Tighter gun laws not the only reform needed in New Zealand: Samara McPhedran

Tightening gun control laws in New Zealand are not the only reforms needed in the wake of the massacre of 50 people in two Christchurch mosques.

Guns and the laws that govern their control are once again in the media spotlight after the terrorist attack on Muslims during worship on March 15.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has promised swift action on gun laws and announced a royal commission investigating the circumstances around the mass shooting.

Firearm policy and injury prevention expert Dr Samara McPhedran tells the Griffith University podcast, A Middle Ground, that it’s overly simplistic to think that strengthening gun laws is all that is required in response to the disaster.

“It looks on the surface like a very simple thing: oh, you change some gun laws and that’s it … [But] as it’s so often seen in these vexed questions of public policy, the reality’s very different,” she says.

Dr Samara McPhedran

“It can actually be hard as a researcher to separate out that very human aspect and to try and contribute to debate in a way that recognises we’re talking about human beings and human lives and communities that have just been shattered and will never be the same.”

She says the media also must examine the part it plays in reporting mass shootings, to hopefully prevent further carnage.

“We had a huge warning 30 odd years ago that one of the motivations for these events is to get the highest number of fatalities that you can,” she says.

“It’s on record that the perpetrator of the Hoddle Street shooting was quite miffed when some other bloke came along and beat his total. And we never really paid that any attention.

“We never talked about it, we never thought about it, and yet now we’re seeing not just in relation to the massacre in Christchurch, but a characteristic of many of these events across the world is getting a highest number of fatalities is a goal because again, to use the words of one of the perpetrators, ‘The more fatalities you get, the more publicity you get.’

“Because many of these perpetrators are fame seekers. They want celebrity status and going out and committing these atrocities gives them a notoriety and an infamy that they would never achieve in any other way.

“Taking that away from them does take away part of – and an important part of – their motivation.”

Dr McPhedran is concerned at the pressure being put on Prime Minister Ardern to make vast and rapid reforms to gun laws and policy in response to the disaster, arguing that it’s overly simplistic to think harsher gun laws would guarantee no future shootings.

“I think Prime Minister Ardern was absolutely right when she said this is a much more technical and complex area than people realise. She is absolutely correct,” she says.

“It’s probably not something people are going to want to hear, but registration does not prevent the misuse of firearms.”

She says while much has been made of the alleged gunman being Australian, that doesn’t recognise the complexities of the issues involved.

“There are some who have really quite smugly sort of tut-tutted New Zealand and said, ‘Oh, well, if you had our gun laws, this wouldn’t have happened.’ I don’t think that’s terribly helpful,” she says.

“And it also fundamentally overlooks the shooters’ motivations. As part of my field of scholarship, I study mass shooters. That includes studying their own writings because we can learn a lot from those; as grubby as it is to wade through that kind of material – and believe me, it is grubby – it’s still very helpful from a research perspective to help us understand the why.

“The perpetrator of the Christchurch shootings is very, very, very explicit about why he chose New Zealand and why he chose to use guns.

“Both of those were extremely considered and deliberate actions. He states that in choosing such a peaceful and remote place as New Zealand and in using guns rather than any other method, he would get the most publicity for his actions. That is why he chose New Zealand and that is why he chose guns.”

Dr McPhedran says she hopes Ms Ardern can stand up to the push for an immediate solution, and instead opts for a more considered approach.

“In Australia, we did have a very swift response, politically, after Port Arthur. We did see measures such as prohibition of certain types of firearms,” she says.

“What we’ve seen down the track is that there have been some unintended negative consequences and perhaps, with the benefit of hindsight, we could have approached these issues very differently and potentially far more constructively.

“Looking at the Australian experience, what the evidence has found 20-plus years down the track is maybe not what people expected. What we have actually seen here is that the pre-existing downward trend in homicide, firearm homicide continued at the same rate after ’96 as before. Firearm-related homicides were already coming down and that just continued afterwards. That’s not something unique to Australia; most Western nations experienced the same.

“I’m certainly aware that there has been rhetoric around New Zealand’s so-called dangerously lax gun laws but, on the other side of that, New Zealand’s gun laws have also been described as world-class by the UN Center for Peace and Disarmament in Asia and the Pacific. How do we reconcile these two very different views? It comes down to what measures we use to judge the effectiveness of laws: do we judge them by how restrictive they are or do we judge them against more objective measures like homicide rates?”

How the gun control debate plays out in the coming federal election will be telling, Dr McPhedran argues.

“We have become more about picking a side, and you’ve got to pick a side, you’ve got to stick on that team and that’s it,” she says.

“And that’s okay for football, but it’s not very helpful for debate around public policy.

“I think that we can do a lot better, not just on the gun issue, but on many issues around social policy and crime and justice.

“I think we can recognise that people have pretty much the same overall concerns, just very, very different ideas about how to resolve those concerns.

“And, really, what we seem to do very badly at the moment in Australia is to say, ‘Okay, there are lots of different ideas. Let’s put those in the open. Let’s talk about them. Let’s shine a light on them. Let’s test those ideas.’

“I think these types of approaches can sometimes have unintended consequences that perhaps haven’t been fully thought through, so it’s going to be fascinating to see what happens over the coming weeks.”