Lessons from the Christchurch attack: firearms, organised crime and terrorism
18 Mar 2019|

The most substantial changes to gun laws are those made in response to public demand for tighter controls in the aftermath of massacres such as the terrorist killings in Christchurch.

But reactive policy, particularly in a highly charged environment, can be fraught and New Zealand can learn valuable lessons from Australia’s experience.

The news that the Christchurch attacker held a gun licence and his weapons included modified semi-automatic firearms has sensibly led Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to overhaul New Zealand’s firearms regime.

Australia’s system of firearms regulation is regarded internationally as an effective and common-sense approach. The national policy framework came into being immediately after the 1996 Port Arthur attack in Tasmania, which left 35 people dead and 23 injured. There’d been previous attacks in Melbourne, both in 1987—in Hoddle Street with seven fatalities and Queen Street, in which nine died, including the attacker.

The system isn’t one national law, but rather a federal arrangement between the states and territories and the Commonwealth. The 1996 National Firearms Agreement coordinates this approach. Notably, work on a national framework had been proposed before Port Arthur, but didn’t go ahead because Tasmania didn’t support it.

Australia’s approach is about regulation not prohibition. While the system is famously strong, it doesn’t prohibit access to firearms or even semi-automatic weapons, but manages access and use. The states and territories use a system of categories based on an individual having a ‘genuine reason’ for having a firearm, which then denotes that category of licence that may be issued. These categories in turn limit the type of firearm that may be used.

Separate from this is the mechanism governing procurement of a firearm, which includes a permit process, cooling-off periods in some states if the applicant doesn’t already have a firearm in that category, limits to the numbers allowed, and strict guidelines for storage and handling, which are actively monitored. All of this is managed by state and territory police. Depending on the licence sought, evidence is required to confirm the genuine reason, and this is regulated by each state, within nationally consistent principles.

Genuine reasons for having a licence and owning firearms include target shooting, managing feral animals (which farmers are required to do), hunting, and controlling vermin. The final category, being a professional shooter, is very difficult to access. It entitles the licensee to have centre-fire semi-automatic rifles but only for use in a business that’s primarily focused on shooting feral animals and which has a standing contract to provide the service.

The regulation of firearms, particularly high-powered and rapid-fire weapons, has had a mixed impact on firearm ownership and firearms-related deaths in Australia. The number of legally owned firearms is estimated to be more than triple what it was before 1996. But authorities have better control and visibility of the legal firearms environment.

Most firearms-related deaths in Australia continue to involve illegally obtained and unregistered guns. Like in New Zealand, the majority of such killings are carried out by organised crime networks or within families, and that has remained the case since the introduction of the 1996 regime provided oversight and regulation of legitimate ownership and use. The main issues now are the illegal importation of firearms, ammunition and accessories, and black-market sales of unregistered weapons.

For counterterrorism authorities, the focus of concern is the connection between organised criminals importing illegal firearms and the possibility of those weapons being available to terrorists.

The difficulty in legitimately accessing semi-automatic firearms appears to have limited or delayed attacks by some right-wing and Islamist terrorist plotters. Notably, those who planned mass casualty attacks using firearms, bladed weapons and improvised explosive devices on Melbourne targets on Christmas Eve in 2016 reportedly could not get weapons lawfully and also had difficulty buying firearms on the black market. That was not the case with those who murdered police accountant Curtis Cheng in Parramatta in 2015. None held firearms licences but they illegally obtained a .38 revolver and ammunition. Similarly, the shotgun used in the Lindt Café siege in 2014 came from the black market.

It’s of great concern, however, that a 2017 NSW investigation uncovered direct links between illegal firearms activity and terrorism. Just a few weeks before the Sydney plot to bomb an airliner was discovered, two men with known terrorist links were charged with illegally supplying firearms.

Transnational serious and organised crime groups are heavily active in Australia and New Zealand, and our large maritime borders make this trade difficult to manage.

The bottom line, based on Australia’s experience, is that revised firearms regulation will help regulate legitimate use, but it will not remove the threat of gun crimes.

For New Zealand, the most important first step is to identify exactly what happened in Christchurch and to find gaps in existing laws, policy or practices to assess what needs to change. A broader review of issues with firearms regulation is also needed. Like Australia, New Zealand has recent policy work to draw upon.

Some of the lessons from Australia’s experience that the New Zealand government might wish to consider include enhancing its licensing regime to include categories of legitimate purpose. These purposes could be linked to ownership of different classes of firearms.

Noting reports that the alleged attacker held a New Zealand firearms licence, citizenship requirements might also be examined.

There’d need to be regular reviews of licensing and ownership and registries of licensees and firearms, which could be shared appropriately with Australian jurisdictions.

The New Zealand authorities need to engage closely with their relevant farming and sporting bodies to understand their legitimate interests and needs.

Additional resources should be focused on investigating importation and sale of firearms and ammunition by transnational serious and organised crime groups.

There’s an opportunity for New Zealand and Australia to increase their already significant collaboration on counterterrorism and policing. New Zealand sits with the Australian government and the states and territories on the Australia New Zealand Counter-Terrorism Committee, which jointly manages legislative and other approaches to counterterrorism.

It would make sense for New Zealand to engage with Australian jurisdictions in a standing body that collaboratively looks at firearms regulation and other firearms issues, such as the relationship with organised crime. The standing Australasian Police Ministers’ Council, of which New Zealand is already a member, and subordinate police commissioners’ meeting would be appropriate.