Gordon Campbell on the latest phase in the struggle for gun reform

guns-imageIn the midst of our great debate about guns, we might well ponder a related issue – namely, why don’t gun manufacturers create guns that can be fired only by their owner? In this age of smart phones and finger sensors, it would seem entirely possible to produce a gun that could fire only after its distinctive handprint/fingerprint had been activated. Overnight, this would solve quite a few of the problems related to (a) gun safety and (b) stolen guns in the hands of criminals.

Unfortunately, the only major gun manufacturer that has seriously explored the possibility of smart guns (ie, Smith & Wesson) was attacked by the NRA and faced a massive consumer boycott until Smith & Wesson backed down, and discontinued their efforts. Sure, anyone can think of scenarios where the handprint/fingerprint device might have been a problem. If there’s a burglar, you’d probably want any member of the household to be able to use the gun. (Again, a partial solution would have been to enable the adults from the same household to be scanned into the recognition programme.)

You can read the sad story of Smith &Wesson’s experiment – which continues to blight the company’s sales even today – right here.

The reason I mention this history is to underline that the gun lobby can be relied on to drag its feet at best (and actively resist at worst) in the face of any attempt to make gun ownership safer for the families and communities within which the gun owners happen to live. In all too many cases, gun ownership seems to come equipped with an ideology that regards any externally-imposed pattern of reciprocal responsibility as Political Correctness Gone Mad, and a denial of the huntin’ shootin’ ethos that made this country great. It doesn’t seem to matter that these frontiersmen actually went hunting with their Dads with a single shot .303. Yet any attempt to separate them from their AR-15 assault rifle is taken as a threat to their manhood, a denial of their property rights and a slur upon their (imaginary) family traditions.

So it hasn’t been all that surprising to find that the government’s latest tranche of reforms to our gun laws – which among other things, will make it compulsory to register your guns every five years – has been met with a flurry of protest from the usual quarters. It will be a waste of money. It won’t make anyone safer. Criminals will hack the data base and use it to steal weapons. Criminals won’t abide by the law etc etc etc. To take those objections in turn:

1. It will be a waste of money. Even if we accept the figure of $50 million over 5 years – and as Police Association president Chris Cahill told RNZ this week, that estimate seems to be on the high side – this is still only $10 million a year to set up and administer the kind of a registration system that we automatically accept as a given in other areas of society. We have to register cars. We have to register dogs.

Why is that so? Because registration is seen to be the necessary first step that enables us to better promote responsible ownership, safety and maintenance. It also enables us to subsequently focus our efforts on those people (ie, criminals) who choose not to comply with the rules. In itself, registration will not improve behaviour overnight. But without this step we would be hard pressed to improve behaviour at all.

2. It won’t make anyone safer. Gun registration will create a platform that helps us to promote responsible gun ownership and secure gun storage. It will also provide the Police with a clear legal instrument for prosecuting the people that they subsequently find to be in possession of unregistered guns. Again, if you treat registration as a first step, many good things – including the safe use and storage of weapons fit for purpose, among a more responsible community of owners – will surely follow.

Policing will also be made somewhat safer if say, a domestic violence callout can be preceded by a quick check to see if there are guns registered at that location. Of course, there will also be a risk that the Police could well over-react to such information. Being alerted by the data bank to the potential presence of a fire-arm shouldn’t be used by the Police to justify them going in with their own guns blazing. Responsibility is a two way street.

3. Gun registration will create a data base that criminals will hack, and target which houses to burgle. Really? This is the Venn diagram where the tech ignorance of the middle class overlaps with its cultural siege mentality. Will my mortgage make me fat? Will the master criminals I binge-view on Netflix break into my house and make off with my home arsenal? Relax. We register cars online. As yet, this hasn’t induced hackers to launch a rash of home garage burglaries among the BMW set.

4. Criminals won’t abide by it. Exactly. And thus over time, it will become more and more risky for criminals to be found in the possession of unregistered weapons. Over time, those illegal weapon caches can be isolated, and eliminated. Again, the registration of legal weapons is the essential first step. Also: many motorists don’t observe the road rules. Surely, this doesn’t mean that we should have no road rules at all.

Footnote One. Bizarrely, the local gun lobby tends to talk as if New Zealanders are living in Alabama, and that Kiwis have a God-given constitutional right to bear arms. Well, we aren’t, and we don’t. As the coalition government said on Monday, gun ownership is a privilege, not a right. Invoking the sanctity of private property in the context of the current gun debate seems to be a total red herring. No private citizen has an absolute right to own a potentially lethal artifact (that’s why we register and re-register motor cars) such that this particular property right overrides all the competing rights held by other members of society.

That aside – and purely because the local gun lobby is such a faithful and fanciful echo of the US gun lobby – it is worth keeping in mind that the National Rifle Association (NRA) has been in total meltdown this year. In April, an ill-judged coup attempt by the NRA’s second-in-command Oliver North back-fired, with North and other key figures (including Christopher Cox, the leader of the NRA’s lobbying arm for decades) now being forced to resign.

There are doubts being expressed that the NRA will ever recover its former lobbying clout in Congress, or its air of invincibility. This is very good news.

