Our Terms of Reference specifically excluded us from making recommendations on firearms legislation, including the changes to legislation announced by the Government shortly after the terrorist attack.  People’s thoughts on the firearms issues that fall outside the scope of our inquiry are set out in Chapter 9: Submissions outside the scope of our Terms of Reference. Set out in this chapter are submissions on the firearms licence application process, the impact of changes in specification around certain firearms which, they believed, had led to an increase in the amount of military style semi-automatic firearms brought into New Zealand and other issues within the scope of our inquiry.


The licensing of gun owners and restrictions on firearms is governed by the Arms Act 1983.  The legislation is administered by New Zealand Police.  A standard firearms licence (also referred to as an “A Category” licence) can only be issued to a person who is over the age of 16 and who is a fit and proper person.


A person applying for a firearms licence has to go through a vetting process in order to determine whether they are a fit and proper person.  New Zealand Police are responsible for the vetting process, which includes:

  1. a background check;
  2. participation in a firearms safety programme;
  3. interviews with referees and the applicant; and
  4. a security check to assess how firearms will be stored.


Possessing a standard firearms licence entitles the holder to have certain types of firearms.  There are some firearms, however, that cannot be possessed on a standard firearms licence (such as pistols, restricted weapons and military style semi-automatic firearms).  This is because the particular risks associated with these types of firearms mean that those who wish to possess them must go through additional scrutiny to be allowed to do so.  The potential risks associated with these types of firearms are dealt with through the endorsement system.  Endorsements allow users to carry out a wider range of activities with firearms that have additional restrictions on them.  The process of obtaining an endorsement for a firearms licence is more exacting than that for obtaining a standard firearms licence.  


As at 31 October 2018, there were 248,764 current firearms licences.  A 2018 report estimated there are about 1.2 million civilian-owned firearms in New Zealand. 


The firearms licence application process


Approximately three quarters of the submissions we received used a template that referred to the individual’s firearms licence application and whether he would have fulfilled the requirements of the fit and proper person test in the firearms licence application process.  While these particular submissions used a template, most included unique content.


People also discussed New Zealand Police’s administration of the process and outlined the relationship between New Zealand Police and the licensed firearms community.


We heard that licensed firearms owners in New Zealand come from a range of backgrounds, with different interests and reasons for owning firearms.  Some have had a lifelong interest in firearms, while others may have only obtained their licence relatively recently.


The content of these submissions covered the firearms licence application process.  They addressed vetting and made suggestions for change. 


Many people shared their experience of obtaining a firearms licence, the renewal process and, in a few cases, their experience acting as referees for someone else who had applied for a firearms licence.  Generally they commented on the process, how it has been carried out in the past and their perception of changes to the administration of the Arms Act 1983.


Most people stated that the process they went through to obtain or renew their licence, particularly vetting, was “stringent”, “thorough” and “robust”.  We heard that owning a firearm has always required a “social trust” that the licence holder is a fit and proper person and therefore not everyone in society is eligible to own a firearm.  This trust has been relied on and must be reinforced.

The experience was so intense it was almost traumatic.  A solid 2 hours of questioning, and then a further 2 hours for my flatmate at the time.  Dredging up speeding fines from 8 years previous, discussing hypotheticals regarding my mental health, totally left field questions I assume to gauge my response.”

– Licensed firearms owner


My own experience was of a very rigorous process that was time consuming for all parties, but very thorough.  This included home visits, inspections, and one-on-one interviews with people, including family and friends who had known me for an extended period of time.  This result of this appears to have been to determine in great detail who I was, what my lifestyle is, with whom I associated and what my behavioural history was in depth.  It was impressive the effort taken to determine who I was as a person.  This provided me with great comfort knowing all firearm licence holders had been through this rigor.

– Licensed firearms owner


Many submitters considered that the fit and proper test is suitable if it is applied properly and consistently, with face-to-face interviews and a requirement for attendance at a firearms safety course.  Many considered that this process was as good as, or better than, most international systems and should be retained. 

