Disclaimer: These are my observations and opinions and mine alone; and they do not reflect the views of anyone or any organisation I may be affiliated with.
Yes, you, the average citizen browsing their Facebook feed or getting an ice-cream at the Four Square. If you’re a New Zealander you’re likely a willing participant in the erosion of our hard-won democracy, a way of life that is of inestimable value. I know I’ve been guilty. The particular example I want to discuss today is the recently passed firearm laws and related policies in response to the Christchurch tragedy. Regardless of whether you agree with the law changes or not, if you care about democracy and all that it means I urge you to keep reading, but firstly, what is this democracy I speak of?
How should we define it? Democracy is a government and leadership by the people and for the people. Democracy does not mean the “people have a say”, which is what we seem to have settled for, and even that low bar is under continuous attack. Democracy serves the people. Its whole purpose, its very existence, is to serve the needs of the people that it governs. The leaders within a democracy are by extension also servants of the people. In its purest form democracy exists only to protect and serve, and only at the direction of the people that it serves. To measure a democracy one only has to ask three simple questions of its decisions, policies, and laws. Does it protect, does it serve, do a majority of citizens support and direct it? The answer must be yes to either of the first questions, and must always be yes to the third question. Otherwise it is no longer a democracy.
The recent firearm law changes are a and poignant example of legislation that directly attacks our democracy. The firearm reforms were quickly rushed in post the killing of 51 innocent victims in Christchurch. At this point you might be throwing up your arms in disgust and saying “Of course that’s not anti-democracy! It is to protect ourselves!” The sad truth is that I’ve not seen a single piece of evidence that supports that assertion, but it is a very easy assertion to make when we are all hurting from the actions of a killer; particularly as we think of the many more victims left behind when 51 people are lost!
Not only was the legislation rushed, the consideration and consultation of the Arms (Prohibited Firearms, Magazines, and Parts) Amendment Bill and any potential changes that might be needed to that bill was incredibly compressed (that’s putting it mildly). In two days the Finance and Expenditure Committee apparently reviewed and considered 13,000 submissions before making a report on the bill (within the same two days). There are many who are very worried about how fast this legislation was passed. Now the firearms buyback scheme has been released there is even more evidence that this reaction has been poorly considered. It has also been argued the buyback schemes in themselves don’t work. It makes sense – buybacks will mainly result in firearms being handed in from law abiding citizens. It reduces the number of firearms in circulation, but doesn’t stop an active black market and doesn’t stop criminals committing criminal acts, including murder. Additionally, the hundreds of millions spent in a buyback could have been spent on actually saving lives – like further policing of gangs, funding of new research and drugs, and safety education.
In addition to the farce orchestrated by the Finance and Expenditure Committee, the public had very little time to prepare submissions on the new legislation, particularly if they were orally presenting.
One of the great things we get to do in a modern democracy is use actual evidence to make laws (or at least we say we do), but what evidence is there that these law changes will benefit anyone, while certainly dis-benefiting many?
The changes to the bill affect thousands of New Zealanders and we’re made to understand this will keep us safer from killers and terrorists. However, guns will always be available on the black market. Australia banned semi-automatic firearms years ago, but if my sources are correct a measly $2000 AUD will buy you an assault rifle on the Australian black market. Furthermore, what we’ve seen overseas clearly shows that firearms are just one weapon for an extremist. Cars and bombs make a regular appearance as weapons and are impossible to ‘outlaw’. Apparently the Christchurch killer had also rigged his car to explode, but chose to use firearms for maximum media impact. Are we, the NZ public, to be punished for the behaviour of this one man? More importantly, should we be circumventing our democratic process to do so? Whether we agree with a law change or not we should always protect our democratic process if we want an amazing country for future generations.
Let’s be very clear. The knee-jerk firearm law changes, and general nose-snubbing of democratic process, will not stop Christchurch from happening again. Prime Minister Ardern had it right when she talked about our need to look at ourselves, that is, ensure that we are not fostering a culture that either supports or ignores violent individuals. Let us also not forget that this man was reported to police before the killings, by members of the firearms community, because they were concerned about his behaviour.
If our culture is something we need to question do we then legislate for culture, as we’ve seen with the growing momentum for ‘hate speech legislation’? No! You cannot legislate culture. Cultures are led and we choose to follow (or not); and each of us has a responsibility to display leadership for the type of culture we want. Also, to state the bleedingly obvious, freedom of speech is an absolutely essential pillar of democracy. Any legislation for hate speech will immediately blur the line with freedom of speech. Who decides what is okay and what is not when we’ve already legislated that some speech might not be okay? I won’t cover here just how important freedom of speech is to democracy and successful societies – others have covered it very well.
