Angela and Richard are part of a team tasked with implementing a state-of-the-art firearms registry and building Police’s new Firearms Branded Business Unit (FBBU).
The Government has awarded Police $208 million in funding over four years to get the job done – stopping criminals from obtaining guns, keeping communities and frontline officers safe and providing a secure, easy-to-use system for gun owners.
Richard, now director of operations in the Arms Safety and Control team, says he regularly encountered firearms when he was on the frontline. He kept questioning how those firearms were getting into the hands of criminals. Now that he knows some of the answers, he is in no doubt about the need to understand and manage the legitimate market, which will make it harder for criminals to access the black market.
Improving the firearms licensing system and delivering a firearms registry on a new online platform are the result of legislative changes introduced after the 2019 Christchurch terror attacks.
The FBBU unit will have between 450 and 500 staff when fully operational.
A dedicated national team is already working to clear a significant backlog of licensing applications before the registry goes live in June 2023. The registry is under a legislative imperative to be active by that date, ready to work hand-in-glove with the licensing system.
Australian company Objective Corporation, which specialises in regulatory systems, has been awarded a $13m contract to build the 2023 online registry, which will be a far cry from New Zealand’s previous paper-based, decentralised and often inaccurate firearms database, which was abolished in 1983.
It will be similar to the car licensing system, and licence holders’ details (name, date of birth, address, licence number, etc) will be transferred onto the register over five years. It will include all firearms in each licence holder’s possession, data on firearm parts and record the sale of ammunition through dealers.
“It will be mandatory to fill in some fields and you won't be able to progress without filling in those fields,” says Angela. “It will actually help with our processing time because at the moment, handwritten forms with bits of information missing are not entirely legible.”
When a firearm is bought or sold, the information of each party will be stored on the register. Private sales must also be recorded.
Licence payments will also move online.
The length of a standard Category A firearms licence has been shortened from 10 to five years for new applicants, or for those seeking a licence after having it revoked or having let it expire.
More staff have already been added to the licensing and vetting teams and will support arms staff already established within the districts.
The demand on licensing is expected to increase over the next four to five years as existing holders’ 10-year licence periods come up for renewal.
Licence holders will have five years to enter the registry when they buy or sell a firearm, ammunition, relicense or change address.
The registry will be populated from the outset by the licence holder. The FBBU will support them to enter their information and ensure the accuracy of the information.
“For the firearms community, this will really be a lot cleaner and easy to understand,” Richard says.
There will still be a service available for those who don’t want to go electronic, but the unit will encourage owners to move into the 21st century.
Frontline officers will be vital to the registry’s effectiveness, Angela says.
The FBBU will be the regulator of the firearms system and is responsible for deciding if a licence holder is no longer fit and proper, but intel from the frontline will help determine that outcome.
“That means staff making an intel noting [through the OnDuty app] if they think someone’s behaviour is a cause for concern, then that gives the National Firearms Compliance Team the ability to act,” she says.
“The compliance team will be checking on what offences have occurred overnight involving licence holders, and can issue a suspension notice that would go to the frontline for them to seize that individual’s firearm, ammunition and licence if a situation deemed it worthy.”
She says the register will provide greater knowledge on how firearms are making it into the illegal market. Straw-purchasing [the on-selling of firearms to criminals by licensed owners] and burglaries are examples police are already aware of.
How widespread the problems are is not fully understood yet, but Police will ask the firearms community for help by registering their firearms, Richard says.
“If there are individuals who are licence holders who are diverting firearms illegally, we want to work out who they are. Fit and proper licence holders don't want those people in their community.”
He says the registry will encourage owners to report stolen firearms to help solve the thefts and so they don’t run the risk of being linked to any future criminal acts involving those firearms.
The team has met regularly with the firearms community, including the Council of Licensed Firearms Owners (COLFO) which opposes the registry. COLFO is concerned the registry won’t prevent gun crime and, if there are any breaches, it will become a “shopping list” for criminals.
Those concerns intensified last month when police discovered documents that contained firearms owners’ names and addresses had been stolen from a former police station.
Richard says protecting people’s information is of utmost importance under the new online system, which will have the same security protocols as Police’s National Intelligence Application.
“We don't want to have paper copies being moved around; we want to move away from that. We’ll be on a digital platform so we can really keep people's privacy front of mind for all the services we deliver.”
COLFO also argues that black-market firearms will never be registered and will be untraceable because the serial numbers have been removed.
That concern has already been addressed by the team. Police is working with ESR – a Crown Research Institute – which has the forensic capability to recover serial numbers from a firearm and there is technology available to prevent them being removed in the first place.
It’s a fairly expensive undertaking, he says, “but we do it for high-end offences and discussions are under way with the Police armoury to look at whether we can do that on a greater scale”.
Work is continuing on engaging the firearms community. Owning a firearm is a privilege, not a right, and most of the nearly 250,000 strong licensed community understand that, Richard says, but they need to weed out “the bad apples”.
“The rationale behind the registry is to support that so we can identify people who shouldn’t have a firearms licence in the first place.”
Once the FBBU is established, a governance group, chaired by Commissioner Andrew Coster, will be set up to establish a better understanding of how firearms are entering the black market.
Guns coming through the border aren’t a key focus currently because the supply is so rife inside our own market, Richard says.
“Once the registry comes on board, we'll be able to make it harder here onshore, then we'll start to put our focus on making sure our borders are really tight so we can disrupt the gangs, criminals and cartels bringing firearms into our country.”
The team has been working closely with overseas jurisdictions that have established firearms registers, such as Australia and Canada, to understand what works and what doesn’t.
In Australia, all firearms must be registered. Each state has its own registry, though a centralised national database does not exist.
Canada requires restricted and prohibited firearms to be registered. A full registry was abandoned in 2012 after it became highly politicised due to reported cost overruns.
Richard says overseas jurisdictions have proved helpful to New Zealand Police, providing useful information to ensure they learn from others’ experience.
“A number of them are quite envious of our position, because we've got the chance to do it and do it right.
“We’ve got an opportunity to be positively world leading in the space. That’s what we're really striving for, and we can only do that by learning from our overseas partners.”
Angela and Richard acknowledge the challenges the legislative changes mean for New Zealand and Police, but believe it is a positive step that the community will be on board with.
“You register your car, and that system works really well. Why would you not register your firearm? The systems are there now, the technology is there, it just makes sense.”
In 1997, the government-ordered Thorp report – the most comprehensive report on firearms in New Zealand – recommended a combined gun registration and licensing system and the banning of semi-automatic firearms.
The registry was abandoned when the Arms Act 1983 was introduced, though specific restricted weapons and pistols still had to be registered.