Up until Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s announcement of a ban on military-style weapons yesterday, New Zealand had a system of licensing firearms holders and used a process of application, vetting, reference checks and attendance at firearms safety lectures.
Knowledge of the Firearms Code was required and tested. A firearms license holder was able to then legally acquire any number of firearms. New Zealand has not set up an arms register since the Arms Act was enacted in 1983.
There is no tally of how many firearms are in New Zealand, and no log of how many firearms any individual may have. There is an estimated 1.3 million firearms legally owned in New Zealand, and nothing beyond speculation about how many illegal weapons have found their way in.
Loop holes in gun laws
With a certain class of license, military style semi-automatic weapons (in unlimited numbers) could be acquired legally. Some 14,000 of these weapons are thought to be legally owned in New Zealand.
Loop holes in current legislation abound. These make it possible to modify weapons and obtain large magazines, and even to buy armour-piercing bullets. Why, in a peaceful, democratic and open society, does anyone need a military-style automatic weapon and armour piercing ammunition?
Prime Minister Ardern has shown the decisive leadership we should see from a leader who genuinely cares about the people she leads. She has finally grasped the nettle, exploiting the current situation to drive through the changes New Zealand should have made 23 years ago following the Port Arthur massacre. She has outwitted those who might oppose her move, because there is no argument that anybody could muster now that would in any way resonate with the vast majority of New Zealanders.
Ardern has announced the ban on a number of weapons, signalled changes to the firearms licensing regime and the need to keep tabs on the national recreational arsenal. But there is a tough road ahead.
Rural, recreational use of firearms
Politicians have an unquestioning faith that legislation is sufficient, but it is largely impotent without adequate resourcing for the enforcement of new rules. With only an estimate to work on, New Zealand Police (the administrators of firearms regulations) will have to identify and locate the owners of these weapons and implement the buy-back and amnesty that will be required.
Many owners will give them up. Their humanity will outdo their desire to have them, but the shocking reality of panic buying of semi-automatics since the Christchurch tragedy signals that clearly there are those who will seek to subvert the government’s intent. Police will have to investigate those who fail to cooperate, safely seize the weapons and prosecute the offenders.
Most firearms license holders in New Zealand do not own military style semi-automatic weapons. Many are rural, recreational hunters or use their weapons on ranges. They look after their weapons responsibly, secure them safely, own them legally and use them at no risk to the general public.
Most who own semi-automatic weapons are no different. We should not demonise a section of society simply because of the horrific, obscene and brutally inhuman actions of one lonely individual who no more represents gun owners than he does any other group of New Zealanders.
Illegal weapon imports
But this is not the issue. The issue is that the privilege of owning a certain class of weapons is not worth the terrible cost of 50 people being gunned down in prayer. New Zealand is already seeing the steady illegal importation of firearms, often tied to the increasing movement of illicit narcotics. Banning semi-automatics will increase the demand for the importation of these weapons illegally, adding extra pressure on law enforcement agencies.
For a ban on military style semi-automatics to have meaning, New Zealand’s long coast line, its airports and sea ports, through which illegal commodities are moving, will need resources that allow fit-for-purpose enforcement powers, people and tactics.
The changes New Zealand will now make will not guarantee it will be free of terrorism in the future. Other countries have much stricter firearms regulations, having taken far stronger measures years ago, but they have still suffered terrorist attacks. Firearms reform is one small step for a country that will need to address a plethora of gaps in its security approach.
New Zealand’s terrorism legislation is inadequate. It was found wanting when police attempted to apply it in 2007 during the “Urewera raids”, but charges could not be laid then. New Zealand’s then Solicitor General David Collins described the Terrorism Suppression Act then as incoherent and unworkable. How New Zealand manages social media needs review, and the traditional minimalist approach to national security will no longer suffice.
New Zealand has faced security crises before during the Russian scare in the 1880s and the second world war in the 1940s. It has often been caught out doing “too little, too late” to be saved only by its distance from any potential threat. The internet has extinguished that distance. It has brought the ills of the rest of the world to us. It is already too late. We must ensure that what we do now, is not too little.
In the days before the mass shootings in Christchurch I was visiting Parkland, Florida, where 17 people were killed in a school shooting on Valentine’s Day 2018. I was recording a story about how those survivors and their allies built a global movement against gun violence. I met students, teachers and supporters.
