Bryce Edwards: Why has gun law reform failed until now?

Bryce Edwards: Why has gun law reform failed until now?

As the Christchurch terrorist debate has unfolded, there has been astonishment that New Zealand’s gun laws are so lax. Loopholes and liberal gun laws have been highlighted as a key factor in allowing the alleged gunman to murder 50 people.

Helen Clark has been at the forefront of this concern, complaining with incredulity that the laws could possibly be so bad. She asked: “How can people like these killers be able to have five guns, to legally have five guns? Why do we allow semi-automatics? What is sporting, hunting or recreational about semi-automatics?”

When challenged about her own role in allowing these laws to remain unreformed in the nine years that she was prime minister, she responded by claiming that it wasn’t an issue when she was in power: “I was Prime Minister for nine years, and it never came to the top of the pile… It’s a pity that it wasn’t top of the priority list” – see Vita Molyneux’s Helen Clark reveals why she didn’t change gun laws as Prime Minister.

When it comes to making gun law reform a priority, Clark says “unfortunately someone has to put them there” and “then there has to be the votes for it.” And even if it had been a priority, she claims that the numbers weren’t there to support it while she was prime minister: “With these coalition governments and confidence and supply agreements, sometimes you just don’t have the numbers”.

Clark’s former government colleague, Alliance Cabinet Minister Matt Robson, also says the numbers were a problem under the Clark-led administration, but he remembers things very differently. Robson says he had reform legislation ready for the Clark-led Government to implement, but the Labour caucus decided to block it. This is all recorded in Derek Cheng’s article, Past gun law reform attempts by Labour and National have failed.

This article explains how Robson had been pushing strongly for law reform while in opposition, primarily with a private members’ bill in 1999, and: “When Labour won the election later that year, Robson thought the new Labour-Alliance Coalition would strengthen the bill with the provisions that Labour had previously supported in his own member’s bill. He said he was shocked when he was told that wouldn’t happen because Labour MPs feared losing rural votes.”

According to Robson, “It was our policy. It was their policy. I was very shocked we couldn’t get it through. We had the opportunity. We were the Government. There’s no excuse for not doing it.” The article notes that two Labour ministers from that time – Phil Goff and George Hawkins – dispute Robson’s account.

Cheng’s article also details how other political parties and politicians – especially “Labour, National and NZ First” – have thwarted gun law reform over recent years, “likely in part due to a fear of losing rural votes”.

According to Tracy Watkins, this has all amounted to “years of shameful political self-interest of successive Governments over gun controls”, which the current Government is finally having to clean up after – see: Jacinda Ardern’s gun reforms needed to strike a delicate balance – and they do.

She writes about the shocking fact that it has taken politicians so long to act, when they knew about the problems: “There have been countless warnings sounded about our lax gun laws, including successive inquiries, select committee reports and police investigations.”

There is now a drive to understand why and how gun law reform has been stymied by the politicians for so long. As Michelle Duff and Tom Hunt state: “For almost three decades, successive Governments have missed opportunities to tighten gun control. New Zealand’s gun laws haven’t changed substantially since 1992. But why have we been so relaxed about semi-automatic weapons, and what’s halted change?” – see: Australia took action with its gun laws. Why didn’t New Zealand?

They put forward an answer: “Sustained pressure from gun lobbyists and the reluctance of politicians to push through tougher measures that were not considered a priority – despite a high-powered enquiry and multiple warnings – has meant the status quo has remained.”

Also writing on this question, Laura Walters points out that reform only occurs when public pressure makes it hard for politicians to ignore: “New Zealand has made numerous attempts to change gun laws in recent years. Ardern cited attempts in 2005, 2012 and 2017. There has not been a significant change in more than 26 years. The issue of guns is constantly bubbling away under the surface, with debates rising to the top every time there’s a high-profile incident involving a firearm” – see: Why changing gun laws isn’t that simple.

