Terror in Chch

The rollercoaster ride of firearms reform

Parliament has been pushed and pulled between emotion and detail, conspiracy and research in its bid to carry out gun law reform in hyperdrive. But some say there's no other way, as Laura Walters writes.

There were moments of specificity throughout the marathon day of oral submissions on firearms reforms to Parliament's finance and expenditure committee.

But by and large, the appearance of more than 20 submitters was a chance to give those most affected by the Christchurch terror attack, and the subsequent decision to ban a raft of dangerous weapons, a chance to say their piece.

The speed at which the Government has moved to change the country’s gun laws makes your head spin.

For those MPs involved, as well as the experts, public and media witnessing the democratic process in action on Thursday, it was a stark reminder why laws are not usually made this way, and shouldn't be.

But nothing has moved slowly since the attacks on March 15.

In a matter of minutes, the gunman killed 49 people when he opened fire on two mosques. One person later died in hospital.

So far, the lone dissenter has been ACT’s David Seymour, who like 16,000 Kiwis with their names on a petition, disagrees with the speed with which the legislation is being passed rather than the spirit of the law itself.

Within 24 hours, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern promised New Zealanders that the country's gun laws would change, and so began the process of what would usually be a year-long debate, condensed into a month.

The Arms (Prohibited Firearms, Magazines, and Parts) Amendment Bill was introduced to the House on Tuesday, and by Thursday, April 11 – less than a fortnight later – the bill will pass with near-unanimous support.

So far, the lone dissenter has been ACT’s David Seymour, who like 16,000 Kiwis with their names on a petition, disagrees with the speed with which the legislation is being passed rather than the spirit of the law itself.

But there will be no slowing down, so on Thursday, the committee asked to hear from a representative proportion of New Zealand’s 250,000 gun owners, in a bid to weed out any unforeseen issues and at least be seen to be trying to give Kiwis a say - all the while keeping one eye on the clock.

Battle lines drawn

Submitters fell into three rough camps. The first: those who want the law change and want it now (in truth, most of these submitters wished it had happened years ago).

"Military-style semi-automatic weapons have no place in New Zealand. They never did," Fish and Game's Martin Taylor told the committee in the first submission of the day.

The second camp includes sport shooters, hunters, landowners and collectors – these people agree guns used to kill people should be banned for use by the general public, but believe specific exemptions should be made for law-abiding gun owners like themselves.

This group is concerned some firearms owners could be alienated, and the head of the Antique and Historical Arms Association Andrew Edgcombe told the committee that collectors felt “victimised, marginalised and criminalised”.

Federated Farmers asked for a carve-out for the owners of large farms who had to carry out large-scale pest control, while sport shooters spoke about their passion and what a ban could do to their lifelong hobby.

Federated Farmers representative Miles Anderson said he was concerned broad support from farmers would evaporate if the bill wasn't amended.

Meanwhile, the Police Association’s president Chris Cahill warned the committee exemptions created loopholes - and everyone in the room knew it was loopholes that led the country to its current position.

Tensions rise

Meanwhile, the third group was small but held a mighty megaphone. Self-appointed spokesman of New Zealand’s radical gun lobby Mike Loder and owner of the country’s largest gun retailer David Tipple each used their oral submissions to decry the law change.

It was clear MPs were united in their opposition to Loder’s Kiwi Gun Blog posts, where he called the prime minister a “tyrant” and named those who supported the bans “scumbags”.

Committee chair and Labour MP Michael Wood and National’s former police minister Judith Collins hit Loder with a one-two punch. Wood was ready with print-outs from Loder’s online comments, and Collins questioned his fitness to own a gun.

But within minutes of finishing his submission, Loder had posted to Kiwi Gun Blog, accusing Collins of playing the man, not the ball. “Missed opportunity to have a real discussion," he said.

Later, National’s police spokesman Chris Bishop said the majority, if not all, of those on the committee would not agree with Loder’s position.

