Bryce Edwards: Government’s successful first round of gun law reform  

Bryce Edwards: Government’s successful first round of gun law reform  

Although important questions remain about the Government’s firearms law reform programme, at this stage there is a broad consensus that Jacinda Ardern and her colleagues have successfully navigated the first tranche of change.

Praise is coming in from all quarters, including internationally. And when praise for gun law reform also comes from farmers’ groups, hunters, the police, and a variety of political commentators, then you can be sure that the Government has dealt with this major response to the Christchurch terrorist attacks in a highly adept fashion.

What the Government announced on Thursday was definitely a compromise, which is perhaps why it’s been politically successful. Instead of announcing a complete ban on all semi-automatic guns, the Government chose to make a number of exemptions, which makes the ban less radical than that implemented by John Howard in Australia following the Port Arthur massacre.

This is explained best by the Herald’s Jared Savage: “Exempted from the ban in New Zealand are semi-automatic .22 rifles (with a magazine which holds no more than 10 rounds), as well as semi-automatic or pump action shotguns with internal magazines (holding no more than five rounds)” – see: Why the gun ban was a smart compromise but needs to go further.

He explains the logic and political sense in this: “This is also a sensible move. These firearms are regularly used by farmers for pest control, as well as hunters. Banning them would cause great unrest in rural communities in particular, so politically speaking, the exemption makes it hard for critics to argue legitimate firearms owners are being unfairly targeted. I suspect most won’t complain.”

Savage argues that “banning dangerous weapons while reaching out to those who will be most affected – will go a long way to unite most people behind the changes.”

Stuff’s political editor, Tracy Watkins, agrees that a politically adept balance has been struck in what she calls “one deft move” by the Prime Minister to avoid either being too radical or moderate in reform – see: Jacinda Ardern’s gun reforms needed to strike a delicate balance – and they do.

She says it means Ardern will “be criticised by those at the opposite ends of the gun debate as not going far enough by some, and too far by others.” But Watkins argues that the Government needed to find a compromise that would keep some of the gun lobby on side: “Ardern’s challenge was in striking a balance between the more lethal and MSSA weapons, and the types of shotguns popular among duckshooters and hunters, which the tide of public opinion could have easily swept into the list of guns that should be banned.”

This wasn’t just about electoral calculations, but also ensuring that the reforms would actually result in compliance from gun owners: “the risks of a backlash and black market from non-compliance are also factors that have to be weighed up.”

It’s therefore of great interest that groups such as Federated Farmers, the Police Association, Rural Security, Fish and Game and Trade Me have come out in support of the changes. For example, Police Association president Chris Cahill has said: “It’s a good mix of reforms that balance the practical requirements of firearm owners in New Zealand with the need to protect society, we’re very pleased” – see RNZ’s Wide support for government’s move to tighten gun laws.

For detail from a hunter about why this is the right decision, see Lew Stoddart’s Gun law reform strikes a fair balance. He is full of praise for the Government’s decision: “The government’s gun law reform package is notable because it balances three factors that in previous reforms have proven irreconcilable: it removes the most dangerous firearms from legal circulation immediately; it does so without being a knee-jerk overreaction; and it does so quickly, without extravagant cost, and without much legal vulnerability.”

For Stoddart, the key is that changes to the legislation are “based on power, action type, and magazine capacity”, thereby allowing for some less-dangerous semi-automatics to be exempted from the ban. For example, guns that only have a calibre barrel of 0.22 or less, and which can only hold up to 10 rounds, are still allowed. And Stoddart says: “The object of the reforms is to get the largest number of most-dangerous firearms out of circulation in the shortest possible time with the least hassle, and the only way that works is with the consent of firearms owners.”

For more on the technical details of the ban, see Stuff’s Q&A: A closer look at New Zealand’s new weapons ban.

Inside the Government, this appears to have been a carefully designed compromise to keep both politicians and gun owners on side. This is explained well by Richard Harman: “The decision to ban military-style semi-automatic firearms yesterday does not go as far as Australia did in 1996 after the Port Arthur massacre and was not the first preference of the Greens. Instead, it is a political compromise designed to get the vote of NZ First and National when it is presented to Parliament in a fortnight. What the Prime Minister clearly wanted to avoid was provoking a full-on fight with the rural community and the gun lobby” – see: The gun control compromise.

