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Gordon Campbell on effective changes to gun laws and the SIS

Gordon Campbell on what effective changes to our gun law and to the SIS, would look like

First published on Werewolf

mosque_Already, the government has signalled that its response to the Christchurch mosque shootings will proceed on two main fronts (a) changes to the gun laws (b) changes to the current surveillance behaviours of the Police and the SIS. So… what would a programme of action look like in those two areas, given that the aim must be to protect the innocent via new measures that do the least possible harm to the existing rights of the law-abiding? All of us surely, have a stake in searching for a consensus on how to proceed.

1. Changing the Gun Laws

Judging by overseas experience, the following measures would seem necessary ingredients of any effective reform of our gun laws.

(a)The compulsory registration of firearms. New Zealand is unusual in registering only the gun owners, but not their weapons. Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Finland, France, Germany, Great Britain, Greece, Hong Kong, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Netherlands, Norway, Philippines, Portugal, Russia, Singapore, Slovakia, Spain, and Sweden all require guns to be registered. Among developed countries, only Canada, New Zealand and the US do not.

Reform has been a long time coming. Back in 1997 an independent inquiry into firearms control carried out by Justice Thomas Thorp made a series of key recommendations that would still serve admirably as a platform for reform. Those recommendations included :

• that the law require all firearms to be individually registered to their owners, in addition to the licensing of the owners themselves

• that there should be an organised buy-back by the state, of military style automatic and semi-automatic weapons

• that all restricted weapons held by private collectors ( eg machine guns) should be permanently disabled

• that ‘self defence” be explicitly removed as a legitimate rationale for owning a gun

• that a three-year licensing period should replace the current 10-year vetting cycle for gun-owners. (Obviously, a shorter registration cycle for the guns themselves would also make it easier to trace the movements of weapons around the country, when they’re onsold.)

• that ammunition sales be restricted solely to the weapons cited in the firearm-specific licences, thereby restricting ammunition sales to owners of unlawful, unregistered guns. (It may be far easier to regulate the ammunition than the weapons.)

• that an independent Firearms Authority be set up to to monitor enforcement and compliance with our gun laws.

As the gun reform advocate Philip Alpers has pointed out, none of the Thorp report’s main findings have ever be passed into law in this country. However, why would it now be in the best interests of the gun lobby to support the registering of guns? Their standard rationale is that gun registration would penalize law-abiding hunters and shooters, since the criminal/terrorist element would ignore the requirement. After Christchurch though, we’ve gone past that point.

In future, if the gun lobby/hunting community truly want to avoid being lumped in with criminals and terrorists, then gun registration has to be the first and necessary step towards identifying the weapons in the hands of the law-abiding, and thus enabling a focus on the residue of owners and weapons that do pose a genuine risk to society.

In the coming weeks and months, the gun lobby/hunting community is going to face a choice. Does it plan on retreating to its bunker and opposing all changes to our gun laws, and continuing to whine and complain and demonize the Police? Or is it willing to identify ways to disentangle its own legitimate right to own a (narrower) range of registered weapons that are fit for purpose – and thereby assist the Police to slowly eliminate the stockpile of illegitimate weapons currently in the hands of the criminal/nutjob fringe ?

(b)An immediate moratorium on gun imports. It will take time for any new legislative framework to be devised. Inevitably, some gun enthusiasts may already be feeling paranoid about the government’s stated plans to change the gun laws, and may be rushing to buy and import all the marginal weaponry they can, before such weapons are outlawed. Nothing can be done to prevent the panic purchasing of currently legal weapons that are already here; but we need to be taking immediate steps to stop one last tsunami of such weapons reaching our shores.

(c)A ban on automatic and semi-automatic weapons. According to PM Jacinda Ardern in her statement early yesterday, five guns were used by the main perpetrator. There were two semi-automatic weapons, and two shotguns. The offender was in possession of a valid gun licence, reportedly issued in November 2017. A lever action firearm was also found. There is anecdotal evidence that some of the weapons had been adapted to enhance their rapid fire capability.

Again, if the gun lobby wants to separate its legitimate interests from those of the criminals and terrorists it currently sides with, it will need to participate in identifying which weapons are essential for its sporting and leisure purposes, and which are not.

Currently, the public cannot see how automatic and semi-automatic weapons serve any legitimate sporting purpose, and can see plenty of reasons for banning them. The best way for the gun lobby to protect its interests would be to participate in reaching a consensus on which classes of weapons currently available need to be taken out of lawful circulation.

(d) The creation of an amnesty, and a buy back system. Clearly, there are many illegitimate weapons out there, and some are in the hands of very dodgy people. To augment the creation of a gun register, the government also needs to announce say, a 12 month amnesty for people to voluntarily hand in such weapons, with a penalty regime if guns in designated classes of weaponry are later found in their possession.

Alongside this amnesty, there will need to be a buy back of weapons, at market value. Australia created just such a scheme after the 1996 Port Arthur massacre. Those buybacks were financed by imposing a special health levy, on Medicare.