For millennia societies have outlawed the inciting of violence. This makes perfect sense, especially in a democracy, as a democracy should protect its people. However, laws against inciting violence are clearly separate from laws about speech. Inciting violence is revving up a crowd to go and do harm to people (this is what happened in Rwanda). Expressing one’s opinion whether it be harmful or not is rather different don’t you think? The far-right extremists that attempt to hide behind freedom of speech are often violent people inciting others to violence. We can catch them out on that front without shutting down speech.
Additionally, legislating against speech is a slippery slope to persecuting groups of people even if they’ve done no harm to anyone and don’t plan to do any harm to anyone – simply because we deem their speech to be ‘dangerous’? If you think this is a pessimistic way to view this potential legislation please use history as a teacher. Every government that has looked to push their own ideological agenda and/or assert more control over their people has outlawed the sharing (written or otherwise) of certain ideas. The worst ones have systematically eradicated anything (and sometimes anyone) that disagrees with them.
Sadly, we’ve just seen a local example of overt free speech oppression, when our current government banned the Christchurch killer’s manifesto with penalties of up to 14 years in prison or a $10,000 fine! Considering our sentencing regime can be extremely lenient at times, these kind of penalties are a direct attack on free speech. Is the manifesto wrong? I haven’t read it, but I will almost certainly disagree with every word it says. Maybe if there were parts that overtly incited violence we could have redacted them? A hard decision to make, but one that should have certainly come from the perspective of protecting people against violence and not because we [wrongly] think that we can control ideas. What we do by banning it is remove the opportunity to systematically tear its lunacy apart and expose it for the evil that it is. Banning it puts it behind a murky dark curtain where we hide things we don’t want to talk about. The article reference above puts the situation perfectly:
Even though the dreadful crimes in Christchurch were committed by an Australian visitor acting alone, it is New Zealanders who are now paying the price. Not content with restricting our freedom and democratic rights, through censorship and rushed law changes, the Prime Minister also appears intent on limiting free speech.
Should the video of the killings have been removed from Facebook? Absolutely! There was no other decent thing to do for the victims; and anything we can do to stop another such live broadcast should be commended, but removing a video of innocents being killed is very different from banning the manifesto. How now are we to debunk it? It was online for a week, so has likely been downloaded thousands of times already.
Why am I talking about freedom of speech in relation to the firearm law reforms? Because the lack of public consultation, and the ill-considered details of the legislation are actually a reflection of a poor regard for the need to hear the voice of the many – particularly the need to hear the voices of those that are usually more informed than the person or persons making a decision. Any good leader recognises that others will likely know more than they do or at least offer useful alternate perspectives. What could the firearm law changes have looked like? I’ll make some suggestions here, noting that others have made very similar ones – years ago, but successive governments did nothing until the knee-jerk reaction we see now.
An alternate law change:
Remove all semi-automatic centrefire firearms from the A-Cat license and make them E-Cat only. This keeps them in the open market for everyone except outright criminals.
Ensure that E-Cat storage requirements (e.g. gun safes) are clear for all firearm owners and the public; and where required strengthen those requirements.
Ensure that non-reporting of firearm loss or theft is a punishable offence and enforce this.
Limit the sale of semi-automatics through registered gun dealerships only (no peer to peer).
Limit the import of firearm parts to registered and permitted dealers.
Outlaw high capacity magazines.
Increase penalties and (if necessary) ensure search warrants can be issued more easily for firearm law breaches.
Only full New Zealand citizens can possess a semi-automatic centrefire firearm.
What does this alternate change give us? It allows us to be really harsh on non-compliance; it ensures that there is a transparent market for firearms; it doesn’t penalise law-abiding citizens; and it provides NZ with underlying capability if our sovereignty is ever under threat – more about that next.
This particular law change has undermined our democracy both by the way it was carried-out, but more importantly because it limits the freedoms of law-abiding citizens. Furthermore, it limits these freedoms with no evidence of a positive benefit. Don’t believe me that there is no benefit? Read the recent homicide report that Stuff released.
When we give-up freedoms it has to be voluntary and worth it, otherwise we are attacking freedom itself. Finally, this particular law change actually undermines our very sovereignty as a nation. An attack on democracy in itself can undermine sovereignty depending on who the actors are, but it’s more overt than that.
