By Maddison Lewis
Gun violence has become a prominent issue in the public eye. In 2020, New Zealand saw a record-breaking level of gun violence, and Auckland saw a 49 percent increase in firearms-related injuries over a year and a half at the end of 2021 . Against this background, the Justice Select Committee is currently taking submissions on a new bill that would introduce Firearms Protection Orders (FPOs) into the criminal justice system.
The bill, known as the Firearms Prohibition Orders Legislation Bill, would allow courts to issue an FPO to adult offenders convicted of specified offences if such an order is ‘reasonable, necessary, and appropriate’ . An FPO is set for a period of ten years and prohibits the relevant person from ‘accessing, possessing, or using any firearm’.  It also includes other conditions such as not being in the presence of those who have firearms ‘not in secure storage’ . To break the conditions of an FPO or to supply firearms to a person who is currently under an FPO would constitute an imprisonable offence .
Speaking at the first reading of the bill, Minister for Police Poto Williams said the bill ‘provides an important new way for New Zealand to keep firearms out of the hands of criminals, and to keep our communities safe’ . MP Ginny Anderson supported the Minister of Police saying, the bill ‘aims to reduce firearm offending and victimisation’ .
However, although the bill enjoys cross-party support in Parliament, the bill is not without criticism. Green party MP Golriz Ghahraman, speaking at the first reading of the bill, criticised the punitive aspect of FPOs which can result in imprisonment when breached. She argued prison isn’t a solution for keeping our communities safe’ and emphasised the need for more investment in rehabilitation and other treatment programs .
FPO’s, which could lead to imprisonment if breached, are particularly concerning in light of comments published in a public consultation document by the New Zealand police. The document says that ‘Māori are likely to be over-represented in the cohort of people who could qualify for, and become subject to, Firearms Prohibition Orders.’ . Is it possible then that Māori could also become over-represented in those convicted of offences related to breaches of FPOs? If true, this could further exacerbate the overrepresentation of Tangata Whenua in the criminal justice system.
On the other side of the political spectrum, MP Mark Mitchell has criticised the bill as lacking ‘teeth’ . In particular, he has advocated for the bill to include provisions that would allow for a ‘warrantless search capability’ . Such a warrantless search capability has been seen in Australia, where certain states have implemented a similar FPO framework. In the state of Victoria, the Firearms Act 1996 gives the power to the police to perform warrantless searches if it would be ‘reasonably required to determine’ whether someone under an FPO has ‘acquired, or is carrying or using a firearm or firearm related item’ . Such warrantless searches can include search of property and the person .
Concerns were raised that the Victoria legislation gave powers to police that were open to abuse or that could be used ‘arbitrarily’. This concern was raised in a report by the Ombudsman in New South Wales, which also has FPO legislation. The report noted that in 15% of search cases considered by the report, police interpreted ‘reasonably required’ as meaning ‘the fact that a person was the subject of an FPO was itself a sufficient basis to search’ . In the context of New Zealand, legislators will have to consider if the right to privacy is reasonably protected. A lack of reasonable restraints on such power could see Tangata Whenua disproportionately suffer invasive searches.
In short, the introduction of FPO’s is not a one-dimensional issue. Although the bill has support from both sides of the political spectrum, the nuances of the bill need to be carefully examined in order to ensure that FPO’s, if established in New Zealand, are fair, effective and non-discriminatory. FPOs also need to be seen in the broader context of our criminal justice system and how new offences resulting in imprisonment would affect the wider population. Public submissions on the bill remain open until the 29th March.
This article does not represent the views of the author and the University of Auckland Public Policy Club