Walters has also written about this in another important article, saying “It always takes a tragedy. Like many countries, New Zealand has tried on numerous occasions to implement meaningful gun law reform. The Arms Act was introduced in 1983. Changes in the past 26 years were more like tweaks. Since the attack last Friday, politicians – on both sides of the House – had faced hard questions on why it had taken the death of 50 people to get change” – see: Time for full overhaul of gun laws.

She cites law professor Alexander Gillespie arguing that this is by-and-large how law and reforms are made: “Legislative change was usually reactionary, rather than precautionary”.

Hence, it was the 1990 Aramoana shootings that led to the last serious gun law reforms. And the 1996 Port Arthur massacre in Australia led to major change over there, and it influenced an important inquiry here – the Thorp Inquiry. This resulted in major recommendations for reform, which were then largely ignored by subsequent governments.

According to Duff and Hunt, “Thorp’s 1997 report made 60 recommendations to improve gun control, including a ban on military style semi-automatics, controls on handguns, registration of all firearms, and improved security and vetting.”

The then National-led Government decided against implementing the recommendations. Derek Cheng reports: “in response to the Thorp inquiry, then-Police Minister Jack Elder declined to ban MSSAs [military-style semi-automatics] because he wanted to keep gun owners ‘on board’, rather than ‘waving a big stick’ by threatening to seize their guns.”

One of those involved in the Thorp inquiry, Queen’s Counsel Simon Mount, now says: “Tragically, I believe if the Thorp recommendations had been implemented in 1997, the Christchurch attacker would not have been able to obtain the semi-automatic weapons he used in this country.”

The most recent example of a government ignoring recommendations for reform came less than two years ago, after the law and order select committee held a year-long study of firearms rules. According to Duff and Hunt, “The committee came up with 20 recommendations, which were supported by the Police Association. But in June 2017 police minister Paula Bennett accepted only seven recommendations, rejecting 12.”

The National Government’s dismissal of the reforms was, according to Cheng, “applauded by Federated Farmers. One of the dropped recommendations was to investigate a new category of restricted semi-automatic rifle and shotgun. Bennett said many of the recommendations would unduly affect legal firearm users.”

According to Cheng, “Labour’s police spokesman Stuart Nash supported Bennett’s decision ‘100 per cent’, even though he was on the committee that endorsed all the recommendations.”

Laura Walters writes that Bennett “is understood to be a keen hunter”, and that the “Police Association President Chris Cahill said the minister had given into the pressure of a lobby which he believed represented fewer than 10,000 of the then-240,000 licensed gun owners”.

New Zealand First is also often identified as an ongoing impediment to reform. According to Cheng, writing about the 2016 select committee recommendations, “The only dissenting voice was NZ First MP Ron Mark, who said the recommendations would restrict ‘legitimate ownership of legally-held firearms’ and would do nothing to stop criminals from committing offences with illicit firearms.”

That party is said to have a long-standing close relationship with pro-gun lobby groups. Richard Harman wrote on this a few days ago, saying “It has close connections to the gun lobby. During the last election campaign, the Kiwi Gun Blog, a popular gun owners site, rated the NZ First firearms policy: ‘We will just say that the NZ First party has been supporting us – it would be good if a lot of shooters supported them – Even with a tactical party vote’, the blog said during the last election” – see: The gun control compromise.

But politicians and their parties are changing fast. Former Police Minister Judith Collins was hardly a staunch advocate for gun control when she was in government, but has come out this week to say that she is deleting all the lobbying communications that gun groups are sending her – see Nick O’Malley’s Judith Collins tells US lobby group NRA to ‘bugger off’ over New Zealand gun reform.

Finally, in terms of individual responses by politicians to the current gun reform campaign, it’s worth reading Lucy Bennett’s Former minister Rick Barker targeted by gunman backs register, and Jason Walls’ Deputy Labour Leader Kelvin Davis has handed one semi-automatic rifle over to police.