Firearms given up during last year’s amnesty. (Photo by New Zealand Police/Getty Images)
Firearms given up during last year’s amnesty. (Photo by New Zealand Police/Getty Images)

SocietyDecember 7, 2020

Guns have no place in a peaceful society

Firearms given up during last year’s amnesty. (Photo by New Zealand Police/Getty Images)
Firearms given up during last year’s amnesty. (Photo by New Zealand Police/Getty Images)

We need to follow a public health approach and prevent people from harm. That means disarming both the public and the police, writes Laura O’Connell Rapira.

Last week, a petition was delivered to parliament calling for harsher and more punitive approaches to individuals convicted of killing a police officer. The petition was initiated by Diane Hunt, the mother of late Constable Matthew Hunt who was shot and killed earlier this year.

My heart and karakia are with the Hunt family. Everyone – regardless of their job, skin colour, background, or mental health status – should be free to go about their day without the threat of gun violence. No matter who we are, where we live, or what our profession, all of us deserve to be safe at work, in our homes and in our neighbourhoods.

Over the past 18 months, the ActionStation community have been vocal advocates to disarm the police. But as part of our vision for a better Aotearoa, we’ve advocated for gun law reform to disarm the public too. Guns have no place in a peaceful society. They cause irreparable harm that requires evidence-based and multifaceted solutions such as sensible gun laws that reduce easy access to dangerous weapons and the expansion of access to high quality and culturally competent mental health services. Guns require people in government to take a public health approach to prevent and protect people from harm.

In the United States, we know from 25 years worth of data on shootings in schools that economic insecurity increases the risk of gun violence. Around the world, increased gun violence is strongly correlated with poverty and inequality, while more economically equal countries like Singapore and Japan have low rates of gun-related homicides. If we want to reduce gun violence then, among other things, we need to make sure all people have a decent and secure income.

Suicides, which make up the majority of gun deaths, increase in times of economic distress. Here in New Zealand, one person, on average, dies by gunshot every seven days. Of these, 80% are suicides, 13% are homicides and 5% are accidents. Research from Harvard found easy access to firearms increases the likelihood of suicide. In a country with a mental health crisis like ours, we need laws that reduce access to firearms.

We also know from the US experience that solutions like Hospital-based Violence Intervention Programs are proven to prevent shootings and killings. HVIPs combine the efforts of medical staff with trusted community partners to provide safety planning, services, and trauma-informed care to violently injured people at elevated risk of violence perpetration. In other words, it recognises that sometimes hurt people hurt people and so community and health professionals intervene to help those folk onto a path towards healing.

If we want to end gun violence in Aotearoa, including violence directed at police, then we need to support a vision of a peaceful society and evidence-based policies to achieve it. Strategies that strengthen relationships between police and communities are proven to increase trust, prevent harm and reduce violence. Operation Ceasefire was a collaborative effort between Boston police, Black ministers and social scientists which led to a 79% reduction in violent crime. Community leaders worked with police to create a culture of safety, including a shared understanding of the consequences of violence,  while making available immediate assistance for anyone that wanted it. Assistance could include housing, income, mental health and addiction support. The technique yielded such incredible results, it earned the nickname “the Boston Miracle”. Similar programmes in other US cities have also seen reductions in violence as a result.

The context is different in Aotearoa but the need for trust-building between police and communities, and to eliminate violence, is the same. In Wellington, police have partnered with Wellington Free Ambulance and Capital and Coast DHB to trial sending teams of police officers, paramedics and mental health clinicians to emergency mental health calls. We need these collaborative approaches.

I wrote at the beginning that my karakia are with the Hunt family, and I mean that. Constable Matthew Hunt should still be here today. As should David Cerven, Halatau Naitoko and Stephen Bellingham – unarmed men who were shot and killed by members of the New Zealand police.

My heart goes out to all those that have lost their lives or loved ones to gun violence.

My karakia are also for cool heads to prevail in the days and weeks to come. For violence that begets violence only means trauma begets trauma. Instead, I hope that we walk down a path of reparative action and the prevention of harm, so that we may end gun violence together.

Keep going!