Bryce Edwards: Are gun laws being unnecessarily rushed? 

Bryce Edwards: Are gun laws being unnecessarily rushed? 

In what will be a highly symbolic move by Parliament, new laws on gun control are set to pass late next week, just one month on from the Christchurch terrorist attacks. The Government and Opposition see this, no doubt, as reflecting the public’s strong feelings about the tragedy and the need for decisive action.

But are there any problems with the extreme speed with which this new and sweeping legislation is being enacted? Will cutting corners mean an increased chance of a bad law being passed? And what could be some of the consequences of any mistakes being made by Parliament?

The Government is making no excuses for, or trying to disguise the fact that this is very fast law-making. After all, public submissions close tomorrow at 4pm. You can submit at this parliamentary website: Changing New Zealand’s gun laws: expanding the types of firearms that are banned, and an amnesty on surrendering guns to Police.

And the Leader of the House, Chris Hipkins, has stated: “Given the considerable level of interest in this issue and the public’s desire for the Government to move quickly in this area, we think that it’s justifiable pushing this through quickly.”

Of course, the first stage of the parliamentary process was achieved just yesterday when the Arms (Prohibited Firearms, Magazines, and Parts) Amendment Bill had its first reading in the House, with the vote in favour being 119 to 1 (with Act’s David Seymour being the dissenting voice).

This means that the bill now proceeds to the Finance and Expenditure Select Committee. Hipkins says that “Normally a select committee process is between four and six months”. But in this case, the bill is being considered in just over a week by a truncated select committee process.

The best details of this are given today by John Gerritsen in his article, Gun owners shocked at short submission time on firearms law change. He explains, “The select committee is expected to consider possible changes to the bill on Friday and report it back to Parliament on Monday. The government plans to pass the bill into law and gain royal assent by Thursday next week so that it can come into force exactly four weeks after the Christchurch attacks happened.”

Some members of the public specially affected by the law change are unimpressed with this extremely tight schedule: “Gun owners are appalled a parliamentary select committee is giving them just one day to make oral submissions on the government’s fast-tracked gun law changes.” In particular, the chair of the Council of Licenced Firearms Owners, Paul Clark, is quoted saying “It’s appalling. I was brought up to respect the parliamentary system… On something like this, which is fundamental to New Zealand society, you don’t just trample over everybody and then say, ‘well we’ve discussed it’.”

Other lobby groups are also expressing concern with details of the legislation and the process for sorting it out. Fish & Game New Zealand says “We have got no problem with the intention of the Bill. There are some drafting issues that may make things clearer” – see Jamie Ensor and Miriam Harris’ Most hunters back Government’s proposed gun law changes despite concerns – Fish & Game.

The same article reports that “Other gun owners from the rural community have expressed concern that the limited time for the public to submit on the legislation may lead to some people not having a voice in the debate.” And Game Animal Council chair Don Hammond is quoted saying that for some, to “draft a response and mail it back to the lawmakers in that 10 day period is a pretty big challenge”.

It could be that the speed of legislation is not designed solely to impress the public, but to thwart opponents from the gun lobby. This is, in fact, precisely the advice given by the director of the Australian gun control group, Philip Alpers, who says “That’s exactly what happened in Australia. John Howard took only 12 days after Port Arthur and that’s what won the battle, he outpaced and outsmarted and just outflanked the gun lobby in a very short period of time” – see Ben Strang’s Gun law change fast-track has ‘outpaced’ gun lobby – academic.

According to this article, Alpers says the speed of legislation “is crucial when countering a gun lobby which can mobilise quickly, and has helped halt gun law reform for more than two decades.”

But is this democratic? It sounds like the sort of process legal academic and former prime minister, Geoffrey Palmer, has spent many years warning against – particularly in his description of New Zealand’s parliament being “the fastest legislature in the West”. This is discussed in Henry Cooke’s article, How the Government will pass its first set of gun law changes.

Cooke also explains: “Law changes – especially possibly contentious ones – often take longer than a year to get through the full legislative process, while this will take just two weeks. But New Zealand’s single parliamentary body and unitary style of Government means laws can be passed much much more quickly if needed.”

