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Forestry and the use of firearms

Hamish Levack, New Zealand Tree Grower November 2017.

Many NZFFA members own guns, some of which may have been inherited from a relative or donated by a friend who probably used them to control animal pests, to hunt game, or on occasion, to put stock out of their misery. It is possible that some of you have let your children hunt rabbits or goats on their own, sometimes take a pot shot at a flying duck without checking where the bullet would land if the bird was missed, and that you are not always careful about storing your weapons safely.

All the above, along with several other activities involving firearms that you may well be unaware of, are criminal offences. Prosecution can result in large fines or up to four months in prison. This article covers the importance of being licensed if you have a gun.

Early gun control

I bought my first rifle in 1963 as a young man residing and working in Kaingaroa Forest. All you were obliged to do in those days was to tell the local policeman that you had made the purchase. The next shopping Friday, on my way to Taupo in a bus filled with my fellow employees from the single men’s camp, I asked where the police station was. ‘We’ll show you’, was the answer, ‘We have to go there as well to get our probation papers signed’. Incidentally, even though some of these men had already been convicted for violent crimes, they too had rifles and went hunting.

It was a different era. Most young fellows my age had not only been taught about rifles at school but had also learned how to strip down and reassemble guns blindfolded. Most older ones had seen active service in the forces, so I suppose it was taken for granted that we all knew how to handle firearms safely. However, I had not had anything to do with a rifle for quite a while, and the local policeman did not bother to check whether I had remembered to −

  • Treat every firearm as loaded
  • Always point firearms in a safe direction
  • Load only when ready to fire
  • Identify my target beyond all doubt
  • Check my firing zone
  • Store my firearms and ammunition safely
  • Avoid alcohol and drugs when handling firearms

Today, if you want to be licensed you are tested for the above as well as relevant ancillary knowledge, and if you wish to remain licensed you need to be tested again every 10 years. Because they are about 60 firearm fatalities a year in New Zealand, probably most readers will have known people who have been killed by guns.

In my case I recall one particularly upsetting suicide when a promising graduate forester killed himself at Rotoehu Forest village in 1970. About 10 years later another friend of mine was mistaken for a deer and killed by a hunter. I also had a relative who lost an eye while cleaning a handgun which happened to be loaded.

Toughening up on gun controls

In the mid-1960s the police attempted to set up a complete register of firearms but lacked the resources to complete it. In 1983 the Arms Act came into force. It resulted in a change from a system that tried to control firearms to one that tried to control users. After 1983, police had to conduct background checks before issuing a new licence. However, at that stage existing owners were automatically issued with a licence, and there was no control on buying or selling firearms

The Act was amended in 1992 to rectify this. It also restricted ammunition sales to licensed holders of firearms, to add photographs to firearms licences, to require licence holders to store their firearms securely, and to require all licence holders to be re-vetted for new licences every 10 years. Today if you are a member a gang, have a reputation for violence, a history of depression, been irresponsible with alcohol or drugs, or even if you have mixed with people deemed to be unsuitable, you will not be given a firearms licence.

In January this year Police Commissioner Mike Bush announced his concern about the high number of illegally-held firearms in the country and in June a select committee inquiry into the use of firearms made a number of recommendations. Some were accepted but government once again rejected the proposal that serial numbers of guns should be recorded in a police register. The appropriateness of this decision keeps on being queried, the latest doubts being expressed last July after Quinn Patterson shot two people dead, and nearly killed another. He had applied for a firearms licence but had been rejected, yet he had managed to amass a number of firearms

Make sure you have an appropriate licence for your gun. You can obtain a copy of the Arms Code from a police station or download it online at


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