My experience is that a unique feature of the firearms licensing process in New Zealand was the private interview of character referees, family members and spouses to ensure those who know applicants believe them to be fit and proper to be in legal possession of firearms.  The licensing process in Ireland and Australia lacked this rigor.  Both countries focussed on paper work, your reason for owning a firearm, and a test of your understanding of their arms code, plus a criminal background check.  However what made the New Zealand licencing system far more comprehensive was the in-depth 360 degree character checking done to make sure people who know the applicant well are comfortable with them having access to firearms.  Nothing else comes close.

– Licensed firearms owner


A few people thought that the firearms licensing process should be stricter, with some outlining their experience of where they thought the process was lacking, such as the testing process.  One submitter observed people taking the test answering incorrectly and being asked to select a different answer.  Another submitter felt that his vetting interview should have been more “in-depth” and “probing” than it actually was, believing his application form to be almost “rubber stamped”.


Some submitters felt that the firearms licensing process was strict enough and that it did not require change.  One submitter explained to us that applying anything further than the following three criteria to a firearms licence applicant or holder would be ineffective and an infringement on human rights:

  1. Has the person demonstrated they are sufficiently educated and responsible in areas of firearms operation and safety, as well as familiar with New Zealand’s firearms legislation?
  2. Are they non-violent and do they lack a criminal history that could implicate them in the likelihood of offending with a firearm?
  3. Do they have any severe, debilitating mental illnesses that are reasonable grounds to deny firearms ownership to that person on the grounds of public safety?


A few submitters, who had held firearms licences prior to the introduction of the Arms Act 1983, explained how the process was different when individual firearms were registered.  They outlined the changes they experienced with the introduction of the lifetime licence, which was subsequently changed to a photo licence of ten years.


Many people submitted that the firearms licensing process had become less rigorous because of changes to the administration of the firearms licensing regime over time.  These views were based on both direct experience and what they had been told by other people.  We heard examples of people receiving endorsements on their licence they had not applied for, and of people receiving their licence in the mail before they had completed the application process.

I initially applied for my licence at the end of 2009 and the application and interview process was quite an ordeal.  The arms officer carrying out the interviews asked many questions and framed in different ways. …  A month ago I went through the renewal process and it was significantly different, my reference was interviewed over the phone and the questions for myself and next of kin didn't allow for follow up questions for the arms officer to ask.

– Licensed firearms owner


Those submitters who were aware of the specific changes to the licensing regime told us that in 2015, New Zealand Police (via New Zealand Mountain Safety Council) dismissed volunteer Firearms Safety Instructors based in over 114 venues around New Zealand.  We were told that in 2018 the volunteer instructor safety lessons and tests were replaced by tests administered by Vehicle Testing New Zealand and the New Zealand Automobile Association, and by paid instructors taking practical handling assessments.  In many areas the process came to rely on completion of a test based on information and rules set out in a booklet issued by New Zealand Police.

As [a Mountain Safety Course] Firearms Instructor for 20 years, I can attest to the following; Prior to 2015 the Licencing system was working well.  Instructors and Vetters played an important part in “weeding out” candidates who for one reason or another were unlikely to meet the “fit and proper” person standard.  We had positive feedback from those who sat and passed the test – our “hands-on” approach, where we were able to share personal experiences to reinforce aspects of the Arms Code, was also appreciated.  Regular statistical reports, which showed a gradual diminishing of firearms accidents/incidents over time, were encouraging as it showed that our efforts were bearing fruit.  However, during the latter half of 2015 there were a number of changes in the [Mountain Safety Course] and [New Zealand] Police, that in the opinion of many, were not for the better.  As a result there were a number of systemic shortcomings which were gradually addressed over the next 12-18 months.

– Licensed firearms owner


A few submitters stated that recently there has been a move towards some aspects of the licensing process, particularly the initial application, being carried out online.  They advised that the process would be administered by a centralised hub in New Zealand Police that would reduce staff numbers in certain firearms roles. 