The one MP who has been challenging the speed of the changes to gun laws is David Seymour. Of course, he’s now in the headlines for his embarrassingly thwarted attempt, yesterday, to stand up against the fast parliamentary process.

Seymour had intended to make a stand in the debating chamber yesterday and be a spanner in the wheel of the four other political parties who favour a fast-tracked approach to dealing with the legislation. All Seymour had to do was turn up at the right time to Parliament and signal his opposition to “leave” being sought by Leader of the House Chris Hipkins in order to expediate the new law. Instead, Seymour spent so long talking to reporters and telling them about his plans, that by the time he made it to the House it was a done deal.

Seymour’s intended protest would have forced the Government to officially put the House of Representatives into “urgency” in order to pass the legislation, which is somewhat embarrassing and messy. Instead it was Seymour who looked messy and embarrassed.

The exact details of his procedural defeat are explained by Henry Cooke today: “as Seymour stood taking a good five minutes of questions from the humble press gallery, the clock ticked past 2pm and the House got going in earnest. Hipkins, clearly not believing his luck, started to reel off the long point of order to an incredulous House, while MPs across the spectrum craned their necks to check whether Seymour had arrived. He had not” – see: David Seymour hoists himself with his own petard, providing small moment of levity.

According to Claire Trevett, Hipkins outmanuovered Seymour by bringing his procedural motion early: “Rather than wait until after Question Time as usual, Hipkins stood just before Question Time began to ask for the leave of Parliament to expedite the bill. Seymour was still outside, oblivious. Rarely has Parliament been treated to an exhibition of speed talking such as that delivered by Hipkins. He rattled through it at ear-blistering pace, stumbling only once” – see: Act’s David Seymour hoist on tardy petard.

It appeared that the Speaker aided Hipkins’ ploy, much to the delight of all four parties present in the chamber: “Members of Parliament did not quite manage to stay as deadpan as the Speaker. Audible laughter swept through Parliament. The Greens – usually most opposed to the hasty progression of legislation – were first to gloat on Twitter.”

For more reports of gloating by the Greens, see Alice Webb-Liddall: ‘Laughing fit’ in Parliament after David Seymour arrives too late to slow gun law reform. And MPs from National and New Zealand First joined in – see 1News’ Paula Bennett and Shane Jones share laugh at David Seymour’s expense – ‘He made an absolute fool of himself’.

Tardiness aside, Seymour had some important points to make. He is quoted by Jason Walls saying, “What this Government is proposing to do is suspend, in all sincerity, public consultation and parliamentary scrutiny of its law-making so it can rush through a law in nine days… I suspect this law-making is being done as much for CNN as for the safety of the New Zealand public” – see: Act Leader David Seymour misses chance to force Govt to use urgency for gun law’s first reading.

Furthermore, Seymour says: “good intentions and abrupt action do not guarantee good and lasting outcomes… There is a very real danger that we will make a bad law in the process.” As a potential example, he says that Police have warned “there was a risk of a black market for firearms being created because of the new law.”

For more on the issues of democratic parliamentary process, see Collette Devlin’s Act will force Government to pass new gun legislation under urgency. This reports Seymour’s arguments that the Government’s haste is entirely unnecessary: “By forcing through laws there was no meaningful opportunity for New Zealanders to have their say on the proposals, he said. The Government intended to introduce further more detailed legislation almost as soon as this law was passed, so it was difficult to avoid the conclusion that the legislation was more about ‘public theatre than public safety’, he said.”

This is especially the case, given “The Government has already stopped the sale of military-style semi-automatic weapons and assault rifles to people with A category gun licences.”

Seymour has received some back-up from an interesting source. On Twitter, former Green MP Nandor Tanczos also sounded a warning about the truncated select committee process, saying “We have select committees for a reason. Measure twice, cut once”; and “All legislation has unintended consequences. Probably one of the most important functions of select committees is to reduce those to insignificance. Regardless of the policy, the actual drafting needs line by line scrutiny.”

Finally, for cartoons on the gun control debate, see my blog post, Cartoons about gun control after Christchurch.