The myth of the ‘law-abiding citizen’: Why society needs to take control over guns

The ban and buyback passed by a united parliament in the wake of the Christchurch massacre will achieve little in the long term unless accompanied by modernised gun regulation, writes Hera Cook.

New Zealanders register their cars, they register their dogs. Why should they not register guns, which are designed to kill? Guns are uniquely portable, available and affordable weapons. 

Guns are not registered because the New Zealand gun lobby has spent three decades telling politicians that registration will place an impossible burden on licensed firearms owners who are all “law-abiding citizens”. Police, the gun lobby say, can keep New Zealanders safe by going after criminals and gangs and ignoring the equivalent of an Audi going down the road at 177kph because it happens to be owned by a so-called law-abiding citizen. All the problems are caused by crims and gangs – and licensed firearms owners are us. 

An investigation into all New Zealand homicides since 2000 showed that the great majority of gun homicides were committed by individuals who were friends, relatives and partners of the victims. Once a man (usually) has killed a person they do, of course, progress to being a criminal. The aim of gun registers and other measures proposed in the new legislation, such as linking sales of ammunition to a licence and regulation of gun clubs, is to stop crimes before they happen. Building prisons, and funding victim support and ambulances at the bottom of the cliff, is not the solution.

Both the National Party and the Labour government have been pressured into talking as if law-abiding citizens who own firearms do not need regulation, and the sole purpose of legislation is to control criminals and gangs. But licensed firearms owners are us – careless and lazy when not prodded by regulation. That is why all cars are required to have a warrant of fitness, not just the cars that belong to “crims and gangs”. 

Police have been saying for decades that the major source of firearms obtained by criminals is thefts and burglaries from licensed firearms owners. Recent police research into firearms thefts found that in a random sample of stolen firearm reports from 2016-2018, nearly two-thirds (62%) of the cases for which there was information had not conformed to security requirements and a third (32%) were stolen from unattended vehicles, some with keys left inside the car. 

Law-abiding citizens can be gullible. Licensed firearms owner Michael Hayes lent his firearms to a mate who said he was waiting for his licence to arrive. That mate, Quinn Patterson, later murdered two estate agents and tried to kill a contractor visiting his rental. Regulation is a burden for a reason. 

Another accusation from the gun lobby is that cars kill far more people than guns, so why aren’t we trying to ban cars? The statistics on firearms use are limited but, even if the time licensed firearms owners spend using firearms is defined very generously, the risk of death per episode of firearms use is much higher than the risk of death per episode of vehicle use. There are only seven times more road deaths than gun deaths but calculations show around 108 times the number of hours are spent on the road. Guns are dangerous.

The average of 54 firearms deaths per year includes 40 suicides. Some gun lobbyists (and perhaps other people) feel it is unfair to include suicides, as if making the gun and not the person to blame for taking their own life. Many road deaths are self-inflicted. Should we take those deaths out of the road toll because cars don’t kill, people do? In 1973, the peak year for road deaths, 843 people died. Regulation aimed at both the car and the driver – seat belts, air bags, breath testing, improved road design etc, has brought road deaths down to 378 deaths in 2018.

Updating the regulation of firearms now is a way of getting ahead of the curve, stopping violent crime before it happens. The Ashburton WINZ office killing in which two employees were shot and killed and one was seriously wounded, or the killing of the two Northland estate agents, are almost unique events in this country, but they both happened recently. They would be typical USA workplace firearms killings – so frequent that they’re barely mentioned in their news media. Here in New Zealand, there was a sharp growth in inequality in the 1990s. International research comparing nations has shown greater inequality is associated with greater violence. 

There are growing numbers of physical attacks and threats on hospital staff, on teachers by parents and children, on Department of Conservation staff, on public-facing staff in government departments and councils, as well as high levels of domestic violence. Very few of these threats involve firearms – as yet. 

There are more guns sloshing round in deprived urban communities. These guns create a drawcard for vulnerable boys and young men who are encouraged to see guns as glamorous weapons of power. More use of guns ramps up the terror felt by small shop owners. Since the Christchurch massacre, there have been prosecutions of New Zealanders who support the killer’s ideology. New Zealand society is changing, partly in response to inequality and poverty. 

Frontline police are seeing more and more firearms, and they are reacting to this with growing levels of police violence. The introduction of tasers has not led to less use of firearms, instead regular use of tasers appears to be normalising use of firearms by frontline police. Our society seems to be adapting to the sight of heavily armed police, despite the not infrequent absence of a convincing rationale. New Zealanders do not want an armed police force but they are being persuaded this is necessary. In order to turn back the tide, society needs to take control over guns and get rid of the root cause of the growth in threats to the safety of frontline police.

The need for gun law reform has been argued in major reports and by MPs across the house for over three decades. Despite this, it took the 51 dead and dozens injured in the Christchurch massacre to overcome New Zealand electoral politics and unite parliament. 

Now the National Party has given in to the gun lobby and is demanding that almost all the regulations that will keep New Zealand safe going into the future are abandoned, watered down or just completely confused. They are opposing regulation of gun clubs; restrictions on dealers and collectors; five-year instead of 10-year gun licences; police and customs powers to modify regulations as guns change so the gun lobby can’t repeatedly take them to court; limits on sports shooters’ use of semi-assault weapons in new competitions. The gun register should be in the primary legislation, but it should be separated from it and police should have to build up a business case? Do we need a business case for keeping New Zealanders and their children safe going into the future? National wants to limit police discretion to turn down applications for a firearms licence and they oppose the proposed limits on visitors buying firearms. They have completely caved into pressure from the gun lobby.

The semi-automatic gun ban and the ongoing buyback passed by a united parliament in April will achieve little in the long term unless accompanied by modernised regulation. It is obvious that both deregulation and over-regulation can create major problems for users. Examples of deregulation consequences include the deaths at Pike River and in the forestry industry. Leaky homes were a disaster caused by deregulation of building materials. The time and costs involved in getting permission from councils to do what would once have been a minor bit of DIY renovation are an example of over-regulation in response to deregulation. 

Ideally, improving firearms regulation would be a routine, rather dull cross-party activity carried out by quietly persistent and conscientious MPs and civil servants dedicated to increasing the safety of all New Zealanders as they burrow away in the depths of obscure committees. Communities and users would make suggestions, then carefully assess the drafts and provide comments. The National Party has made sure that this process will be full of conflict over demands to prevent burdens rather than shared efforts to keep us all, including licensed firearms owners, safe.

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Currently David Tipple, the owner of the Gun City stores, is one of three ‘guardians’ of the Council of Licensed Firearms Owners’ “Fair and Reasonable” fundraising campaign for legal action against the proposed gun law reforms. In 2016, Tipple was warned by police near Twizel while driving an Audi at well over the speed limit. An hour or so later, he was clocked in Lindis Pass going 177 kmh. He has previous driving convictions in 1980, 1982, 1989, 2008. Guns aren’t the problem, people are, Tipple claims. He is right. People like him and people who are being misled by people like him. 

The 51 homicides in Christchurch are a warning sign. In 2018 in the USA there were 337 massacres – that is events in which more than four people were killed. In Australia there were no massacres between the gun ban and buyback following the 1996 Port Arthur massacre and 2015.  If New Zealanders want a safe and peaceful future for their children, they have to actively support their politicians as they try and pass the second round of legislation. 

Submissions to the Arms Legislation Bill can be made here

Hera Cook is a spokesperson for the pressure group Gun Control New Zealand 


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