These American students knew all about Australia’s gun laws. “How did you get such strong laws?” they would ask. And I would tell them about the Port Arthur massacre and how our conservative prime minister acted. “We haven’t had a gun massacre since,” I proclaimed. Days later, I felt shame at my hubris – an Australian has been charged with the shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Lessons from a ‘high-security’ suburb
We have so much to learn from Parkland. And it’s not simply how they built a remarkable social movement. Some lessons become visible only when you actually see the place.
Parkland is a suburb close to the Everglades, 30 minutes from the beach and an hour north of Miami. It is a wealthy, majority-white neighbourhood. But the thing that overwhelmed me when I was driving around is that it is a gated community.
The entire suburb is broken up into large blocks, and at the centre of each block is a single entrance for cars. The road has a security hut, large barriers stretching across and there is a large gate. You need a PIN code to go inside.
When you go through, the homes and streets are beautiful. Green grass, and every home has one of those white mailboxes with a red flag that turns up when the mail arrives.
These gated communities tell you something. Parents choose to live behind walls to create a nice way to live and keep their family safe.
But in Parkland all that security didn’t keep them safe. Darkness found a new way in – and everyone is still feeling the murderous pain.
The limits of security and walls offer a profound lesson for us in Australia as we work out how to respond to the terrorism in Christchurch. Prime Minister Scott Morrison wants to lock up our places of worship – particularly mosques. He wants police with guns and security checks. It’s like he wants to build religious gated communities.
This approach is consistent with his other policies – use the navy to stop boats, use cages to stop refugees. Our prime minister has only one register – security.
But if Parkland showed anything, it’s that gated communities don’t stop violence. The violence just moves and shifts. An aggressive security response might make you “feel” safer, but it doesn’t make you safe.
At the same time, security heightens the tension. And it does nothing to deal with the causes of the violence.
So how do we respond to the causes of the violence? In Parkland, the main issue was access to guns. The March for Our Lives students called this out quickly. They gained traction because they bravely and forcefully condemned the National Rifle Association for creating the context for mass shootings – easy access to guns.
It started with the demonisation of others
Our context is different. The issue in Christchurch was about guns, yes, but equally it was about motive. As Australians, one of our citizens “radicalised” themselves to such a point that they massacred other people. How did this happen?
White supremacy. OK, but how do we unpack white supremacy? Who emboldened this? Who made it OK to demonise Muslims – to say they don’t belong?
But it’s more than that. Murdoch news media have been running a crusade against Muslims for years. The Coalition has brutalised Muslims and refugees for votes since September 11 2001. And the Labor Party has given bipartisan support to the offshore detention of predominantly Muslim refugees.
Come together in love to overcome hate
But knowing who prosecutes hate is not enough. Hate can’t drive out hate. As Martin Luther King junior said, only love can do that.
How do we bring love into our work to stop race being used as a divisive power? I wish I had the answer. But I do know that building love is something that can happen everywhere all the time – not just at vigils or special services.
Can we build a movement that would amplify love at work, in our community, in our schools, where we have intentional conversations to talk about what Christchurch meant and why the Muslim community was targeted?
The Muslim community are in pain. We – especially white people like me and some of you – have to do the heavy lifting on this one. We can take the lead on doing something about white supremacy and dividing people by race and religion.
Imagine if we could take the pain of this moment and turn it into a real reckoning for our country. For as long as white people have stood in Australia we have caused harm to others. But too often we shrug off responsibility through phrases like “the most successful multicultural country in the world”. Or we get scared off the conversation by phrases like the “history wars”.
Yes, the shock jocks will berate and the trolls will yell. But let’s have them yell at white people taking on white supremacy instead of Muslim and other leaders of colour.
It’s time to act. The election is one place – we need to vote for leaders who stand with Muslims because “they are us”.
But this is more than just electoral politics. It’s about a movement committed to connection, understanding, listening, respect and love. And that’s love as a verb, love as action.
A year after the mass shooting, Parkland is still a torn community. Many are still deeply active in social movements pushing for gun law reform. And many others are still healing.
In Parkland the lesson is that they were forever changed, not because of the hate that was inflicted, but because of the love they cultivated in response.
