Fair-minded debate essential

In another, but less heralded, milestone in implementing the various agreements signed in the formation of the new government, an ambitious and comprehensive review of New Zealand’s firearms laws is now under way.

While gun control is not the fraught topic that it is in American politics — there is a general acceptance in New Zealand of the wisdom of regulation in this area — there will still be disquiet aplenty as this process plays out.

Much of this stems from the pre-parliamentary involvement of Associate Minister of Justice, Act New Zealand’s Nicole McKee, with the Council of Licenced Firearms Owners.

The self-described "largest voluntary shooting-related organisation in New Zealand", COLFO was established in 1996 but rose to prominence in the aftermath of the Christchurch terror attacks as it attempted to withstand the broad firearms reforms the previous government wanted to impose.

There is no doubt that COLFO has an agenda: it says it takes a professional approach using sound research "to dispel the inaccurate and emotive claims of self-proclaimed anti-gun ‘experts’," an equally as fine example of entrenched thinking as that of the experts it is disparaging.

But it is equally true that COLFO did have some valid points to make during that debate. Some of the changes Labour sought to introduce, while well-meaning and intended to do good, could also have had unintended consequences.

But the fact that laws intended to protect people could also have seriously impinged on law-abiding people who just happened to use firearms for work or recreation, demonstrated the troubles and tensions of legislating in this space.

The review is in four parts and two are already under way: a Bill proposing to amend the Firearms Prohibition Orders Legislation Act has had its first reading and is being considered by a select committee, and the government is also looking at redrafting the regulations which oversee shooting clubs.

Earlier this month a review of the Firearms Registry was announced, and the government is also proposing to transfer the Firearms Safety Authority from police oversight to another government department.

It is now proposing the final part of this overhaul: a comprehensive rewriting of the Act to modernise the law and ensure it is actually doing what Parliament intended.

In announcing this Ms McKee called the current law "outdated and complicated".

We agree entirely. The Act has been amended many times since 1983 and is unwieldy and difficult for a layperson to navigate.

No laws should be inconsistent or ambiguous, but that is especially so for this area of the law. The ability to own a machine capable of lethal force should be a privilege, not a right, and it should only be afforded to those who are demonstrably able to assume that responsibility.

But Ms McKee’s oft-stated intention to "ease the regulatory burden for licenced firearms owners" has, understandably, made advocates of tighter gun control nervous. Easing the burden can easily be read as allowing easier access, and that is something which many New Zealanders will be uncomfortable with.

Ms McKee is correct when she says that many of the people New Zealanders do not want to see have access to firearms, such as gang members, are the sort of people who can get hold of guns anyway and have no interest in adherence to any regulatory scheme.

But it is equally correct to say that the ability of people such as the Christchurch gunman to obtain weapons was dreadful, and no-one wants another tragic firearms event in New Zealand.

This is a situation where New Zealanders will need to place great trust in the parliamentary process.

Ms McKee should be taken at her word that she wants simple and effective regulations that enhance safety and increase compliance with the law. Any seemingly unwarranted loosening of regulations will surely be strongly opposed, and would come at a political cost to the government.

But opposition parties too will need to engage with the process. They cannot approach this with a blinkered view that all guns — and by extension gun owners — are bad.

A constructive, workable set of rules is what is needed, and it cannot be rushed.

Ms McKee has allowed until the end of the parliamentary term for this process, and it is vital that there is a measured, respectful and comprehensive debate if a meaningful result is to ensue.