Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern oversaw recent changes which meant people didn’t need to visit their local police station to apply for permits for military style guns.
Critics of the move – designed to allow for online applications – say the changes are “crazy” because they take away important face-to-face contact between police and gun buyers.
“It’s been done for all the wrong reasons – this is exactly an example of the type of problem that’s caused this event [in Christchurch],” says firearms lawyer Nicholas Taylor.
“It’s a problem with the vetting – it’s going in totally the opposite direction as it needs to go in.”
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The accused gunman got his New Zealand firearms licence in November, 2017 and began buying weapons soon after, including online from Gun City in Christchurch.
A spokesperson for Ardern said although applications for gun licences could now be made online, there was still a requirement for an in-person meeting as part of the vetting process.
Ardern was the chair of an executive committee which ushered through changes to arms regulations just before Christmas last year.
Ardern says firearms law will be overhauled in the wake of the mosque attacks and has not ruled out a ban on semi-automatic weapons. New laws are expected to be rolled out on Thursday.
She has described our guns laws as a “blueprint [for] what not to do”.
The changes were made by a mechanism known as an order in council, where regulations are amended without the need for an Act of Parliament.
Previously under the Arms Act, if someone wanted to become a gun dealer, get a firearms licence, import a restricted weapon, or get a permit to buy a military-style semi-automatic, they had to physically deliver an application to their nearest police station.
Under the changes, people can now apply for those things online, although police can still direct someone to deliver an application in person.
The regulations also allow for a buyer of a restricted weapon to show that weapon to police by video call – whereas in the past they had to take it into the station.
A spokesperson for Ardern characterised the changes as “allowing some paperwork to become electronic” and did not remove the requirement for a face-to-face meeting as part of vetting for a licence.
“Cabinet sought advice and was told that the amendments would not change the strength or rigour of the vetting process. It simply provides an alternative option for the filing of paperwork.”
A Government source said the Christchurch mosque shooter was able to convert guns bought on a standard licence to MSSAs [military style semi-automatics], so even if the online option was available at the time it wouldn’t have been relevant in his case.
Taylor said the changes had already come into effect but there had been no public announcement.
“Really no-one knew about it at all.
“I heard from a dealer who phoned up, he was told by local arms officers in Auckland that permits to procure restricted weapons like MSSAs [military style semi-automatics] and pistols…now aren’t being dealt with by the local arms office – they all have to go to Wellington.
“That would have been unlawful before the change [in December] because it’s specified in the Act that an application for a restricted weapon…has to be done at your local arms office.”
Taylor said applying in person allowed police to assess someone.
“Quite often I had police officers saying ‘your client came in to see me and he was aggro and…saying strange things and acting weirdly’.
“So you’re actually missing out on that very vital step.”
It’s understood the changes were part of a police move to centralise firearms vetting.
Police arms officers were told in January they would be restructured, with 76 district-based positions disestablished and 280 casual vetting staff positions cut entirely.
They would be replaced by 36 field-based positions and 47 centralised positions at a facility in Kapiti.
Firearms groups were furious, saying there had been little consultation.
It’s unclear how the events in Christchurch will impact on the changes.
Acting Superintendent Mike McIlraith said “any final decision will reflect Government intent”.
He said police had reviewed their administration of the Arms Act because it was more than 30 years old and had been “very paper-based, manual and at times inconsistent across districts”.
Firearms staff and the community were consulted, he said.
“They told us we need to make changes.”
McIlraith said the new system would allow people to access police arms services wherever they were needed, with support online.
“Police want a structure focused on both improving our service and ensuring it is aligned to our mission to be the safest country.”
National’s police spokesperson, Chris Bishop, said he understood the proposed restructuring had been dumped even before events in Christchurch, but police were denying that.
Bishop has faced criticism for posting a photo of himself on Facebook celebrating the “victory” of having the policy dropped.
He said centralised vetting was a retrograde step and would impact on public safety.
“Arms officers and vettors are a really important part of the system and we were really concerned.
“That proposal came out of nowhere – the licensed firearms community felt really blindsided by it.
“The reality is that at 1.40pm on Friday everything changed and we’re now going to have to have a good look at the whole system.”