When 17 people were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, it was just the latest in a tragic list of mass shootings, many of them at schools.
Then something different happened: Teens began to speak out. The Stoneman Douglas students held a press conference appealing for gun control. Teens in Washington, D.C., organized a protest in front of the White House, with 17 lying on the ground to symbolize the lives lost. More protests organized by teens are planned for the coming months.
Teens weren’t marching in the streets calling for gun control after the Columbine High School massacre in 1999. So why are today’s teens and young adults – whom I’ve dubbed “iGen” in my recent book on this generation – speaking out and taking action?
With mass shootings piling up one after another, this is a unique historical moment. But research shows that iGen is also a unique generation – one that may be especially sensitive to gun violence.
Keep me safe
People usually don’t think of teenagers as risk-averse. But for iGen, it’s been a central tenant of their upbringing and outlook.
During their childhoods, they experienced the rise of the helicopter parent, anti-bullying campaigns and, in some cases, being forced to ride in car seats until age 12.
Their behavior has followed suit. For my book, I conducted analyses of large, multi-decade surveys. I found that today’s teens are less likely to get into physical fights and less likely to get into car accidents than teens just 10 years ago. They’re less likely to say they like doing dangerous things and aren’t as interested in taking risks. Meanwhile, since 2000, rates of teen binge drinking have fallen by half.
With the culture so focused on keeping children safe, many teens seem incredulous that extreme forms of violence against kids can still happen – and yet so many adults are unwilling to address the issue.
“We call on our national and state legislatures to finally act responsibly and reduce the number of these tragic incidents,” said Eleanor Nuechterlein and Whitney Bowen, the teen organizers of the D.C. lie-in. “It’s essential that we all feel safe in our classrooms.”
Treated with kid gloves
In a recent analysis of survey data from 8 million teens since the 1970s, I also found that today’s teens tend to delay a number of “adult” milestones. They’re less likely than their predecessors to have a driver’s license, go out without their parents, date, have sex, and drink alcohol by age 18.
This could mean that, compared to previous generations, they’re more likely to think of themselves as children well into their teen years.
As 17-year-old Stoneman Douglas High School student David Hogg put it, “We’re children. You guys are the adults. You need to take some action.”
Furthermore, as this generation has matured, they’ve witnessed stricter age regulations for young people on everything from buying cigarettes (with the age minimum raised to 21 in several states) to driving (with graduated driving laws).
Politicians and parents have been eager to regulate what young people can and can’t do. And that’s one reason some of the survivors find it difficult to understand why gun purchases aren’t as regulated.
“If people can’t purchase marijuana or alcohol at the age of 18, why should they be given access to guns?” asked Stoneman Douglas High School junior Lyliah Skinner.
She has a point: The shooter, Nikolas Cruz, is 19. Under Florida’s laws, he could legally possess a firearm at age 18. But – because he’s under 21 – he couldn’t buy alcohol.
Libertarianism – with limits
At the same time, iGen teens – like their millennial predecessors – are highly individualistic. They believe the rights of the individual should trump traditional social rules. For example, I found that they’re more supportive of same-sex marriage and legalized marijuana than previous generations were at the same age.
Their political beliefs tend to lean toward libertarianism, a philosophy that favors individual rights over government regulations, including gun regulation. Sure enough, support for protecting gun rights increased among millennials and iGen between 2007 and 2016.
But even a libertarian ideologue would never argue that individual freedom extends to killing others. So perhaps today’s teens are realizing that one person’s loosely regulated gun rights can lead to another person’s death – or the death of 17 of their teachers and classmates.
The teens’ demands could be seen as walking this line: They’re not asking for wholesale prohibitions on all guns. Instead, they’re hoping for reforms supported by most Americans such as restricting the sale of assault weapons and more stringent background checks.
In the wake of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, the teens’ approach to activism – peaceful protest, a focus on safety and calls for incremental gun regulation – are fitting for this generation.
Perhaps iGen will lead the way to change.
Since 20 children were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012, we’ve seen public calls for the release of crime scene photos – the idea being that the visceral horror evoked by images of young, brutalized bodies could spur some sort of action to combat the country’s gun violence epidemic.
The day after the Parkland, Florida, high school shooting, a Slate article echoed the demand for crime scene photos to be released, arguing that if Americans could actually see the bloodshed, we might finally say, “Enough is enough.”
