Government

Opposition mounting to gun law reforms

Analysis: If the Government thinks everyone will be holding hands as it heralds in the second tranche of gun law changes, it's going to be disappointed. Laura Walters reports.

When the Government introduced legislation banning the types of weapons used by the Christchurch terrorist, just days after the attack, all but one MP supported the changes.

While the small (but vocal) extreme pro-gun lobby made some noise, Labour, New Zealand First, the Green Party and National held hands as they did what they considered to be the right thing.

Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel applauded the Government for moving quickly after the attack, and retaining the momentum until the law banning military-style semi-automatics and other particularly dangerous guns was passed.

This was something the government of her day had not been able to achieve following the Aramoana massacre. Back then, while MPs debated, the impetus was lost and so were hopes of meaningful change.

Jacinda Ardern's Government was right to move quickly after Christchurch, while the horror was still palpable. What came was a significant show of solidarity in exceptional circumstances.

But it hasn’t taken long for that momentum to wane, and if the Government thinks it’s going to achieve the same universal support the second time around, it’s setting itself up for disappointment.

On Monday, Ardern and Police Minister Stuart Nash announced far-reaching changes for their second tranche of gun law reforms.

It includes almost everything this Government, and others, have talked about. But by far the most notable proposed change is a gun register.

A letter left with flowers outside a Wellington mosque following the Christchurch shootings: the Government now wants to register all guns, alongside the register of firearms owners and licence-holders. Photo: Philippa Wood

Opposition swift and strong

The Government’s plan to reintroduce a register of all guns, alongside the register of firearms owners and licence-holders, is not surprising but it is contentious.

Gun lobbyists, rural firearms owners and Opposition politicians pushed back within minutes of the Government’s announcement.

When asked whether he expected to gain consensus on such a divisive issue, Nash said the Opposition was largely against a costly and cumbersome registration system, not the idea itself.

Now the technology exists to build an efficient and effective register – similar to the car licencing system - the majority of people think it’s a great idea, he said.

It’s hard to know who Nash has been talking to, because the idea of a register has long been opposed by gun owners from across the board - even since the necessary technology became available.

“All I can take from that is they’re not interested in reaching that sort of consensus… If we’re going to make meaningful and lasting change… particularly an important and emotionally laden one, cross party consensus is the way to go.”

Unsurprisingly, extreme pro-gun owners on the Kiwi Gun Blog page oppose a register and the idea of a five-year licence, instead advocating for a lifetime licence.

But opposition went further than what is often described as the “vocal minority” to include Federated Farmers, National and ACT.

“Misgivings about the practicality and cost of a firearms register is likely to dominate feedback from rural areas on the second round of proposed Arms Act amendments,” Federated Farmers said in its press release.

The organisation’s safety spokesperson Miles Anderson said the group had opposed a register in the past, and the successful re-establishment of this system would require a considerable investment, both economically and socially.

Nash said the Government had budgeted $42 million to $52m over 10 years. The system would take a year to build, and about five years to populate, he said.

ACT and National both said a register would put further cost and administrative burdens on law-abiding gun owners, described by National’s police spokesperson Brett Hudson as “easy targets” for gun law reform.

National supported the first tranche of gun law reform because it was the right thing to do, but it doesn’t think the Government is doing enough to address the real issue of criminal and gang behaviour, Hudson said.

Lack of consensus building

Newsroom understood part of the delay in the Government announcing the second tranche of reforms was due to discussions with the National Party, in an effort to get support, as it did for the first round of reforms.

But Hudson said the Government did not take the opportunity to work with the National Party, and did not provide any detailed briefing.

“All I can take from that is they’re not interested in reaching that sort of consensus…

“If we’re going to make meaningful and lasting change… particularly an important and emotionally laden one, cross party consensus is the way to go.”

While there is clear opposition, there is also support from many, including the Police Association, which has long called for a register and stricter controls, and from the newly formed gun safety lobby group, Gun Control NZ.

And the lawyer who helped write the Thorpe Report in 1997, which recommended many of these changes, said implementation of them would finally bring New Zealand into line with the general international consensus that all firearms should be registered.

“There was, sadly, always a sense that it might take another mass shooting for effective change to occur. What occurred in March was much worse than we feared, and it would have been no comfort to Sir Thomas to know that his views were now receiving attention."

Simon Mount said the overwhelming majority of gun owners supported common sense laws, like those proposed.

“But there is a small and vocal minority who will fight any attempts to tighten gun laws, and I expect we will hear from some of them now.”

In particular, he expected MPs would come under intense lobbying from a minority of the more extreme elements in the gun lobby.

“In the past that lobbying was enough to defeat reform proposals, but I hope this time will be different.”

Mount said Sir Thomas Thorpe was never under any illusion that reducing firearm-related harm would be easy or quick.

“There was, sadly, always a sense that it might take another mass shooting for effective change to occur. What occurred in March was much worse than we feared, and it would have been no comfort to Sir Thomas to know that his views were now receiving attention,” he said.

The opposition to the Government's second tranche of changes doesn’t mean it won’t be able to pass the law. As well as a mandate from the horrific event of March 15, votes from Labour, Greens and New Zealand First will do the trick. But as Ardern's Government likes to remind us, lasting change on important issues is better achieved through cross-party consensus.

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