New Zealand has had a sensible approach to firearms laws, but that's now under threat.

Shaky times for shooters in the Shaky Isles

I often receive enquiries about New Zealand firearms laws. I note that while I am not admitted to practice in NZ, I take some interest in the firearms laws of other countries with a similar background to our own, especially Commonwealth countries and the United States.

The legislation that regulates firearms in New Zealand, is the NZ Arms Act 1983, as amended by the (Military Style Semi-Automatic Firearms & Import Controls) Amendment Act 2012 and the Arms Regulations 92.

In order to obtain a Firearms Licence, an applicant must be over 16 years of age, obtain a mark of at least 28/30 in a course and test conducted by the NZ Police, and be a ‘fit and proper person’.

Anybody with a history of violence, repeated involvement with drugs, behaviour evidencing an irresponsible attitude to alcohol or who maintains relationships with people who are themselves considered unsuitable, can expect refusal. As can an applicant who seeks a firearm for self-defence. These criteria are set out in a Code, or safety manual, provided to applicants, rather than by the Legislation.

Police may also refuse to grant a licence to someone with a history of mental illness.

As part of the licensing process, police will interview people who live with the applicant and will inspect the cabinet in which the applicant intends to store his firearms.

Having passed this process, an applicant will be issued a licence with a category A endorsement.  This is valid for 10 years and entitles the holder to purchase sporting long arms, which include sporting semi-automatic firearms and ammunition.

If an applicant wishes to own a handgun, a ‘B endorsement’ will be required. An applicant will need to join a pistol club and shoot 12 times in six months and be recommended by the club. Family members will be re-interviewed by police and an appropriate safe will need to be obtained by the applicant and be inspected by police.

Military style semi-automatics (MSSAs) are available in NZ and are covered by an ‘E’ class licence endorsement. The nature of the E class endorsement has changed as a result of amendments to the Act made in 2012.

Under the amendments, E class firearms possess one of the following features: a flash eliminator, pistol grip, folding or telescopic stock, bayonet lug or which takes a magazine that holds more than 15 rounds of .22 rim fire ammunition or more than seven rounds of centre fire ammunition, or which has the appearance of being capable of holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition.


They are semi-automatic firearms declared to be MSSAs, either by being specifically declared as such, or possessing features declared as MSSAs, or being a semi-automatic firearm that has a feature of a kind defined or described in an order.

Applicants for a Category E endorsement must pass a more stringent ‘fit and proper person’ test and possess a 6mm safe.

Licensees will initially be able to escape E class classification by replacing a pistol grip stock on firearm that would otherwise be an MSSA firearm with a thumbhole stock, and by accepting a licence condition to the effect the licensee will not install a magazine with higher than stipulated capacity or appearance.

Ostensibly these changes are intended to redress deficiencies in the definition of the MSSA that became apparent in a NZ High Court case. However, the changes would appear to somewhat futile as a law enforcement exercise unless the changes are merely a means of implementing UN edicts in an environment of low homicide rates, and a legislature and population adverse to gun registration.

By way of history, NZ introduced firearms registration following World War I as a result of fear of a communist revolution. Remember a revolution occurred in Russia in 1917 shocking the world, and thousands of soldiers (read trained killers and potential revolutionaries) had just returned from war, scaring the establishment.

Registration was abandoned for all firearms other than military style semi-automatics and handguns in 1983 because police were finding that registration involved police in an enormous and expensive task that was highly error prone.

There have been attempts at reintroducing firearms registration since then, for example, following the UN Firearms Agreement, but these attempts have all failed.

In my opinion, amendments allowing for the administrative re-classification of firearms or source actions together with registration of E class firearms are likely to result in implementing UN’s anti-gun edicts by stealth.

Other changes in the amended Act impose a need to apply for an import permit for any air gun, paintball gun or air soft gun, or real gun that looks like it is capable of fully automatic fire. Similar rules regulate the importation of parts for such firearms. As a special reason will be required to justify importation, and as a special reason is largely discretionary, it is likely that this will effectively over time result in a ban on importation.

The NZ approach strikes a balance between the competing demands in society. After 30 years of sensible legislation, the balance is under threat. 


Disclaimer: This article does not constitute legal advice, nor does the reading of it, give rise to any solicitor-client relationship.  If confronted with a legal difficulty involving firearms I suggest you contact someone experienced in the area. 

If you have any comments, or suggestions for future articles please phone (02) 6299 9690 or email




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Simon Munslow