Submission on the government’s firearms law reforms

datePosted on 12:59, April 3rd, 2019 by Lew

What follows below the fold is my submission to the Parliament’s Finance & Expenditure Select Committee, which is currently considering the Arms (Prohibited Firearms, Magazines, and Parts) Amendment Bill giving legislative effect to the government’s previously-announced gun control measures.

TLDR: I think the process is tolerable but not ideal; and I think the bill is good, but lacks technical clarity in some specific and rather abstruse regards.

L

I am a hunter and shooter who will be required to surrender one rifle under the proposed reforms.

I support the bill in general, and in paticular I support the general thrust of the legislation to restrict firearms based strictly on their fire capability, rather than on cosmetic or “style” grounds such as the previous reforms. 

However, I hold concerns about some aspects of terminology and interpretation, particularly where the terminoogy allows an interpretation that is at odds with this strict capability focus. 

My concerns largely arise from my view that, in order to effectively remove MSSAs and other semi-automatic firearms from public circulation, a high level of voluntary compliance from firearms owners will be necessary. A lack of clarity in some parts of the bill, and some aspects of the legislative process adopted to pass it, risks increasing resistance among gun owners to voluntary compliance with the bill, and secondarily, may raise legal vulnerabilities similar to those that rendered previous legislative reforms adopted in the 1990s inadequate to prevent mass shooting incidents. 

I hold the following specific concerns.

1. Process likely to have negative effects on compliance

The process, and particularly the abbreviated select committee hearings, is a significant source of concern among gun owners who believe their rights to democratic participation are not adequately protected. While I personally disagree on this point, it is nevertheless likely that this will increase resistance and decrease voluntary compliance with the bill.

On the whole, I believe that speed and a clear moral bipartisan stance on this topic is valuable to prevent the debate from being derailed by gun lobbyists and others seeking to exploit democratic norms to prevent progress, however it is not without costs. 

Recommendation: Government should undertake to revisit all amendments in this bill in light of further evidence and submissions when the next tranche of gun control legislation (such as measures to implement a registry). Essentially, the full select committee and consultation process for future bills should be permitted to cover this bill as well, even if retrospectively, in order to correct any faults that should slip through as a consequence of the quick process.

2. Differences from the previous Order in Council may also increase confusion and resistance

The bill differs from the Order in Council signed on 21 March 2019 declaring most semi-automatic firearms MSSAs in a number of ways. The most important is that, under that order, semi-automatic centrefire rifles with a fixed magazine capable of holding five rounds or fewer appeared to remain legal for ordinary A-category license holders. The language was “a semi-automatic firearm that is capable of being used in combination with a detachable magazine (other than one designed to hold 0.22-inch or less rimfire cartridges) that is capable of holding more than 5 cartridges”; but this 5-round fixed magazine exemption has been amended to apply only to shotguns.

Consequently, under this bill, such rifles will clearly be “prohibited weapons”. It is not clear whether this was an oversight in the initial order, in this bill as drafted, or whether it is intentional.

Recommendation: This should be explicitly clarified one way or the other, so that those gun owners who posses such a semi-automatic rifle may be in no doubt about where they stand, and about what the government’s intention was.

3. Lack of clarity between the intent of the bill and its text also leads to confusion, especially re firearm parts

Police Minister Stuart Nash has told media and the public that the intent of the law is to prohibit most semi-automatic firearms, and any parts that could be used to convert other firearms to “prohibited” status, in terms of their fire capability and magazine size. However, the terminology in the bill (I refer specifically to the new definition of “part” and to references in the new S2A-C) does not clearly reflect this intention. This may lead to confusion, legal vulnerability, and exploitation by those wishing to capitalise on low levels of technical understanding of firearms, to raise false or arguable concerns about the bill’s intent or effect, increasing resistance and decreasing voluntary compliance. 

To some extent this is already occurring, with the spokesperson for COLFO, the Coalition of Licensed Firearms Owners telling Radio NZ this week that the bill as written would inadvertently ban nearly all firearms due to the inclusion of “stock”, “barrel”, and similar under the definition of projibited parts. While I believe this is a vexatious interpretation, the law should be clarified before it is passed, to remove any confusion and legal risk.