The recent implementation of the new Arms Act Service Delivery Group in a hub in Kāpiti is a nightmare waiting to happen as it proposes to remove the majority of the local arms officers who know their clients and keep an eye on goings on and replace them with 60 data entry positions of which we know only one of has any experience with the Arms Act.

– Licensed firearms owner


People were concerned about the impact these changes will have, with some concerned that face‑to-face interactions will be removed entirely. 

The process begins at the time you drop your application face to face to the Arms Officer, they are assessing you from that moment.  There is no way that this process should ever be undertaken online.  At the age of 16 I was thoroughly grilled by the Arms Officer before even handing in my application!!  Asking such questions as “are you a member of deerstalkers?”, “Where are you going to shoot?”, “Who are you going to hunt with?”  It shocks me that anyone could contemplate that online applications are acceptable.

– Licensed firearms owner


I would like to point out that the local on the ground firearms vetting officer and their work for the [New Zealand] Police means that you have the same person visiting you and making calls on your behalf for vetting and this I believe needs to stay at grass roots level.  If there is an attempt to centralise this service, you lose the inherent understanding that is known about someone in the community, because you are part of that community/area.  It is often the whispers at the rugby or other social events that give the [New Zealand] Police and such the “heads up” about things which may be brewing in our communities and this is an essential part of community policing and public safety.

– Licensed firearms owner


Many other submitters discussed the historic relationship between licensed firearms owners and New Zealand Police, which allowed for helpful information to be shared.  According to submitters, firearms organisations have, with the support of licensed firearms owners, emphasised firearms education and training, contributing greatly to firearms safety in New Zealand. 


One submitter believed that the success of the licensing system rested on expectations of mutual respect between licensed owners and New Zealand Police.  Cooperation helped the licensing system to operate with the kind of intelligence that depends on a widespread feeling of voluntary responsibility to inform the authorities of concerns.

The firearms community were once so close knit with such a good relationship with their local Police that trust and confidence between the two were second to none.  Police effectively had a volunteer constabulary of 250,000 law abiding, fit and proper users that wanted to ensure that their privileges were maintained through good behaviour.

– Firearms organisation representative


These submitters said they felt their relationship with New Zealand Police had deteriorated or decayed to the extent that it is perceived as a growing “us and them” situation and was no longer seen as valuable by New Zealand Police.  Submitters gave different reasons for this, including new priorities, and changes in key New Zealand Police personnel and policy.

Increasingly firearms user groups, rather than being seen as allies in the safe use of firearms, were instead treated as nuisances and their input and advice not sought nor listened to.

– Firearms organisation


Many submitters shared their concern that, recently, firearms licensing has not been a priority for New Zealand Police.  This, said the submitters, was demonstrated by the diverting of financial resources away from the process, the lack of training for District Arms Officers, the increased pressure they appear to be under and the time it can take to receive a licence or undergo safe firearms storage checks.

But the underlying comments from these Local Arms Officers is that they are underfunded, resources and money has been taken from them to fund other demands within the New Zealand Police.  The government has not increased funding to [New Zealand] Police but want a first class system on a shoestring budget.  There has never been any inclination from government or [New Zealand] Police to review, improve or do the job properly until an event happens.

– Licensed firearms owner


Some also commented that New Zealand Police seem to lack expertise in many areas relating to firearms and will not listen to expert advice and the advice of licensed firearms owners.  We heard from submitters that, in their view, agencies need to be genuine experts in what they do and not assume that they are experts by virtue of their role. 

Experience has shown me that with a few exceptions the Police staff tasked with delivering the service do not have more than a cursory knowledge of the Arms Act and often no knowledge of firearm function or identification.

– Licensed firearms owner


Specifically, some submitters told us they had previously expressed concerns to New Zealand Police about the risks of large capacity magazines, but these concerns were largely ignored.  These submitters told us that standard firearms licence holders were able to purchase large capacity magazines without proof of a firearms licence or an E Endorsement on their licence, which would be required to use the magazine.  The ability to do so was, in the opinion of the firearms community, a loophole in the law that New Zealand Police had been made aware of. 