As a scholar who specializes in photojournalism ethics, I’ve thought extensively about how journalism can responsibly cover gun violence, balancing the moral imperatives of seeking truth while minimizing harm. I’ve also studied how images can galvanize viewers.
Fundamental questions remain: What is the line between informing audiences and exploiting victims and their families? Should the media find a balance between shocking and shielding audiences? And when it comes to mass shootings – and gun violence more broadly – if outlets did include more bloody images, would it even make a difference?
The limitations of a photo
On the same day of the Parkland shooting, my research on news images of mass shootings was published. Given the intense yet fleeting nature of media coverage, I wanted to examine how news outlets cover these crimes, specifically through the lens of visual reporting.
The study analyzed nearly 5,000 newspaper photos from three school shootings: Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook and Umpqua Community College. Of those images, only 5 percent could be characterized as graphic in nature.
Most depicted the shock and grief of survivors, family and friends. These elements certainly make up an important part of the story. Nonetheless, they create a narrative where, as the Slate article put it, “mass shootings are bloodless.”
Does that matter?
Research has shown that when audiences feel emotionally connected with news events, they’re more likely to change their views or take action. Photographs of violence and bloodshed can certainly serve as a conduit for this emotional connection. Their realism resonates, and they’re able to create a visceral effect that can arouse a range of emotions: sorrow, disgust, shock, anger.
But the power of images is limited. After particularly shocking images appear, what we tend to see are short bursts of activism. For example, in 2015, following the publication of the harrowing image of a drowned Syrian boy lying facedown in the sand, donations to the Red Cross briefly spiked. But within a week, they returned to their typical levels.
The ethics of violent imagery
If a graphic image can inspire some action – even it’s minimal and fleeting – do media outlets have an obligation to run more photos of mass shooting victims?
Perhaps. But other concerns need to be weighed.
For one, there are the victims’ families. Widely disseminated images of their massacred loved ones could no doubt add to their already unthinkable grief.
Moreover, we exist in a media landscape that overwhelms us with images. Individual photographs become harder to remember, to the point that even graphic ones of bloodshed could fade into ubiquity.
Another concern is the presentation of these images. As media consumers, so much of what we see comes from manipulated, sensationalized and trivialized social media feeds. As a colleague and I wrote last year, social media “begs us to become voyeurs” as opposed to informed news consumers. In a digital environment, these images could also be easily appropriated for any number purposes – from pornography to hoaxes – and spread across social media, to the point that their authenticity will be lost.
There’s another unintended consequence: Grisly images could inspire another mass shooting. Research indicates that news coverage of mass shootings – and in particular the attention given to body counts and the perpetrators themselves – can have a contagious effect on would-be mass killers.
Journalism has a responsibility to inform audiences, and sometimes a graphic image does that in a way that words can’t.
However this doesn’t mean that any and all gruesome images should be published. There are professional guidelines for deciding whether to publish these types of images – mainly, to consider the journalistic purpose of publishing them and the “overriding and justifiable need to see” them.
The extent to which graphic images should be present in our news media is an ongoing debate. And it’s one that must continue.
A new image emerges
Following mass shootings, there’s a predictable pattern of news media coverage. There are the breaking news reports filled with speculation. Then details of the perpetrator emerge. Reporters and pundits question whether or not it was an act of terrorism. Elected officials respond with “thoughts and prayers,” and debates about mental health and gun control rage. Finally, there’s coverage of the vigils and funerals.
But this time, there’s something new: images of resistance.
Students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are stepping up and demanding action from the country’s elected leaders.
In an impassioned speech, senior Emma Gonzalez chastised lawmakers, stating, “We are up here standing together because if all our government and president can do is send thoughts and prayers, then it’s time for victims to be the change that we need to see.”
This, in the end, may prove to be more effective than any images of bloodshed or grief. Fanning across the news outlets and social media networks, these images of resistance seem to be spurring action, with school walkouts and nationwide protests against gun violence in the works.
Illustrations of protest, courage and resilience – from high school students, no less – might have the power to sink in.
Perhaps it will be these images – not those of bloodied victims – that will stir people from complacency and move them to action.