Harman says that he “understands the Greens wanted all semi-automatic firearms banned. That would have been consistent with their manifesto for the last election”. But this more radical ban would have been opposed by both New Zealand First and the National Party. Therefore “Ardern knew that if she wanted bipartisan support for a ban, she would have to reject the Greens policy”.

The international news media has reported surprise at the “lightning speed” and ease with which the New Zealand Government has been able to achieve this initial reform. The contrast with fights over gun control in the United States has been particularly highlighted. For the best item explaining to an international audience why New Zealand was able to push this through, see Rick Noack and Shibani Mahtani’s Washington Post story, New Zealand just banned military-style firearms. Here’s why the US can’t.

Similarly, see Matt Kwong’s Canadian report, New Zealand promised and delivered a gun ban. Here’s why the US can’t do the same.

All of the congratulations and hailing of the Government’s success doesn’t mean that there are no criticisms at all. Most importantly, the various gun exemptions still have some people worried. And there’s continued questioning about how much farmers really need these types of guns anyhow – especially when farmers cite “animal welfare” justifications. One answer is that it’s about the slaughter of bobby calves.

One writer, from a family of gun-owners, says: “The whole issue is so obnoxious to me that I can hardly write about it, but unfortunately it’s a regular part of the dairy farming process. A year or so ago dairy farmers were banned from ending their bobby (male) calves lives with hammers or bits of wood. Essentially the calves would be clubbed to death. Thankfully semi-automatic guns are now the accepted method. Firearms make this abhorrent job easier for both the calf and the farmer” – see: I’m from a farming family: Owning a gun isn’t a right.

And how well will the buy-back scheme even work? The Government is projecting that the scheme will cost up to $200 million. Lobby groups, say it could be much more, based on the fact that “Military style semi-automatics can cost from $200 to more than $10,000 and there are at least 15,000 registered in New Zealand” – see Maiki Sherman’s Firearm buyback scheme could cost $500m, twice the Government’s estimate, lobbyist group says.

Already some gun-owners are apparently indicating that they won’t hand over their now-illegal guns. According to one news report, “The Gunshack owner Peter Watson said while he was not personally affected by the ban, he had spoken to at least 10 recreational shooters who said they would refuse to hand over their weapons” – see Jennifer Eder’s Gun shop owner warns recreational shooters won’t buy in to buy-back gun control legislation.

One gun lobbyist, Mike Loder, has even written an “open letter” questioning whether the government should really compel “shooters, in a supposedly free nation, to hand in private property on the promise of later compensation” – see Tom Pullar-Strecker’s NRA calls for stop to NZ’s ‘socialist disarmament’ alongside appeal for donations.

Another gun lobbyist, Bill O’Leary of the Deerstalkers Association, is campaigning to have compensation amounts determined by negotiation on a one-by-one basis: “It would mean every firearm would have to sit on a table, and on one side would be the person from the government and on the other would be the owner” – see Rob Stock’s The ban of military-style semi-automatics will cost millions – here is how the Australians did it.

Similarly, another gun-owner is reported today saying “If we hand in our firearms without assurances that compensation will be appropriate, what cost $20,000 will suddenly turn into $5000 of compensation” – see Cecile Meier’s Gun owner happy to hand in rifle for free, others say law change is causing anxiety.

Although there are obviously a variety of responses from gun-owners, another one says: “With the stroke of a pen, the Government has made some of my firearms illegal… I am anxious that the police may turn up at my house and seize my property in front of my whole neighbourhood. I am losing sleep.”

There are also a number of criticisms about the legislative process that the Government is attempting to take. The best arguments against this have been put by the Otago Daily Times’ Mike Houlahan, who says that haste in lawmaking can lead to bad law, which might even include loopholes, making the new rules less effective – see: Composure needed before creating new laws.

Finally, regardless of laws, are you personally complicit in helping the arms industry and the production of guns? Rob Stock explains, How to go weapons-free in your KiwiSaver portfolio.