Terror in Chch

Why gun reform is desperately needed

New Zealand has been subjected to an unspeakable tragedy. Isolated by the Pacific expanse, we believed ourselves safe from the hatred and violence that has struck countless nations around the world.

We were wrong.

Friday’s attack was the inevitable consequence of a toxic culture of fear and stigmatisation which has grown in pockets of New Zealand.

The alienation of Muslim New Zealanders, seen as ‘outsiders’ and ‘invaders’, leads directly to the birth of white supremacist movements.

These movements are then fed and facilitated in anonymous corners of the internet, where bigotry is a virtue and extremism a requirement.

In the face of such monstrous ideologies, what can we do?

No country has been entirely successful in reining in the white supremacist movements that are flourishing in our digital world.

It will require intensive self-reflection, and tireless rooting out of hatred and resentment.

But the only reason Friday’s terrorist was able to massacre 49 people in minutes was that he possessed military-style semi-automatic (MSSA) rifles.

Part of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s first response to the Christchurch massacre was a commitment that, “Our gun laws will change.”

Yesterday afternoon she assured the nation that an agreement “in-principle” had been reached on what those changes will look like, and that the Coalition Government would be, “taking a very short space of time to ensure that the details around those decisions are firmed up and that they are ready for implementation”.

We know what the broad strokes of those decisions are likely to be: a buyback and ban on semi-automatic weapons, the introductions of a registry for individual firearms and stricter processes for acquiring a firearm licence and firearms. 

We know that because domestic and international experience has demonstrated that comprehensive gun reform of that type is the only effective way of preventing the repetition of similar carnage.

The closest modern New Zealand equivalent to the Christchurch massacre was the Aramoana Massacre in 1990. David Gray killed 13 innocents over 23 hours, including four children.

For the most part, he used a military-style semi-automatic (MSSA) rifle to do so. Up until then, New Zealand’s restrictions on gun ownership had been relatively relaxed. Gun purchasers could obtain a lifetime licence, which entitled them to possess as many firearms as they liked (a further licence had to be obtained for pistols and some restricted weapons). Those firearms did not need to be registered, meaning that once they had passed into the hands of purchasers they became very difficult to track.

Law reform quickly followed, and by 1992 moderate new restrictions had been placed on the type of MSSA firearms used by Gray. Other changes included a requirement that firearm licences had to be renewed every 10 years, regulation of the sale of ammunition, and greater power for police to seize firearms in domestic violence situations.

These changes worked. Accidental deaths from firearms dropped significantly. There were 18 such deaths in 1988, about 0.5 deaths per 100,000 people. By 1992 that rate had been reduced to 0.3, and by 2009 to below 0.1 deaths per 100,000 people. The use of firearms in murders and suicides also dropped. In 1994 there were 16 homicides involving firearms (27.6 percent of all homicides that year). The average number of homicides involving firearms has consistently and significantly dropped since then, and in 2011 there were just three homicides involving firearms (7.7 percent of all homicides that year). Suicide by firearm has also dropped significantly. In 1988 there were 102 suicides involving firearms (21.4 percent of all self-inflicted deaths that year). By 2009 there were just fifty-three suicides involving firearms (just 10.4 percent of all self-inflicted deaths that year).

These drops are important. Firearms are by far the most effective method of killing and maiming. Their absence means attempted murders and suicides are much less likely to end in death.

This moderate approach to gun control can be compared to the measures taken by Australia in the 1990s. On April 28, 1996, Martin Bryant ate his lunch at Broad Arrow Cafe in Port Arthur, Tasmania. After finishing his meal he reached into his backpack, pulled out a semi-automatic rifle and massacred 35 people, wounding 23 more. The centre-right Liberal Party governing Australia at the time reacted rapidly.

Within months a comprehensive set of gun control reforms had been introduced, including the establishment of a national firearms registry, a ban on semi-automatic and automatic firearms and the buyback and destruction of 600,000 civilian-owned firearms. It had an immediate effect. Australia had experienced 13 mass shootings in the 18-year period before the Port Arthur Massacre. It has had zero since. The same can no longer be said for New Zealand.

Uri Friedman, a writer for The Atlantic, describes how, “Between 1995 and 2006, gun-related homicides and suicides in [Australia] dropped by 59 percent and 65 percent, respectively, though these declines appear to have since levelled off. Two academics who have studied the impact of the reform initiative estimate that the gun-buyback program saves at least 200 lives each year, according to The New York Times.”

A moderate approach in New Zealand had a moderate result. A comprehensive approach in Australia had a radical result. These differing approaches can also be compared to the abject failure of the status quo in the United States. Although the United States has no universally accepted definition of what a mass shooting is, it is commonly defined as a non-gang related shooting of four or more people taking place in a public space. According to this definition, there have been over 120 mass shootings in the United States since 1990. That immense death toll is the inevitable consequence of a regulatory environment in which firearms are easily accessible and difficult to track.

This spectrum of international outcomes indicates international best practice gun control occurs across the Tasman. It is almost certainly to Australia that the coalition government will look for inspiration. Given that we likely know what the high-profile elements of the coalition’s gun control proposal will be, the most interesting part of Ardern’s statement yesterday afternoon is that the coalition Government will be taking a few days to firm up the detail surrounding their proposals.

Helpfully, New Zealand’s history with gun reform gives us some indications on what that detail is and ought to be. Since the gun control reforms of 1992 there have been three separate instances where it has failed in New Zealand. That has three implications.

First, our current regulatory scheme is vastly out of date. Secondly, there is a pre-existing policy framework for a ban on semi-automatic firearms and a gun registry. Thirdly, that there is a wealth of policy information about less prominent but similarly crucial gun control measures which the government could undertake.

