In other times and places, the right to bear arms has involved self-defence and the right to resist oppression. But changes to technology and laws mean even conservatives should be comfortable with where our politicians are going
After the terrible atrocities of March 15 we are, inevitably, going to get some kind of reform to our gun laws. It's very likely some classes of weapons will be subject to new restrictions, while other will be banned. Whatever is agreed, the will of parliament will prevail and interested parties will not have recourse to the courts to thwart the legislature.
Obviously, there is a big contrast with the United States here. In that country, 18th century constitutional safeguards mean that much of the debate occurs in the courtroom. That, plus sustained political gridlock, means that no level of the US government, or those of its constituent states, really have the means of enacting meaningful gun reform.
The traditional prerogatives of free people to keep and bear arms is, however, hardly unique to the United States. It is part of our tradition too. The Bill of Rights Act 1688, which remains law in New Zealand and formed the basis of a judgment against the government as recently as 1975, contains a clear illustration of this fact.
“[T]he subjects which are Protestants,” the statute reads, “may have arms for their defence suitable to their conditions, and as allowed by law.”
What this guarantee reflected was the then-pervasive fear among England’s Protestants of a tyrannical monarch with Catholic sympathies. In setting out its grievances against James II, the Bill of Rights cites his “causing several good subjects, being Protestants, to be disarmed, at the same time when Papists were both armed and employed, contrary to law.”
Under the same law, the Crown was restricted in how and when it could maintain a standing army.
That the origin of that right is founded in the possibility of oppression is echoed in the US constitution, which provides that a “well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” The writings of those who framed the law make it clear that it was intended to allow the people, organised into state militias, to resist the usurpations of a despotic central government.
In the intervening centuries, of course, the gap in effectiveness between civilian and military firepower has widened significantly. In an era of nuclear weapons, stealth bombers and attack submarines, the likelihood of citizens with small arms defeating the government in battle seems somewhat remote.
On the assumption that nobody thinks it’s a good idea to make advanced military hardware generally available, the rationale behind the right to keep and bear arms has become stretched.
Assault weapons are designed for the purpose of killing human beings. You don’t need an AR-15 to hunt deer. But while they’re deadly when turned against other civilians, they’re not likely to be of much use against professional soldiers.
That being the case, arguments for public safety weigh more heavily in the balance than they might have done in centuries gone by.
Conservatives are quite rightly concerned not to do away with the institutions of the past. However, this does not mean that they should take no notice of changing circumstances. Conservatives are not reactionaries. Everything in life changes and evolves and our conception of rights and liberties is no exception.
This is, thank God, something that conservatives in this country have always understood – a point made frequently by the late lamented columnist Rob Hosking. While a certain strain of extremely online people have been radicalised through exposure to the American culture wars, it doesn’t extend all that far in real life. Which is why the National Party will, by all indications, co-operate with the government in the enactment of sensible reform.
It's interesting to note even hunting groups describing law reform in the language of practicalities - such as magazine capacity - rather than as a rights issue.
I have written before how lucky we are to have Labour as our main leftwing party. The same goes for National on the right. And as bad as things seem right now, the coming months are an opportunity to show that, for all our faults, our political culture and institutions are among the best in the world.