The Police had 26 years to close the loophole that permitted the sale of [military style semi-automatics] with a removable 5 round magazine (that could be replaced with a large capacity magazine) as an “A” category firearm.  This also cannot be considered anything less than criminal negligence by Police.

– Licensed firearms owner


Importing firearms


A submitter outlined their understanding about how the importation of AR-15 type semi‑automatic firearms and ammunition has occurred.  They stated that the Arms Amendment Act 19921 sought to define semi-automatic firearms by specifying certain cosmetic features that the firearms had, rather than by specifying their function.  Therefore, it is possible to convert a semi-automatic firearm into a military style semi-automatic firearm.


The submitter considered that this has meant that dealers have been able to import semi-automatic firearms and they can then separately import the parts required to convert them into military style semi‑automatic firearms.  These can then be assembled in New Zealand to make military style semi-automatic firearms.  The submitter said that many dealers have practically been able to import thousands of military style semi-automatic firearms into New Zealand over the past several decades.


Another submitter took some time to explain their understanding of the importation of military style semi-automatic firearms.  They stated that all firearms can only be imported legally by an import permit issued by New Zealand Police and checked by New Zealand Customs Service.  Until 2009, an import permit for firearms would be issued on a case-by-case basis to an individual, who would normally use a dealer to import the firearms.  To get a permit for an E Endorsement military style semi-automatic firearm, a similar rifle had to be handed in, which kept the number of these firearms reasonably controlled.


Following a High Court case against New Zealand Police in 2010,2 one submitter believed New Zealand Police decided not to enforce the import restriction on rifles with a non-military style pistol grip so long as it was attached to the stock in some way.  This also allowed dealers to directly import these rifles in any quantity, and the submitter believed that manufacturers saw an opportunity to sell these rifles.  The submitter told us that dealers then saw a large number of military style semi-automatic firearms imported and sold to anyone with a firearms licence, endorsed or not.

At our rifle club we saw a large influx of new members with such rifles, many of whom had little shooting experience [who we then trained].  The only significant difference between these and E Endorsement [military style semi-automatic] is magazine capacity limit, which as we have seen has been easily circumvented.

– Licensed firearms owner


A different submitter also discussed their direct experience of the changes in 2010, as before the Court decision they were required to surrender a military style semi-automatic firearm they already owned in order to import a new AR-15 military style semi-automatic firearm.

There was a dramatic increase in the advertising of both A category and E [Endorsement] firearms in general shooting publications especially those based on the AR-15 platform.  This made these firearms cheaper, with more available and therefore more accessible to the [individual].

– Licensed firearms owner


A detailed submission was made by a person outlining changes made through the Arms (Military Style Semi-automatic Firearms – Pistol Grips) Order 2013,[1] which they believed effectively removed previous restrictions on military style semi-automatic firearms by amending the definition of a free‑standing grip, to the extent that the restriction became meaningless.  They said that standard firearms licence holders could own as many semi-automatic assault rifles as they wanted, provided a cosmetic modification was made to the stock that did not impact on the rifle’s functionality.


Someone described their experience of bringing their firearm back into New Zealand in 2015 after a hunting trip.  They stated that their firearm was confiscated because they did not have a re-entry permit, whereas apparently the online Arms Code stated that on arrival into New Zealand a permit could be obtained from New Zealand Police at the airport or from a nearby Arms Officer.  They said New Zealand Police told the person it was now their policy for people to obtain an import licence before leaving New Zealand, which they said was not in the Arms Code at the time.  The person noted that overseas visitors could, however, obtain their import permit at the border.


One person considered there needs to be better monitoring of items couriered from overseas, such as illegal gun parts.


Solutions proposed by submitters


Many submitters took time to set out their proposed solutions for the future of the firearms licensing application process and its administration.  While it is not possible to set out all of these solutions, we present many of them below.