The Bolger government commissioned a report on firearms legislation in 1997. The subsequent report, conducted by retired High Court judge Sir Thomas Thorp, was far-reaching. Its most notable recommendations will be familiar: - Setting up a registry for all firearms in New Zealand so that police know where firearms were and who owned them. - Reducing the number of years a firearms license is valid for from 10 to three years. - A government buyback of all MSSA firearms, followed by an outright ban. The Bill put forward to enact these reforms was ultimately dropped after fierce political opposition from gun-owners.

But since the coalition’s reforms will probably be very similar, the Thorp Report still provides us with crucial policy detail. Thorp received estimates in 1997 that if 25,000 to 30,000 MSSA weapons were bought back from private ownership, it would cost $21 million. Adjusted for inflation, that means a price-tag of approximately $32 million. But police estimate that there are 15,000 MSSA weapons in circulation currently, so the cost of a buyback would be much less than Thorp estimated.

Thorp was also provided with estimates showing the implementation of a three-yearly licensing system and firearms registry would cost $31 million - approximately $47 million adjusted for inflation. With the advances made in digital administration since then, that number would also likely be much lower in reality. Given the horrific costs of inaction, these costs are tiny. Thorp also provides a useful historical perspective on the introduction of a firearms registry. Up until 1983, New Zealand used to have a registry tracking individual firearms. It failed miserably. That was because the register was paper-based, spread across 16 different locations and often inaccurate because firearm owners often failed to notify changes of address.

As Thorp explains, “Such a decentralised system required considerable manual investigation to pinpoint a firearm’s owner or location and was of limited effect in locating armed offenders.” But we live in a vastly different, digital era – one in which the efficient management of similar registers by government agencies has become commonplace. Cross-agency data-sharing, also a normal part of modern government behaviour, could also assist in keeping such a registry up to date. By understanding why such a register failed in past, we can see that it would not be the same in our modern world.

In sum, Thorp’s report demonstrates how reasonable the flagship elements of the coalition’s likely proposals would be. A buyback and ban of semi-automatic and MSSA firearms would eliminate weapons which nobody needs at an acceptable cost. A computer-based firearms registry would allow police to have certainty about who possesses what guns, and how to track them down.

None of the suggested reforms would prevent gun owners from using a pistol at a shooting range, or a hunting rifle around the farm. They would remove weapons which have no place in our society and more appropriately regulate those which remain. But the coalition cannot stop there.

One firearm owner has already outlined the terrifying loopholes which burrow through our firearm regulatory scheme. If such loopholes went unaddressed in any upcoming attempt at gun control reform, they would fatally undermine the scheme.

Thorp’s report, and other attempts to reform our gun laws in later years, provide crucial but lower-profile recommendations with which we can eliminate those loopholes. For example, Thorp also recommended:

- Significant ammunition capacity restrictions on permitted semi-automatic weapons.

- Restrictions on the number of handguns a firearm licensee can possess (two in the licensee’s first year, 12 afterwards).

- Higher minimum standards for the storage of firearms.

- Allowing doctors and mental health professionals to report concerns about people with poor mental health and access to firearms.

In 2005, a pared-back Bill which aimed to bring New Zealand into line with the UN’s ‘Protocol against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Their Parts and Components and Ammunition’ was also dropped after political opposition. And in 2017, Parliament’s Law and Order select committee made twenty bipartisan recommendations about how to improve gun control in New Zealand. Just seven of the recommendations were accepted by the government.

Among the rejected recommendations were the following commonsense suggestions:

- That only those with firearm licenses should be able to purchase and possess ammunition.

- That only those with firearm dealer licenses should be able to sell ammunition.

- That dealers should have to keep records of any ammunition sales.

- That the Police should be required to record the serial numbers of all firearms possessed by license-holders when a license is renewed, which over time would create a registry of firearms.

- That the law be amended so that failure to comply with storage regulations must result in revocation of a firearms licence.

- That the Police publicise and clarify existing amnesty provisions which allow people unlawfully possessing pistols, restricted weapons and MSSA firearms to hand the weapons into the Police without being prosecuted.

Together, Thorp’s lower-profile suggestions, the 2005 Bill, and the rejected recommendations of the Law and Order committee report provide a gun control framework within which recommendations of a buyback, ban and individual firearms register can thrive.

Indeed the combination of the higher and lower profile recommendations would likely have stopped New Zealand’s last two major firearms incidents. When Jan Molenaar killed a police officer and injured several members of the public in 2009, he did it with a semiautomatic firearm which he would not have possessed if Thorp’s proposed buyback and ban of MSSA weapons had been implemented. Molenaar also had 17 other firearms stored away, which would have raised alarm bells had a Thorp-like firearm registry existed to show the breadth of his collection.

Quinn Patterson, who killed Natanya and Wendy Campbell in Whangarei Heads in 2017, did so with a semi-automatic rifle illegally acquired with a friend’s firearm license and then modified with a high capacity magazine. Thorp recommended more stringent firearm licence processes which might have stopped Patterson’s friend from receiving a licence, and recommended significant restrictions to magazine capacity limitation for permitted semi-automatic firearms which would have blocked Patterson’s fatal modifications. Patterson might also have been deprived of ammunition had he been required to present a firearms license in order to purchase it, as the 2017 Law and Order select committee suggested ought to be the case.

It is clear then that these recommendations must be pursued with urgency. To continue with the status quo is to risk military-style semi-automatic weapons falling into the hands of truly dangerous people; through legal purchase, exploitation of loopholes or illegal modification.

These are weapons explicitly designed to kill humans; which tear through flesh and bone with ease. Their existence is unjustifiable. Only through reform can we prevent them from falling into the hands of individuals who idolise the monster that terrorised Christchurch and traumatised our country.

Thoughts and prayers are not enough. Tangible change to our gun control system is desperately needed. 

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