Some New Zealand gun owners are upset they are being compelled to hand over their assault weapons for money. Others believe a government-imposed ban on certain semi-automatics following a March shooting massacre is the best way to combat gun violence.
The Associated Press has found at least one man might have tried to swindle hundreds of thousands of dollars from the system set up to compensate gun owners.
New Zealand is six weeks into an ambitious program to buy tens of thousands of guns from owners across the country.
After a lone gunman killed 51 people at two Christchurch mosques nearly six months ago, the government rushed through new laws banning military-style semi-automatics in a move that is being closely followed around the world. The new laws in emphasize that gun ownership is instead considered a privilege.
So far, owners have turned in more than 15,000 newly banned guns as well as 64,000 parts and accessories. In return, the government has handed them NZ$32 million (US$20 million).
However, nobody has a clear target for the program because authorities have not kept track of the number of guns in the country.
Tentative estimates put the total number of guns at about 1.5 million and the number of weapons that are now banned at up to 175,000. If those numbers are correct, it would mean less than 10 percent of the banned weapons have been handed in so far. Owners have until Dec. 20 to turn them over or potentially face charges.
Some politicians and opponents say the buyback scheme is a fiasco that is unfairly targeting law-abiding gun owners rather than criminals or gangs.
However, New Zealand Police Deputy Commissioner Mike Clement, a 40-year veteran tapped to oversee the scheme, said it has been working well.
He has been traveling to some of the dozens of buyback events, and said nobody really knows how many banned guns are out there, so any estimates are unhelpful.
“We’re just going to keep pushing ourselves,” Clement said.
On Saturday last week, Clement stood outside an event center near Wellington owned by a dog owners’ club that had been turned into a venue to hand in guns.
Heavily armed officers patrolled while others greeted gun owners cheerfully as they arrived and ushered them inside.
Under the buyback scheme, gun owners get between 25 percent and 95 percent of the pre-tax price of a new gun, depending on the condition of their guns. Police take bank details from owners and usually deposit money into their accounts within a few days.
After collecting the weapons, police use a hydraulic machine to crush the barrels and triggers out of shape before tossing them into crates for disposal.
One of the owners who showed up on Saturday was Paul Campbell, a chiropractor who has enjoyed target shooting since he was 10 years old. He said he was turning in an AR-15 rifle, an AR-10 rifle and a 1961 ex-army SLR rifle.
He said he disagreed with the ban and said previous laws were adequate if they had been properly enforced.
“Nothing is going to stop crazy behavior when crazy shows up, except good watchfulness by society to see the cracks, to see the problems, to see problem people,” Campbell said.
Council of Licensed Firearm Owners chairman Michael Dowling said gun owners had mixed reactions to the ban and some felt badly treated, but most were trying to comply with the law.
“We’re concerned at a high level that the way this has been approached, it potentially could mean a lot of firearms don’t get handed in,” Dowling said. “And that will create issues for generations to come.”
Gun owner Phillip Fee, who was handing in his Remington semi-automatic rifle, said he supported the ban wholeheartedly, especially after the Christchurch shootings.
“There are not too many things that you can take that number of lives with in such a short period of time,” he said. “So there has to be some form of control.”
Police are reaching out to dealers to try and collect weapons through them. They have also so far traveled to the homes of more than 50 gun owners who have large numbers of weapons to pick up the guns directly.
However, it seems at least one man might have tried to take advantage. Police are investigating whether the man, who is not a citizen, imported cheap gun magazines from Australia to try to cash in.
Clement said the man showed up at an Auckland buyback event with thousands of magazines seeking to collect hundreds of thousands of dollars in compensation.
Clement himself happened to be at the event.
“It’s one of those things that didn’t look right, didn’t feel right,” Clement said.
He said police were keeping hold of the magazines and had not paid the man any money while they carried out their investigation.
“The vast majority of people are doing the right thing,” Clement said. “But there are a handful of people who just, for whatever reason, feel like there might be an opportunity they might be able to exploit.”
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