NEW ZEALAND’s response to the Christchurch mass-shooting shows that a country can find unity, rather than division, on gun reform.
Strong and definitive leadership, a balanced approach to reforming gun laws, and establishing a consensus that includes elements of the gun-owning community are key themes of the debate that other countries would do well to replicate.
What remains to be seen, however, is how social media companies can better ensure that their networks are not used to inspire, coordinate, or disseminate extremist behaviour.
Just six days after the worst terrorist atrocity in Kiwi history, New Zealand decided that there was no need for a peaceful public to be armed with MSSAs (military-style semi-automatics).
These are now banned, demonstrating how a well-armed society with a strong gun culture can nevertheless act responsibly in the face of a divisive act.
The accused attacker used firearms to inflame debate and divide countries struggling with gun control. In New Zealand, it had the opposite effect, inspiring a conclusion on gun control laws.
They need to be stronger.
This conclusion came not only due to disgust with the atrocity, but also thanks to a set of progressive decisions and principles established by New Zealand’s governance bodies. The world, and particularly the US, would do well to understand how New Zealand brought about such unanimous reform.
The effect of PM Jacinda Ardern’s remarkable leadership cannot be understated. Ardern transformed a crisis into action. Without delay, she took the time needed to genuinely face Christchurch’s Muslim community.
Her demeanour reminded the world that this tragedy was a national one, and reaffirmed that the victims were a part of Kiwi society – fellow citizens to be fought for. In doing so, she set a strong moral basis for the work to come.
Furthermore, by refusing to acknowledge the terrorist, Ardern removed a poisonous element from the subsequent discourse. No time was lost pondering the unremarkable backstory of the accused, and a message was sent that such acts will only earn you a nameless existence in a nameless cell. Even the media would do well to follow Ardern’s example.
The Prime Minister’s strong values allowed for decisive action. New Zealand, along with the US, is one of the few high-income countries in the world to have a permissive atmosphere for civilian gun ownership.
Guns are common in Kiwi civilian life due to hunting and agrarian pastimes. In New Zealand, responsible gun use is perfectly legitimate.
By only targeting MSSAs, Ardern’s government chose a balanced approach to gun reform that could succeed. Her efforts would have been wasted with a knee-jerk and over-reaching approach. This would have threatened the country’s gun-owners and moved them to act against it. Instead, no one questioned a reform targeting only the class of weapon used in the attack.
While New Zealand still lacks a registry for its civilian firearms, it nevertheless established a precedent of meaningful, consensus-based reform. This can form a basis for further legislative efforts to promote a responsible gun culture.
Finally, the success of these reforms was due to the ability of Kiwi gun owners to accept them. Gun control advocates ought to remember that reform can only succeed when it is agreed upon by the owners themselves.
It must also be remembered that most gun owners are practitioners and supporters of responsible ownership. Limiting reform efforts to MSSAs was palatable to many gun owners, especially in the aftermath of such egregious misuse.
Yet there was and will always be gun owners who will resist even the most modest controls. For this, the vehicle for success was civil society groups that represent gun owners or an aspect of ownership.
The stance taken by Federated Farmers, for instance, was exemplary. It speaks volumes that an organisation representing a prominent gun-owning group chose to support reform, even knowing it would be unpopular among certain members.
Furthermore, the Police Association – that has long advocated for increased gun control measures – supported reform efforts by deflating the claim that widespread civilian gun ownership makes society safer.
Underlying the atrocity is a bigger issue than gun control. What was uniquely unsettling about this shooting was the role online sub-cultures and social media had in propagating it.
New Zealand is right to criminally punish those who spread the footage of the attack, though the reality is that Facebook currently offers an ungovernable broadcasting platform to terrorists and other subversive actors seeking to disseminate propaganda. Other websites, such as ‘the Chans’, accommodate online communities that celebrate extremism and foment these attacks.
Social media and online forum providers are thus critical stakeholders in the repetition and continuity of mass shootings, and therefore must be commissioned to monitor and limit the channels through which terrorist veneration and incitement of violence take place.
Only leadership, as shown in New Zealand, can form the broad base of consensus required to respond to attacks like this. The prime minister’s actions in the wake of this traumatic event have brought together a nation faced with an act designed to tear its people apart. Leaders the world over must follow suit.
By combining decisive action on gun control with strategies for limiting hate speech on online media, governments can put themselves in a position to limit violent terrorism in their societies. Christchurch shows us that they must.
By Michael Picard, Research Director for GunPolicy.org of the University of Sydney’s School of Public Health. This piece was first published at Policy Forum, Asia and the Pacific’s platform for public policy analysis and opinion.