The international media loves our Prime Minister’s response to the Christchurch shooting tragedy; and in the most part I commend her as well, in what is and was a very difficult time. What the international media have mostly (if not totally, as I couldn’t find any) failed to report is the subsequent bypass of democratic process and issues with freedom of speech. From a world viewpoint we look squeaky clean and we like that, but our nation is our own and how the world sees us is a minor concern in comparison (I’m not undervaluing trade and diplomatic relations when I say this). Are we playing to the world stage too much and in so doing ignoring our own nationhood?
Aside from questions of democracy already discussed above the other reason we’re undermining our sovereignty is because of who we’re choosing to arm. We’re removing firearms from law abiding licensed citizens; but that doesn’t change the fact that criminals will continue to do what they want, simply because they don’t follow laws! Also, slightly concerning is that according to Wikipedia we only have 232 police per 100,000 people in NZ. We’re saying that in the event of internally instigated attacks against our nation we’re happy that only criminals and police can own semi-automatic firearms. From a mathematically calculated risk perspective this situation doesn’t keep me awake at night (other than the fact we’re comfortable penalising citizens while criminals continue to do what they want). I’m not really worried, because ‘hopefully’ it won’t ever be a public safety issue [because we’ve had very little civil unrest, NZ citizens almost never use firearms to defend against criminals, which I’m really happy about, and in the most part there has been no need to].
What is concerning about taking semi-automatic firearms off citizens and why it is an attack on sovereignty, is because we are undermining our ability to defend ourselves as a nation. We are very far from anywhere, we have a small police force, and a very small army (relative to other nations). Our army is not equipped to defend our nation – we are very well equipped to launch highly effective missions, but not to defend our nation. Whenever we upgrade the army’s assault and sniper rifles we get rid of the old ones. I can’t verify whether my source is correct, but I understand that when the Army upgraded to the Steyr assault rifle the M16 rifles were mostly if not all dumped in the bottom of the Cook Strait. In the event of our wonderful country ever coming under attack (may it never happen) we want as many people armed as possible. Don’t tell me it will never happen, as the Japanese were nearly on our doorstep during my grandmother’s lifetime (she’s still alive) and the detestable scumbag who executed our brothers and sisters in Christchurch was an Australian! The NZ Defence Force does not have the means to arm our citizens; and training takes time. Wouldn’t it be better to celebrate our law-abiding citizens who are already trained and own and maintain their own firearms? Many of our private citizens have better firearms skills than a large portion of the Defence Force, because unless you’re in the infantry you don’t get much firearms training.
I keep on using this word ‘citizen’ and I’ve done that for a reason. The killer we love to hate right now was an Australian, but had full A-Category firearms privileges under our current legislation. We could have easily made all semi-automatic firearms E-Category only; and this has been suggested on many occasions in the past, but no one could be bothered making a law change that wasn’t winning votes. We should also ensure that E-Cat licenses can only be held by citizens. The checks and protections in that license class are much more stringent and there has never been a single case of an E-Cat license holder perpetuating firearms violence against others. Instead our government has arbitrarily done away with the E-Cat scheme and is even sanctioning collectors! I don’t and have never owned a semi-automatic. I’m not writing this to be self-serving, I’m writing this because the success of our nation is deeply rooted in democracy and freedom.
Regardless of my above views on the benefits for citizens to be armed to help protect our nation’s sovereignty this is a minor issue compared to our apparent willingness to erode our democracy. Democracy is the responsibility of every New Zealander. If our government is passing laws that don’t have the support of the people and/or law-making is clearly going beyond the mandate of protecting and serving the people, or they are not following due process, why are we standing by like gawking tourists? This question always applies to executing legislative change in an undemocratic way.
In summary, if the firearm law change stands and buy back scheme goes ahead it’s going to have very little effect on me right now, and I sincerely hope no negative future implications; but the future implications of the process through which it was done has me very worried.
Do we want to leave a nation to our children (or at best our grandchildren) where freedom is an illusion and government opinion is the only opinion? It sure feels like we do. New Zealand, please stop killing our democracy.
 NZ Herald, May 2 2019, Muriel Newman: The birth of a totalitarian state?, Link
 NZ Herald, May 2 2019, Muriel Newman: The birth of a totalitarian state?, Link
 Wikipedia, List of countries and dependencies by number of police officers, sourced 2019-05-19, Link