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.

Comments (18)

by Dennis Frank on March 20, 2019
Dennis Frank

Well-reasoned, but kinda over-states the case.  If National & Labour were genuinely worthy of praise, they would have produced a suitable bipartisan result after the Aramoana massacre, eh?

Is their abysmal performance really "among the best in the world"?  Gee whizz, I can see rocket scientists will be mulling that awhile.  One hopes not!!

However I get where you are coming from and do share your view in more general terms.  The PM has been exemplary in her handling of the situation so far.  The Deputy has signalled he agrees with her re prompt legislation, the Nat leader seemingly likewise despite his usual obfuscation.

Governments of western countries established a considerable track record of excessive immigration, seemingly without a mandate to do so, which created the toxic political culture that the extremist shooter was produced by.  Unless they can prove they campaigned for excessive immigration to secure a mandate, they are morally responsible for the mass grievance which resulted.  National and Labour ought to apologise to the people of Aotearoa for the outcome.

by Lee Churchman on March 20, 2019
Lee Churchman

Well-reasoned, but kinda over-states the case.  If National & Labour were genuinely worthy of praise, they would have produced a suitable bipartisan result after the Aramoana massacre, eh?

I think that's a bit unfair. The previous law changes seemed (and to me still seem somewhat) reasonable at the time. Military-style weapons should be heavily restricted, while traditional hunting weapons should require only a basic license. I don't think they could foresee that manufacturers would be so easily able to get around the restrictions and allow people to have E class weapons on an A license. 

And how were they able to foresee the internet's effect on gun culture? George H W Bush was still president when Aramoana happened. Waco and Ruby Ridge were years in the future.  

by Dennis Frank on March 20, 2019
Dennis Frank

I'd never encountered a valid rationale for retention of machine guns until the other day, when a farmer in the deep south was on tv explaining that the repeater-action was the only thing enabling him to control rabbits.

I gather the force of nature is so powerful within rabbits that myxomatosis ended up just a blip on their radar.  So folk like him could be made exempt via regulation.  For everyone without a valid exemption, total elimination of the weaponry must be enforced.

by Fentex on March 20, 2019
Fentex

I think it's quite clear that a certain childish mindset just loves to handle battle rifles - it makes them fell like they've got big dicks, which presents a particular danger in communities.

Outlawing them (that is any semi-automatic rifle of certain capabilities) completely, but not semi-automatic weapons that use short-cartridge .22 rounds suitable for varmint hunting will probably address most of the issue.

And I personally think no recent arrival to NZ ought be issued a license at all.

by Lee Churchman on March 20, 2019
Lee Churchman

I'd never encountered a valid rationale for retention of machine guns until the other day, when a farmer in the deep south was on tv explaining that the repeater-action was the only thing enabling him to control rabbits.

Um... they aren't machine guns. 

Pest control has always been a legally valid reason for owning an E-category (NZ) firearm. You can even get an exemption in Australia to own one for this reason (which otherwise bans most private ownership of semi-automatics). I quote from the Tasmanian police (note that these are called Category D in Australia):

Category D Firearms

  • self-loading centre-fire rifle
  • self-loading shotgun with a capacity of more than 5 rounds of ammunition; and
  • pump action shotgun with a capacity of more than 5 rounds of ammunition; and
  • self-loading rim-fire rifle with a magazine capacity of more than 10 rounds of ammunition.

A Category D licence is only available to a professional shooter who can prove their principal occupation is the controlling of vertebrate pest animals, or a bona fide firearms collector subject to certain conditions.

by Dennis Frank on March 20, 2019
Dennis Frank

LIke most non-violent folk, Lee, I've never been even slightly interested in whatever techical description gun-nuts & lawyers seek refuge in.  How would you explain any crucial difference between a machine gun and a non-machine gun that works just like a machine, then?  To folks who think if it walks like a duck & quacks like a duck, then it is a duck...

by Raymond A Francis on March 20, 2019
Raymond A Francis

A machine gun, which you state  might be used on pests, is a automatic firing rifle and would only used by the military mostly as a squad operated device.

Maxim the inventor showed one to the King of Denmark, the King was not convinced as he said it "would bankrupt the country by nightfall". They use a lot of ammunition because they fie automatically, they are illegal here as they are in the USA.

 

by Ross on March 21, 2019
Ross

Well-reasoned, but kinda over-states the case.  If National & Labour were genuinely worthy of praise, they would have produced a suitable bipartisan result after the Aramoana massacre, eh?

More than twenty years ago the late Sir Thomas Thorp made numerous recommendations in his review of gun control. Not a single one was adopted by politicians. It's sad and disappointing that a tragedy has to occur before politicians are motiviated to act.

https://www.colfo.org.nz/images/files/review-of-firearms-control-in-new-...

by Lee Churchman on March 21, 2019
Lee Churchman

Raymond is correct. A machine gun has fully automatic fire and can fire more than one shot per trigger pull. A sub-machine gun does the same. These are illegal in New Zealand. 