[The] Federal government introduced the Medicare Levy Amendment Act 1996 to raise the predicted cost of $A500 million through a one-off increase in the Medicare levy. The gun buy-back scheme started on 1 October 1996 and concluded on 30 September 1997. The government bought back and destroyed over 1 million firearms.

In New Zealand, our public health budgets have no leeway for raising and channeling funds off into a buyback programme for guns. Fresh funds will have to be allocated for the buy-back scheme, and it will be costly. It will also save lives.

(e) Put an end to the taxpayer subsidies of gun ownership.

Despite all the noise made by the gun lobby, owning a gun is very much a minority interest in this country. “Of the 3.9 million New Zealanders of gun licensing age,” says Philip Alpers, “ 238,000 (6%) hold a firearm licence. Among those eligible to vote, 99.8% of women and 92% of men do not own guns.” Gun owners are also a declining segment of the population, both here and in the United States. That’s mainly because the baby boomers who grew up in rural settings when hunting lifestyles were more common are not getting any younger. Gun-related activities are increasingly alien and irrelevant to the urbanised young. In the US, gun sales are holding up only because the minority are buying a whole lot more of them, per household.

That being so, many taxpayers in New Zealand could well be surprised to learn that they have been underwriting the costs of gun ownership for years. According to the Police response to an OIA request (dated 28 November 2017) less than half of the $11.876 million costs associated with gun licensing in the year 2016/17 were met from license fees. Gun licence fees brought in only $5.407 million in revenue that year, or just 45% of the overall cost involved.

Why should taxpayers be required to massively subsidize a minority hobby - duck shooting, for example? The main argument for doing so is that if gun owners were asked to meet the full costs of owning their weapons, this would deter many of them from registering their guns at all. Even so, that seems a dodgy rationale for bludging on the taxpayer. Rugged individualists that they are, surely most gun owners would be willing to renounce their dependency on a state handout to underwrite their hobby. If guns are so precious to them, surely in future they can be asked to stump up for the full costs of owning them. Otherwise, gun owners really are making all of us complicit in their shooting of animals for ‘sport’.

Here’s an idea. Instead of subsiding gun owners to shoot Bambi, we could charge them the full cost of owning the gear that makes that ‘sport’ possible, and divert the extra revenue into the buy-back programme for automatics and semi-automatics. On the 2016/17 figures, we’d automatically have nearly $6.5 million extra in the kitty, to meet the substantial cost involved in buying-back and destroying the nation’s current stockpiles of dangerous weaponry, at the going market rate.

(f) Lets find a political consensus. In the wake of the Christchurch shootings it seems less than useless to encourage the community to compassionately come together, if the politicians are then going to bicker and pick apart the remedies, for petty political gain.

There are two obvious impediments to reaching a parliamentary consensus on the way forward. In the past, NZF’s Defence Minister Ron Mark has been something of a poster child of the gun lobby for his consistent opposition to the prior attempts at changing our gun laws. Across the aisle, the National Party has been equally sensitive to the concerns of its rural hunting and shooting base. The Christchurch shootings now require Marks and National Party leader Simon Bridges to rise above any instinctual pandering to their political support base. Will they commit to assisting the House to reach a common position on the meaningful changes required to our gun laws?

2. Changing the SIS and Police.

Right. So… do the Christchurch shootings reflect a failure in our gun legislation, or a failure by the Police and intelligence agencies to adequately monitor the right wing extremists and hate groups in our midst? Most of us would probably say: both, actually. Change is necessary in both areas, if the public is to feel truly re-assured.

As has been pointed out by all and sundry, none of the three arrested for their links to the Christchurch massacres had a criminal record, or were on the watch list of security services – either here, or in Australia.

That failure to detect and deter is a problem facing other countries as well. Famously, the vast surveillance capacity of the US security apparatus failed to protect the US from the events of 9/11 and – similarly – the SIS and the Police anti-terrorism efforts also failed the innocents in the Christchurch mosques, with fatal results. That failure must have consequences. Not only do the victims deserve it – but if the public is to be re-assured, it needs to see that the SIS is not being allowed to proceed on its way, with its business-as-usual model.

To see just how thoroughly the SIS missed the boat, one need only read through the series of their annual reports.

It is a depressing experience. During the immediate post 9/11 era, the SIS focussed its efforts on the infiltration of foreign Muslim radicals. After the rise of Islamic State, the same blinkered focus on radical Islam shifted to recruitment via the Internet, and the potential for radical activity in local mosques.

There was a complete failure by the SIS and the Police anti-terrorism unit to recognise and respond to the parallel threats being made against the Muslim community. As security analyst Paul Buchanan said on Friday night, the authorities have consistently monitored the victims, while consistently ignoring the perpetrators.

So, what now needs to be done? The SIS needs to accept the obligation to reform. What should that change agenda look like ?