The concern is that the bill will inadvertently criminalise people who take a generic part such as a suppressor (“silencer”), bipod, sling, telescopic sight, or similar off a MSSA or other prohibited firearm, and attach it to a legal firearm. Many such parts are intentionally modular and can be attached without difficulty to any number of firearms, without altering the firepower of the firearm in any substantive way, certainly not to the extent of making them any more dangerous than other firearms. 

Recommendation: The stated plain-language intent of the Police Minister Stuart Nash, that the law means to ban semi-automatic firearms and any parts that could be used to convert other firearms to semi-auto fire, should be reflected more clearly in the legislation. While I note the clarifying definition of “prohibited part” in S2C(b) (“a component that can be applied to enable, or take significant steps towards enabling, a firearm to be fired with, or near to, a semi-automatic or automatic action”) this does not seem unambiguous enough, given the reliance on the context presented in the new S2 and subsections, which is itself ambiguous. 

I disagree generally with the practice of listing specific components in legislation for the reason that such lists are non-exhaustive, and create loopholes. So rather than such a list, the legislation should return to its purpose and simply specify that all parts which are generally transferable from one firearm to another, and which do not change the fire capability or magazine capacity of the firearm, remain explicitly legal unless otherwise provided. 

4. Lack of specificity regarding shotgun and .22 capacity given different ammunition sizes will also lead to confusion and possibly to inadvertent noncompliance

The bill prohibits any shotgun with a detachable magazine, or one with a fixed tube magazine capable of holding more than five rounds. However, the bill does not specify what size the shells are. Shotgun shells, unlike rifle rounds, come in various lengths that are usable in the same weapon; the most common are 2.75 inch, 3 inch, and 3.5 inch. Because a tube magazine holds shells end-to-end, a shotgun designed to hold five 3.5 inch shells can typically hold seven 2.75 inch shells (since they are shorter). 

The language in the new section 2B, “commensurate with that shotgun’s chamber size” is not adequately clear, since most shotguns are designed to fire shells of various lengths. (Length is distinct from “gauge”, which describes the diameter of the shell).

Most semi-automatic shotguns are produced with magazines of this size, so the committee must consider whether it wishes to restrict any shotgun with a tube capable of holding more than five shells of any length; or whether it wishes only to restrict those weapons capable of holding more than five 3.5 inch shells. The former case will vastly increase the compliance burden of the bill, requiring many more firearms to be modified for compliance or surrendered; the latter case will permit the legal use of SA shotguns that can, in fact, hold more than five rounds. 

A similar but less urgent problem exists with .22 calibre rimfire cartidges. Most common .22 calibre (non-magnum) rifles can fire .22 Short, .22 Long, and .22 Long Rifle ammo. The most common of these by far is .22LR, a round which has an overall length of about 25mm. The smallest, .22 Short, has an overall length of about 18mm. This means that a tube magazine designed to hold 10x .22LR cartidges can hold a larger number of .22 Short or Long rounds.

This is a less urgent public safety concern than the shotgun example above, because .22 Short and Long do not perform reliably in many semi-automatic firearms, and because the cartridges are much less powerful than shotgun shells. Nevertheless, it should be clarified for the avoidance of confusion and to ease compliance.

Recommendation: The bill should explicitly specify a standard size of ammo for the avoidance of doubt. For shotguns, this should either be 2.75in or 3.5in shells, depending on which of the above scenarios the committee prefers. 

There should also be a provision for permanently and legally modifying a shotgun magazine to comply, whether by pinning the magazine tube, or cutting it to length. If no such clear provision exists, it is most likely that the owners of shotguns whose manufactured spec exceeds the legal maximum will remain inadvertently or intentionally noncompliant rather than giving up their shotguns for the sake of a few inches of magazine tube. 

For .22 rifles that can fire more than one different length of ammo, the committee should specify .22LR since this is the standard in near-universal use.

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