After last Friday’s Christchurch shooting, policy officers in New Zealand worked all night throughout the weekend to draft a proposal for tighter gun laws. By Monday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had gotten her cabinet to agree in principle to gun reform.
Yesterday, 37 people had already turned in their firearms to the police. Ardern has to move quick — in 1996, it took John Howard 12 days after the Port Arthur massacre to enact sweeping gun control laws that have effectively ended mass shootings in Australia. Ardern, perhaps in a subtle dig at Australia, has promised to get reform done quicker.
But just months earlier, Ardern had approved regulatory changes which would have eroded police vetting for prospective gun licence-holders. It was a move that is indicative of the sense of complacency around gun laws which had become entrenched in New Zealand. Is ten days enough for Ardern to change this culture?
A short history of gun laws
In 1983, New Zealand passed its Arms Act, which put in place police checks for prospective gun licence owners. The next big change came in 1992, two years after David Gray killed 13 people in the town of Aramoana following a fight with his neighbour. These changes included creating special categories of licence for military-style semi-automatic weapons. But since then, reform efforts have largely stalled.
A report by former High Court judge Thomas Thorp recommended a suite of changes, none of which were adopted. Fast forward 20 years, and then-police minister Paula Bennett, who is now deputy National Party leader, rejected many recommendations for gun control reform from a parliamentary report right before the 2017 election, while overseas lobby groups like the National Rifle Association in the US watched on with interest.
The result is a set of gun laws that are terribly outdated. Sir Geoffrey Palmer, a former New Zealand prime minister and constitutional law expert told Crikey the Arms Act is “old and clearly out of date with modern technology”.
“There have been sporadic discussions about New Zealand’s gun laws for many years, but no effective change has been made,” he said.
Why haven’t they changed?
While New Zealand still has a comparatively large amount of guns, its politicians are not beholden to a lobby group with the power the NRA has in the US. Still, at a press conference yesterday, Ardern said that the country’s gun laws were “a blueprint for what not to do”.
Nicholas Taylor, a barrister and firearms law expert, says one of the biggest problems has been political complacency.
“In the last few years, I’ve made recommendations [to politicians], but there’s been no urgency, and they’ve expressed no desire to change the law,” Taylor told Crikey.
There are also questions about just how effective many procedures around guns actually are. One source told Crikey a member of her family was given his guns back by police after being released from prison. They had been confiscated when he was arrested. At time of writing, NZ police have not yet confirmed whether this was still policy.
Radio New Zealand recently reported that over 99% of gun licence applicants are successful. And in 2015, television journalist Heather Du Plessis-Allan successfully purchased a gun online using a fake name and details to expose loopholes in the system.
But there has also been complicity as well as complacency, even among politicians now leading the charge for gun reform. Ardern recently oversaw proposed changes to gun licensing regulations which would centralise police checks, and make much of the vetting process online, rather than face to face. Ardern was chair of the executive committee responsible, and parliamentary procedure in New Zealand allows changes to regulations such as this to be passed by an order in council, without an act of parliament.
Taylor said even before the Christchurch attacks, he had described such an attempt to degrade the vetting system as “a ticking time bomb”.
“If we keep on going, someone’s going to slip through the cracks,” Taylor said.
Ardern’s coalition partner, New Zealand First, has also been a traditionally staunch advocate of gun owner’s rights, although Deputy PM, and New Zealand First leader Winston Peters has agreed in principle to gun control reform. But some, like Defence Minister Ron Mark, are outspoken shooters and gun owners. Since the Christchurch attack, Crikey has heard of National Party and New Zealand First politicians who have been quietly scrubbing pro-gun posts from their social media accounts.
Much of this political inaction is perhaps a reflection of New Zealand’s gun culture, ex-PM Palmer says.
“New Zealand is well-known as a farming nation, and farmers often need guns,” Palmer told Crikey. “Hunting, shooting and fishing are very popular sports in New Zealand.”
Can Ardern get it right?
Ardern has her work cut out for her if she wants to get big changes passed in 10 days. It took two years after the Aramoana massacre for the country to make changes to gun laws, and even then, Taylor says, parliament was far too rushed. He has warned about rushing to pass laws, saying Ardern should try and get the changes right first.
“I think it’s actually dangerous to move too fast, because there are certain things that are foolish and ill-advised, that could just cause more problems than it solves.”
Taylor believes many issues in New Zealand’s ongoing unresolved gun debate arise from politicians’ limited understanding of the relevant law.
“It’s a complex area of law, and a lot of politicians don’t understand the idiosyncrasies of it.”
Palmer, on the other hand, believes the shooting will force previously reticent politicians to fall into line on gun reform, and that with this unprecedented amount of willpower, a change is possible within Ardern’s ambitious timeline.
“It’s totally realistic [to get the changes passed in 10 days], because we only have a single house of parliament,” Palmer said.
“What has happened in New Zealand is an enormous wake-up call, that we’re not isolated from the world anymore … This whole event has had a profound effect on the political culture of New Zealand forever.”
Crikey has two reporters on the ground in Christchurch this week. Read more of their coverage here.