“Passing this law means the murderer wins.”

This episode raised the question of whether Loder should have been invited to speak in the first place. He didn’t change MPs’ minds with his submission, and he was never going to.

If Loder was the warm up, Gun City’s Tipple was the main event, accusing Newshub journalists of being terrorists on his way into the select committee.

Tipple went on to tell the MPs New Zealand’s strength was in its unity, “because we accept differences and we tolerate them”.

“Passing this law means the murderer wins.”

He was met with looks of disbelief, and crossed arms. Wood asked Tipple how he would justify his position to the Muslim community. Was his right to own and make a profit from guns more important than others' right to feel safe?

Gun retailer David Tipple said bad laws make things worse, and this is a bad law. Photo: Sam Sachdeva

“Nobody will ever be completely safe from a lone madman who is determined to cause murder,” he replied. “This wasn’t about killing people, this was about dividing people.”

Mustafa Farouk, head of the Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand (FIANZ), sat at the back of the room while Tipple gave his submission.

Halfway through Tipple's submission, Farouk's blank expression dissolved, as he shook his head and released a visible sigh.

"I'm here to represent some of those people who are not able to be here today because they are dead,” Farouk had said just minutes before Tipple stated his claim.

“They are dead because they have been killed with the kind of weapons that this legislation is trying to take out of circulation.”

FIANZ’s Rehanna Ali followed Farouk’s comments: "Whatever reasons might be brought to bear for not supporting this legislation can never outweigh the 50 reasons we carry with us today."

As media pursued Tipple out of the room and onto Lambton Quay, Christchurch surgeons Richard Lander and James McKay gave a sobering submission to a near-empty room.

Those in the room held back tears as McKay read out a list of injuries sustained by the 48 victims brought to Christchurch Hospital in the immediate wake of the massacre.

He talked about the soft-nosed, fragmenting bullets, which inflicted maximum damage, chest and lung wounds, spinal injuries and lifelong physical disabilities and mental trauma.

An argument for speed

Between the emotion and drama, MPs squinted in thought, whispered between themselves with furrowed brows, and crossed their arms, heads tipped back as they processed the detail of the day.

The likes of Collins and Bishop have worked in this space before, while Wood and Ian McKelvie are gun owners, but it was clear the MPs were struggling to digest the intricacies of some of the submissions.

As well as grappling with the detail, they had to weigh up competing arguments. Should a collector's gun should be made permanently inoperable if that impacted on the historical value? And do landowners really need semi-automatics with extended magazines?

Politicians are clearly aware of the responsibility resting on their shoulders, and the tight timeframe in which they have to get this law right.

Law Society president Tiana Epati again emphasised the speed when she talked about the ability of the society’s criminal experts to consider Crown Law advice on the bill overnight on Wednesday.

While there was good reason for speed, Epati said the society had been unable to dig into the definitions and possible unintended consequences of the drafting; the legal experts wanted just a couple more days.

MPs have the unenviable task of cutting through the emotion of the submissions, and weighing up the pros and cons of safety and exemptions as Parliament moves towards its April 11 deadline. Photo: Sam Sachdeva

But Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel had no doubt in her mind about the course of action taken by politicians.

In what felt almost like a heartfelt pep talk to an exhausted select committee, Dalziel applauded Parliament for a rare show of unity, and impressed on MPs the opportunity before them.

“I am truly grateful that the politics isn’t in this room, and it isn’t in the House," she said in the last submission of the day.

"You have a golden opportunity...do it fast and do it well.”

Dalziel recounted her time in Parliament following the Aramoana shooting, and spoke with regret that more was not done at the time. As the debate dragged on, the will to make significant change dwindled.

“The only time you will have to act is now,” she told the room of MPs, who had spent the past six hours digesting conflicting and sometimes complicated submissions.

“When you look back on your time here, you can do so with no regrets...

“This is what will define our nation, and I think that is a very powerful and positive thing."

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