Once again, responding to a horrendous crime by inflicting knee-jerk, authoritarian restrictions on innocent people proves to be an ineffective means of convincing people to obey. Specifically, New Zealand’s government—which also stepped up censorship and domestic surveillance after bloody attacks on two Christchurch mosques earlier this year—is running into stiff resistance to new gun rules from firearms owners who are slow to surrender now-prohibited weapons and will probably never turn them in.
Officials should have seen it coming.
“Police are anticipating a number of people with banned firearms in their possession won’t surrender them,” Stuff reported at the end of May, based on internal government documents.
As of last week, only around 700 weapons had been turned over. There are an estimated 1.5 million guns—with an unknown number subject to the new prohibition on semiautomatic firearms—in the country overall.
Traditionally relaxed in its approach to firearms regulation, and enjoying a low crime rate, New Zealand has no firearms registration rule. That means authorities have no easy way of knowing what guns are in circulation or who owns them.
“These weapons are unlikely to be confiscated by police because they don’t know of their existence,” Philippa Yasbek of Gun Control NZ admitted. “These will become black-market weapons if their owners choose not to comply with the law and become criminals instead.”
Yasbek’s organization advocates registering all guns in private hands. But that won’t help with gathering guns already in the possession of owners appalled by the government’s attack on the rights of innocent people—government attacks, it’s worth noting, that come in response to the crimes of one man who explicitly anticipated just such a response.
“I chose firearms for the affect it would have on social discourse,” the killer wrote in a document he released to explain his crimes. “The gun owners of New Zealand are a beaten, miserable bunch of baby boomers, who have long since given up the fight. When was the last time they won increased rights? Their loss was inevitable. I just accelerated things a bit.”
Politicians fulfilled the murderer’s predictions with panic-driven legislation.
That gun owners would, in large numbers, defy restrictions should have been anticipated by anybody who knows the history of government attempts to disarm their subjects—or who just glanced across the Tasman Sea to Australia.
“In Australia it is estimated that only about 20% of all banned self-loading rifles have been given up to the authorities,” wrote Franz Csaszar, professor of criminology at the University of Vienna, after Australia’s 1996 compensated confiscation of firearms following a mass murder in Port Arthur, Tasmania. Csaszar put the number of illegally retained arms in Australia at between two and five million.
“Many members of the community still possess grey-market firearms because they did not surrender these during the 1996–97 gun buyback,” the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission conceded in a 2016 report. “The Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission continues to conservatively estimate that there are more than 260,000 firearms in the illicit firearms market.”
Just as Australian police named “outlaw motorcycle gangs, Middle Eastern organised crime groups, and other groups engaged in trafficking illicit commodities such as drugs” as beneficiaries of the prohibition-fueled black market in firearms, underground organizations are similarly poised to prosper in New Zealand. Gangs in the island nation announced very loudly after the new legislation was introduced that they wouldn’t be surrendering their own weapons.
“Will gangs get rid of their weapons? No,” one prominent gang leader told Stuff. “Because of who we are, we can’t guarantee our own safety.”
So Kiwis who actually do comply with the confiscation scheme will put themselves at a disadvantage relative to violent gangs that don’t intend to obey.
They would also be putting themselves at a disadvantage relative to the government, which is retaining its own weapons despite a distinct lack of competence (in April, a police station provided one-stop, discount gun shopping for an enterprising burglar) and intends to further squeeze the country’s liberty. Even before the latest law has been fully implemented, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is planning more gun legislation, including registration. Additionally, the Security Intelligence Service stepped up domestic spying after the mosque attacks and saw a big boost in its funding courtesy of the latest budget.
Arguably, defiant gun owners are just being realistic in seeing little to gain by obeying restrictive laws that have their greatest impact on those who pose no threat to their neighbors.
Fulfilling internal police expectations, some Kiwis openly boast of defying the law—especially with compensation rates set well below the value of the firearms that are supposed to be surrendered. The low turn-in numbers suggest they’re matching words with action.
And who can claim to be surprised? By refusing to comply with restrictions, New Zealand gun owners are just following in the footsteps of their counterparts in Australia, Europe, and the United States. In each of these places, and many more besides, gun owners ignored laws, kept their property out of sight, and frustrated efforts to disarm them.
If New Zealand’s political class had looked to the history of gun control efforts they would have seen that they were walking a well-trodden path that leads to a dead end. But then again, if they had enough foresight to know that ill-considered restrictions on personal liberty are usually counterproductive and often breed rebellion, they probably wouldn’t have gone into government.