External agency or separate and independent body


Some submitters said that an external or separate and independent body – in other words, not New Zealand Police – should be responsible for administering the Arms Act 1983.  Compared by a few submitters to the New Zealand Transport Agency’s management of driver licences, this agency would manage and administer the licensing process.  People in favour of this change said the amount of oversight from society and the amount of effort required of the individual to be licensed as a firearms owner should be equivalent to that required to obtain a vehicle drivers licence.  People believed this could allow New Zealand Police to refocus on its core work.

Such a new body would not be staffed by Police but by people credible to the firearms community and have a “crimestoppers” 0800 line of its own.  It would have as a priority the rebuilding of the relationship, trust and communication necessary to feed vital intelligence into [the Government Communications Security Bureau] and Police in regard persons or issues it became aware of.  Making use of the new online system but having the full budget not utilised by Police and a measure of user pays it would be able to quickly undo the harm and deliver enhanced public safety and confidence otherwise probably lost for good now.

– Licensed firearms owner


One submitter told us that an independent firearms authority could have oversight from someone such as a commissioner.  They further thought there should be a specific body or department focused on gathering firearms statistics, which could be useful for decision-making.


Effective administration of the firearms licensing process


We heard that the administration of the firearms licensing process should have dedicated and protected funding, with accountability measures to ensure this funding has been efficiently and effectively spent.  Effective administration should, in the eyes of these submitters, extend to the training and guidance material that vetting staff receive.


One submitter outlined their belief that New Zealanders should be prepared to pay for a high‑quality system of firearms licensing, because funding and maintaining a system that limits risks to the user also limits risks to society.  They suggested a user pays approach like that of vehicle licensing, with possible subsidisation of low socio-economic or deprived rural communities.


Submitters emphasised that the face-to-face interaction between firearms applicants and their referees, and New Zealand Police, including vetters, must be retained and be consistently carried out.


One submitter believed that regardless of the type of licence test, if vetting is inadequate there is a greater likelihood of unsuitable people seeking and getting lawful access to firearms. 


The need to retain vetters “in the field” so they can continue to ensure that only fit and proper people obtain and keep a licence, was seen to be very important to submitters and something that they thought should be retained.  One submitter told us that the face-to-face interviews involved in the process of obtaining a firearms licence can and do play an important role in instilling respect for firearms safety.  They lead the applicant to feel that society treats firearms use as a serious activity requiring a responsible attitude. 

The Police are under resourced.  However, that should not in any way impact on the vetting process.  There must always remain a face-to-face interview for those that are applying for a Firearms Licence.  The body language, the applicant’s home environment, their security arrangements and most importantly, their next of kin and unrelated referees must be conducted in a personal face-to-face manner.

– Licensed firearms owner


One person suggested that the vetting aspect of the firearms licensing process should be conducted similarly to other vetting processes, such as that for a National Security Clearance.  They believe that elements of a new licence process could include:

  1. Applicant, spouse/partner (or close family member) and referees filling in online questionnaires.
  2. Specified amount of time that referees must have known the applicant.
  3. If the applicant is a member of a shooting club, one referee must be an official of the club in which the applicant is a member.
  4. Applicants must be New Zealand citizens, with New Zealand residents and visitors not eligible to obtain New Zealand firearms licences.
  5. Applicants must disclose all convictions that involved imprisonment, and certain medical conditions.
  6. Members of gangs should be unable to hold a licence.


Another submitter believed that vetting should include checks of firearms licence applicants’ social media and a psychometric assessment to gauge their extremist and racist beliefs and signs of extremism, such as tattoos.  Accordingly, they believed that those undertaking vetting should be sworn New Zealand Police officers with specialist training in psychological assessments.  The submitter said that licence holders who come to the attention of New Zealand Police for extremist and racist beliefs should have their licences revoked.  Others said a residency period should be considered before firearms licences are issued, with more background checks of applicants whose country of origin is not New Zealand.  There were a range of views from submitters, including a call for more data matching and sharing between Public sector agencies for the purpose of firearms licences, through to licences being held by New Zealanders only.

