Politics

Radical gun lobby gets opponent

Sticking your head above the parapet is dangerous when it comes to the gun debate. Laura Walters reports on a new gun control group determined to advocate for the other side.

Analysis: For the first time in more than 20 years, a gun control interest group has been set up in an effort to be a voice in opposition to the dominant pro-gun lobby.

New Zealand has long had a small, but vocal, pro-gun lobby, seen by many as responsible for stifling gun law changes for decades.

While former Police ministers dispute claims they ever bowed to the extreme pro-gun sector, the pro-gun voice has been dominant during successive attempts to get gun reform, including following the Aramoana massacre, the Thorpe Report, and the 2017 select committee inquiry into the illegal possession of firearms.

But the tide changed following the massacre of Muslims in Christchurch on March 15.

Despite concerted efforts by the radical arm of the gun lobby, the voices of the likes of Gun City’s David Tipple and Kiwi Gun Blog’s Mike Loder, did not dominate the discussion post-Christchurch.

The feeling among politicians was that the mood had changed, and it was time to pass tighter gun laws, which led to the majority ban of semi-automatic weapons in an attempt to close the loophole that saw the terrorist obtain his weapons.

In light of the change of mood, a special interest group advocating for even tighter gun control laws has sprung up in an attempt to make the most of the momentum that has come out of the tragedy.

On Wednesday, Gun Control NZ co-founders Hera Cook, Nik Green and Philippa Yasbek launched the group, and outlined their three primary objectives: the creation of a gun register; strengthening the ban on semi-automatic weapons; and shortening the licensing period from 10 years to three years.

Gun City owner David Tipple was among the vocal opponents of the semi-automatics ban, following the Christchurch attack. Photo: Sam Sachdeva

Cook, an Otago University public health expert, said the group aimed to give a voice to the majority of New Zealanders who wanted to ensure the next generation inherited a country free from the danger of gun violence.

She said current measures didn’t go far enough, and the ban on military-style semi-automatic weapons (MSSAs) imposed under urgency following March 15 was “another example of light-touch legislation”.

Yasbek, a public policy specialist, stressed that the group supported gun ownership by properly vetted people and the group wasn’t coming after law-abiding citizens’ guns.

Green said this was about “the kind of society we are and the kind of society we don’t want to become”.

Green was one of the authors of the 70,000 strong petition presented to Parliament in the days following the mosque attacks, calling for a ban on MSSAs and restriction on advertising.

“We were complacent, and we were wrong,” he said about New Zealanders’ attitudes to firearms in the past, adding that those in power had taken the path of least resistance.

The backlash

Gun Control NZ is currently the only single-issue, gun control lobby group in the country, and the first to be set up since 1992 when Philip Alpers created Gunsafe NZ.

If Alpers’ experience was anything to go by, the trio should brace itself for backlash.

In the days following the Christchurch attack – when Jacinda Ardern announced her plan to change gun laws – the online vitriol against the Prime Minister was astonishing.

But this was nothing compared to what Alpers experienced and what Yasbek, Green and Cook will likely endure.

Alpers set up Gunsafe in 1992 with the aim of closing the semi-automatic loophole, and what he received were “viscous and uncompromising attacks”.

"Don’t under-estimate the power of the very small number of extremists in the gun lobby to manipulate thousands of law-abiding firearms owners into believing somehow we’re trying to grab their guns."

This included the pro-gun lobby sending him faeces in the mail, signing him up to gay clubs and porn clubs, and attempts to ruin his reputation by sending fraudulent, “nasty” letters to people bearing his sign off.

Alpers said these attacks strengthened his resolve; they were not the reason he stopped working on law changes in New Zealand, they were the reason he continued.

The former Fair Go presenter moved to Australia in 2000 to work on global gun control and is pleased others are picking up the mantle.

He had some advice for the new kids on the block: “Don’t under-estimate the power of the very small number of extremists in the gun lobby to manipulate thousands of law-abiding firearms owners into believing somehow we’re trying to grab their guns.”

The New Zealand pro-gun lobby runs campaigns similar to those of the US National Rifle Association (NRA) and that is expected to continue through the second tranche of gun law reforms expected later this year. The NRA itself has also stuck its nose into the New Zealand debate in the past.

Police Minister Stuart Nash would not say much about the new group but said he did support having a range of voices on the topic, in order to balance the debate.

For too long the radical arm of the gun lobby had dominated the discussion, and Nash said some of its statements were “not necessarily correct or helpful”.

The Police Association will also be pleased to have an ally.

For a while now, the police union has almost single-handedly fought the radical arm of the gun lobby, making president Chris Cahill the target of online hatred.

What next?

While the Government has passed legislation to ban MSSAs there is still a lot of work.

Yasbek said the group came together to form as quickly as possible, in order to begin campaigning in time for the second tranche of gun law reforms. At the media launch on Tuesday the independent group had 15 members, but hoped to gain thousands more by approaching those who had signed gun control petitions.

Later this week, all eyes will be on the Budget, where the money set aside for the semi-automatic buyback scheme will be outlined.

Police gave a demonstration of how to modify semi-automatic weapons during the select committee process on the recent law change to ban MSSAs. Photo: Thomas Coughlan

While the details remain scarce, and regulations are yet to be finalised, the buyback is expected to cost between $100 million and $200m – with experts expecting the Budget appropriation revealed on Thursday to be pitched at the higher end.

Meanwhile, Cabinet is in the midst of consulting on the second tranche of gun law and policy changes, which will likely include restrictions on sales of ammunition, online sales, and increased licencing costs. It may also include changes to the licensing period and details of a gun register.

The Police Association has long campaigned for a gun register, and Nash recently confirmed he would be advocating for a register among his Cabinet colleagues.

The second tranche of law changes is due to be passed by the end of the year.

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