On February 14, in Parkland, Florida, 17 teachers and students were shot dead at their school by an estranged student armed with a high-powered, military-style rifle. Mass shootings at places of learning in the US are, sadly, not uncommon.
On this occasion, however, the backlash against the political establishment has been more fearsome than usual. Significantly, the target is the gun culture of the country itself.
Notwithstanding, US President Donald Trump has come up with a plan to tackle the crisis. He wants to arm and train thousands of teachers to carry firearms in schools.
Let’s examine the evidence for the efficacy of such an idea.
The Trump plan is not a new one. Many US state legislatures have modified their gun control laws or softened regulations, now allowing holders of “concealed carry” permits to take their firearms into a wide range of public places including bars, churches, and government buildings.
Some state laws allow schools to permit teaching staff to carry weapons on campus. In June 2015, Texan lawmakers passed a bill giving not only faculty members but even students at public and private universities in that state a right to apply for a permit to carry concealed handguns into classrooms, dormitories and other buildings.
It should be mentioned also that Donald Trump is a strong supporter of the National Rifle Association, the powerful US-based lobby group committed to the idea that a citizen has a right to bear arms. The thinking of this group is that the “good guy” with the gun will deter, kill or maim the “bad guy” (the would-be shooter) before he can unleash his lethal mayhem.
Is there any evidence that the Trump approach is workable? No, not a skerrick.
The evidence continues to mount against guns as a form of urban crime prevention strategy, and for the proposition that a greater proliferation of guns actually increases the likelihood of urban violence.
Researchers in 2010 found that gun availability positively influenced the rates of several violent crimes in a sample of cities across 39 countries. Further research reviewed data for 27 developed countries and concluded that the number of guns per capita per country was a strong and independent predictor of firearm-related deaths.
Significantly, van Kesteren concludes:
In high-gun countries, the risks of escalation to more serious and lethal violence are higher. On balance, considerably more serious crimes of violence are committed in such countries. For this reason, the strict gun-reduction policies of many governments seem to be a sensible means to advance the common good.
I do not know of one serious crime prevention advocate in the developed world who would suggest that children are safer in a school because of firearms in their teachers’ hands.
Leaving aside the possibility of theft of a gun, its misuse or an accident, it would be fanciful to suggest that teachers could be trained to make split-second determinations of who is a “bad guy” and who is a “good guy”. Even the most highly specialised armed forces units get that wrong sometimes.
And let’s not forget the cost of the plan. Trump needs to multiply the price of the weapons plus the costs of training by the number of teachers who volunteer to take on this task in the 100,000 educational institutions in the US today.
The evidence that countries with higher levels of gun ownership have higher gun homicide, gun suicide and gun injury rates is convincing. The US gun ownership rate (guns per 100 people) is more than five times the Australian rate. Its gun homicide rate is more than ten times the Australian rate.
Of all US homicides, 60% are committed by firearms. The equivalent figure in Australia (2010–12) is 14%.
The only ways to stop or reduce the likelihood of a school shooting is, first, to take seriously the role of the state in enacting laws to make firearm ownership an earned privilege and not a right, and second, to remove from public hands altogether, as Australia has done, automatic, semi-automatic and pump-action shotguns. They are simply not needed in any 21st-century urban setting.
Are either of these things about to happen in the US? Not in my lifetime, nor in my children’s lifetimes.
Estimates in 2009 were that there were more than 300 million guns in private hands in the US. This figure would be significantly higher today, although one of the problems is that it is not known exactly how many people own how many guns.
They are not going to disappear in the foreseeable future. And if the deaths of 20 children between six and seven years old, as well as six staff members, at Sandy Hook elementary school in December 2012 cannot re-direct the political wind, then nothing will – not even the cries of pain outside of the White House from families from Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Will more mass shootings occur in US schools and on college campuses in the years to come? Most certainly, with or without the implementation of Trump’s latest suggestion. Indeed, the situation is likely to get worse.
Unless something radically changes some time soon, Americans just have to live with the inevitable.
Do gun laws make a difference to gun crime? Are gun laws worth pursuing? Would they make a difference in the USA? What do you think?
The link below is to an article that reports on what actor and activist Morgan Freeman has had to say about the tragic shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. What do you think – is he right?
I personally think he says a lot of sensible things, though I would tweak a few of the thoughts – i.e. gun control for one.