suicide and Attempted Suicide. London, England: Pelican.