Footnote Two. [Warning : the following involves a discussion of suicide statistics.] Criminals and hunters are only part of the gun landscape. As this NPR report reminds us, there are about 60 gun suicides a day in America. Judging by data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 218,000 Americans used a gun to end their lives during the decade between 2006 and 2016. On data from 2012, firearms were the chosen method of suicide by Americans in nearly 51% of cases, and in over 56 per cent of male suicides.

In New Zealand, the role of firearms in suicide is significantly different – partly due, perhaps, to the low levels of ownership of handguns in this country. This NZ study from 2010 reported:

Firearms contributed only 10% of suicide deaths. Where reported, over half the firearms used were not owned by the deceased, and it was common for the deceased to have borrowed the firearm. In several cases, the firearm owner had felt uncomfortable about the request. Future campaigns about firearm safety, and information given out to those gaining a firearms licence could address this by including material to support firearm owners being cautious about their loan.

Health Ministry data on suicide deaths 2008-2013 repeats the roughly 10% by-firearms findings, and notes that (a) “more males use firearms and explosives as a method than females” and also (b) that “more ‘European and other’ people use firearms and explosives, and poisoning [ by gas or by drugs] as a method than people from other ethnic groups.” In New Zealand, the suicide rate is on a steep increase, and now stands at 13.67 per 100,000 for the year 2017/2018, with higher rates being recorded among men, the young, and Maori. Our suicide rate overall is slightly higher than the 13.5 per 100,000 rate reported in the US during 2016.

The number of suicides in New Zealand increased to 668 in the year 2017/2018, compared to 553 in 2016 and 508 in 2013. Maori are disproportionately represented in these figures – with the 142 Maori suicides in 2017/18 constituting a rate of 23.72 per 100,000. Clearly, more research is needed on how gun registration and ownership will interact with the suicide rate, which varies significantly in terms of age, gender and ethnicity.

[Need to Talk? Free call or text 1737 any time to speak to a trained counsellor, for any reason.]

Footnote Three: This week, the government has indicated that the gun registration system is proposed to include the licence holder’s full name, date of birth and address, details of their licence number and any endorsements, as well as details about the firearm including its serial number, and how it is stored. While essentially online, the system will also provide a paper based option for those lacking ready access to a computer.

As mentioned, licences will need to be renewed every five years. Owners will need to demonstrate knowledge about the safe use of firearms and their legal obligations, while behaving in a way that ‘ensures personal and public safety’. A licence will also be required to buy magazines, gun parts and ammunition. Anyone convicted of crimes in the previous decade such as violence, gang activity, misuse of drugs, firearms offences or with a Protection Order made against them will be disqualified from holding a gun licence. Moreover:

A new ‘warning flag’ system will be introduced allowing police to intervene and seek further information about an applicant or existing licence holder in certain circumstances including encouraging or promoting violence, hatred or extremism, serious mental ill-health or attempted suicide, showing disregard for others’ property or land, posing a risk to national security, being subject to a Protection Order, being involved in drug abuse or committing crimes involving violence or alcohol.

Footnote Four. In a major investigation conducted a few months ago by Stuff, very useful data on the role of guns in NZ homicides was compiled:

According to Stuff’s data, there have been 105 gun-related homicides, excluding police shootings and hunting deaths, which resulted in the deaths of 167 people – 124 men and 43 women – in the past 15 years. These figures include the March 15 terror attack, counted as a single homicide event. Nearly all the perpetrators were men. Using information obtained from police, more than 800 coronial findings and hundreds of court documents, we’ve established the licensing status of most of the shooters and the types of guns they used to kill.

Stuff’s analysis reveals that at least two-thirds of the gun-related homicides involved either a .22 rifle or shotgun. Many of those weapons were cut-down or modified. Semi-automatic firearms rarely figured. Of the 84 cases where we identified the killer’s licensing status, only 12 were legally permitted to own a gun.

Notoriously, the alleged Christchurch shooter had a valid gun licence. (Tighter conditions in the granting of such licences can only be a good thing.) To some, the low ratio of semi-automatic weapons among gun homicide incidents will be reason to resist the reform process – however, the Christchurch mosque shootings that involved the use of a semi-automatic weapon accounted for nearly one third of all the gun homicides committed in this country during the past 15 years. The ratio may be low, but the toll is far higher.

In sum, gun registration is an essential part of the reform programme, but it will only be one aspect in the prevention of gun homicides.

Guns Don’t Argue

This initial cut from the late Smiley Culture hails from 1984, at the dawn of the promotional video era. It was a simpler time. In this endearing dancehall hit, Smiley tells the true story of being let off a cannabis possession charge after giving his autograph to the arresting officer. Sadly, Smiley Culture died in 2011 of what was alleged to be a self-inflicted wound during a Police raid at his home sparked by suspicions that he might have been importing Class A drugs. His family, and most of his fans, never believed any of it.

And from last year, here’s the JA dancehall star Popcaan, with a different take on gun culture…There’s nothing pretty out there right now, Popcaan says, except for the Glocks and the Macks, and the people moving through the city look like zombies. But the music? Why, he loves music like he loves life itself…