Semi-automatic weapons fire one shot per trigger pull, but reload automatically without the user having to work a bolt or a lever. They are best described as auto loading single-shot weapons. Most look the same as regular bolt action rifles, just auto loading (often they have internal magazines that are small and difficult to reload). They aren't very suitable for shooting large numbers of people. 

Military style semi-autos are the problematic ones. They have pistol grips, which makes them much easier to use (e.g. the AK 47 was commonly used by untrained peasant revolutionaries). They also have easily detachable magazines, which can have large capacities. This makes them suitable for shooting at people (which is what they are designed for). 

NZ's problem is that you aren't supposed to be able to buy an MSSA on a normal license. But gun manufacturers have found a way around that so that you can. 

So, we can either reclass all the problematic semi-autos as E class or do what Australia did and ban semi autos for most people. If we followed Australia, the only people who would be allowed to have semi autmatic weapons would be collectors, some clay pigeon shooters, and professional pest controllers. I think this is what will happen, although it will annoy the owners of non-military style semi-autos, who will, correctly, point out that their weapons don't pose a much greater risk to the public than regular bolt action rifles. 

 

by Ross on March 21, 2019
Ross

we can either reclass all the problematic semi-autos as E class or do what Australia did and ban semi autos for most people.

Lee, you mightn't have seen Sir Thomas Thorp's recommendations from 1997:

Military Style Semi-Automatics

4.1 That MSSAs, including those in sporting configuration (as defined by a list of makes and models), be banned and made the subject of a buy-back.

4.2 That an exemption be extended to those professionally engaged in animal pest control who can establish that no other firearm would be equally effective for their particular business.

by Lee Churchman on March 21, 2019
Lee Churchman

Hadn't seen that. Thanks Ross. 

by Dennis Frank on March 21, 2019
Dennis Frank

Thanks for the detailed explanation, Lee.  I get it now, and see no reason to allow them to collectors and clay-pigeon shooters.  I support the Thorp prescription.

by Lee Churchman on March 21, 2019
Lee Churchman

Looks like they did the sensible thing. They removed general ownership of the semi-auto guns that can conceivably be used for mass murder and left the ones that are only really useful for hunting and sport shooting. Plus people with infringing weapons get money from the government to replace it with legal ones. Owners of gun shops must be happy.  

by Dennis Frank on March 21, 2019
Dennis Frank

The order-in-council took effect at 3pm, putting thousands of gun-owners into outlaw status, so our top cop has outlined how they must comply:  http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/AK1903/S00640/police-announce-process-to-hand-over-reclassified-mssas.htm

This is an immense political victory for the coalition plus Greens, with the bipartisan support of the National Party.  Well done, Aotearoa!

by Tim Watkin on March 21, 2019
Tim Watkin

My nine year-old son had just got home and saw the TV news announcing the ban. He just burst into applause. He didn't understand these policy details of courase, but understood the country where he will grow up just got a little safer and wiser.

by Charlie on March 22, 2019
Charlie

A lot of ignorant people are making comment about firearms. A few facts to confuse you:

In the Aramoana shooting, he used a .22 rifle to do most of the damage. None of the subsequent law changes would have prevented that guy from buying the guns he used. The legislation was poorly written and impractical to manage: the details of which I won't bore you with.

The shooting community has been pushing to remove semi-autos from the A category licence for years but subsequent governments have sat on their hands.

Fortunately we have an example where firearms ownership was heavily restricted a couple decades ago. The UK. Subsequent to an almost absolute ban on gun ownership, the UK has not seen a reduction in gun crime and the overall rate of violent crimes has gone through the roof. Apparently you're just as dead if you're stabbed as shot. The UK are now trying to restrict the sale of knives: Best of luck with that!

Subsequent to the gun ban the UK has seen a steady rise in terrorist attacks - the terrorists just use other means.

And before someone says a ban on guns will reduce the potential for an incident resulting in a high mortality rate, I would remind them of the Nice, France truck attack where 86 people were killed and 458 injured.

by Lee Churchman on March 22, 2019
Lee Churchman

In the Aramoana shooting, he used a .22 rifle to do most of the damage. None of the subsequent law changes would have prevented that guy from buying the guns he used

One was a .223 replica AK 47 as far as I remember, with a separate pistol grip. The law certainly intended to restrict those weapons, even if it made a bad job of it. 

by Colin Fleming on March 22, 2019
Colin Fleming

From what I can tell, all of the weapons used by David Gray at Aramoana would have been illegal under the new rules based on magazine size alone - I'm not sure about their other characteristics.

Post new comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.