Whilst I too emigrated to New Zealand from Australia I believe there were no background checks conducted on me in Australia.  I feel this is a shortfall in your fit and proper test and applicants with a background in an overseas country should have to provide a clean criminal history report at their own cost before any decision is made regarding their suitability to hold a NZ firearms licence.

– Licensed firearms owner


A few submitters discussed the need for the mental health of applicants to be considered.  One submitter was concerned to know that people who have had depression leading to hospitalisation are able to obtain firearms licences.  One submitter told us, however:

Not only is it an invasion of privacy, but also a disincentive for people with mental health issues from seeking help.  If these people who have issues, can’t speak to someone without the risk of their lifestyle and sport being taken away from them, potentially further isolating them.

– Licensed firearms owner


Whatever happens in the administration of the firearms process, submitters told us that the relationship between licensed firearms owners and New Zealand Police needs to be restored.  Consultation with stakeholders should be strengthened so that policy is developed using expert opinion in the community, rather than as a “box ticking” exercise.  We were told that one of New Zealand’s greatest assets in assisting New Zealand Police to achieve their target of making New Zealand safe is a firearms community that is working closely with authorities.


One submitter outlined the importance of male firearms users being part of a community, linking experienced and inexperienced as well as older and younger male firearms users.  They note the majority of new firearms users are in rural areas, likely with fewer social links.  They believe there is a benefit to ensuring such firearms users have contact with men who have a stake in the licensing system and are aware of firearms safety, through their role as instructors, vetters and local District Arms Officers.  The submitter states that the firearms community can be an important source of support for young men, particularly if they have issues with their mental health. 


Firearms licence categories


We heard that the requirements to obtain a standard firearms licence should be strengthened to make them more like the requirements to obtain other licences or endorsements, such as pistol licences, including random checks of licence holders’ compliance with the rules for secure storage of firearms.


One submitter suggested that prior to someone receiving a standard firearms licence (in addition to sitting a test, being visited at home by a vetter and having referee checks), an applicant should be required to attend a minimum of three training sessions and six range sessions.  These requirements, said the submitter, would be to demonstrate safe and effective firearms handling skills and would be similar to, but less extensive than, the requirement to obtain a B Endorsement. 


The submitter outlined their belief that each of the nine sessions should be signed off by a qualified instructor or a range officer from the firearms club that they attend, meaning each of those people would have a degree of personal responsibility for the suitability of the applicant.  At any stage, the person noted, the instructor or range officer should be able to file a confidential report with New Zealand Police, if they consider that the applicant is not fit and proper.

As a pistol shooter my “fit and proper” vetting went beyond what is required of a rifle and shotgun shooter.  I spent every weekend on the range for 9-12 months under constant supervision and being drilled and tested.  Not only in the safe and proper use of a firearm but also so my demeanour could be [assessed] regularly by other club members.  I have always thought that a similar process should be in place for rifle and shotgun shooters, be that a mandatory club membership with rules following along the lines of what is already in place for pistol shooters or random house checks by the Police to check firearm security and the “state” of the occupants.

– Licensed firearms owner


1. Section 2 of the Arms Amendment Act 1992 (which amended section 2 of the Arms Act 1983) introduced a statutory definition of military style semi-automatic firearms. 

2. See Lincoln v Police HC Palmerston North CIV-2009-454-473, 1 March 2010 where the Court found that New Zealand Police’s interpretation of “military pattern free-standing pistol grip” did not align with the definition of that term in the Arms Act.

3. The Arms (Military Style Semi-automatic Firearms – Pistol Grips) Order 2013 introduced a definition of “free-standing grip”.  A firearm with a “free-standing grip” was deemed to be a firearm with a “pistol grip” for the purposes of the Arms Act 1983 and therefore a military-style semi-automatic under the Arms Act.