(i) Parliamentary oversight of the security services must be made meaningful, and be exercised more often. In all other areas, Parliament jealously guards its sovereignty. Yet when it comes to the security services it abjectly surrenders its sovereignty. Its toothless oversight committee on the security services meets rarely, and only briefly, and conveys none of its findings to the public. Secrecy is not only the norm, but the price of participation. The weakness of this oversight role is unusual compared to parliamentary practice in similar developed countries. Parliament owes it to the public to

(a) act on this latest failure by the security services,

(b) beef up its powers of scrutiny of their performance

(c) institute an ability for committee to call witnesses and hold the security services to account, and

(d) be far more willing to inform the public of its findings. It is after all, called the Security Intelligence Service. They’re our servants, not our overlords.

(ii) The SIS need to report more often and more meaningfully on their operational focus, and performance. Security is on ongoing matter. It is not sufficient to deliver an annual report to its stakeholders, as if the SIS was engaged in selling baked beans, and reporting to shareholders on the profit position In its case, the SIS annual report is virtually devoid of any meaningful content. That needs to change, if the SIS is to instil the public with confidence about its competence.

(iii) The SIS need to be made to report back every six months, not every 12 months. It also needs to be instructed to break down what surveillance revelations it currently includes in its published reports, so that those figures become meaningful. It is of no use for instance, to know that it has 30 people currently under watch, if we’re given no hint as to why, and what categories they fall under – are they Islamic radicals, white supremacists or incels, and in what proportions? Basically, since the SIS missed the boat on white supremacists, it needs to tell the public how it plans on correcting that mistake, going forward. And if it won’t say so, the government needs to say so, on its behalf. Currently, the SIS coyness about its surveillance priorities serves only to conceal its lopsided emphasis on Islamic radicalism.

(iv) Given the extent of its failure in providing security, SIS director Rebecca Kitteridge owes an apology to the Muslim community and to the people of New Zealand, on behalf of the service she heads. That would be a start, but in the circumstances, simply saying “sorry” isn't enough.

The most recent exercise in public accountability by the security services occurred in February. When addressing the Intelligence and Security Justice committee, the main focus of Kitteridge’s presentation was Islamic State, and the potential threat posed by its returnee recruits. In her speech, Kitteridge also made this one-line aside:

“Internationally the slow, but concerning rise of right wing extremism also continues.”

What’s significant here is that it was merely a one-liner, and was framed as a threat located and emanating from overseas. There was no hint that the SIS was treating homegrown right wing extremism as a reality, or as a security threat. It was slow, it was rising, it was of concern, but it was overseas. Well, now that we have learned the hard way that domestic right wing extremism can be deadly, how do the SIS and Police propose to go about (a) monitoring it and (b) neutralising it?

As that plan of action is being worked out, it may be worth keeping in mind that white supremacists are not the only community that’s using message boards like 4Chan and 8Chan as rallying points and hang-out centres for affirmation and mutual re-inforcement. Incel terrorism – which involves men (such as Alek Minassian in Toronto) resorting to terrorism to punish women for wilfully refusing to have sex with them, is also a rising concern.

Presumably, we won't have to wait for an incel attack in New Zealand before the SIS realises that ideological misogyny too, is a threat that’s not just something to be read about in the international media.

Again, as in all forms of policing social media, there are obvious dangers that the monitoring of Internet use and pre-emptive action will infringe on freedom of expression, privacy rights and other civil liberties. Even so, the readiness to strike a balance would be a lot more forthcoming if the security services could manage to be, or were willing to be ordered to be, more competent.

In the meantime, we can all agree that the SIS and Police need to change their overwhelming focus on jihadi terrorism. As an article in Foreign Affairs magazine late last year by security expert Peter Bergen pointed out, jihadi terrorism should no longer be seen as the main security concern. (No successful jihadi attack has been launched from abroad on the US mainland since 2001.) Domestic terrorism is now the more pressing problem:

Ubiquitous firearms, political polarization, images of the extensive apocalyptic violence tearing apart societies across the Middle East and North Africa, racism, and the rise of populism have combined with the power of online communications to drive up violence across the political spectrum.

The political spectrum involved is far wider than the mindset where radical Islam dominates the threat perceptions:

Whether expressed in right-wing, left-wing, jihadist, or black nationalist ideological terms, today’s acts of political violence share a common lineage in the above mixture… The [resulting] death toll is even higher if one includes other deadly attacks with less traditionally political or clear motivations, ranging from the new ideological misogyny of “incel” violence (incel being a term for a community of people who view themselves as involuntarily celibate…) to a spate of deadly school shootings. Addressing this threat will require a broad process of renewing U.S. society, a task far more difficult than disrupting a foreign terrorist organization’s operational capacity.

Footnote: As Kiwi Gun Blog has already pointed out on its Facebook page, Brenton Tarrant says in his hate manifesto that he deliberately used firearms in the mosque attacks, in order to provoke the state into passing more restrictive gun laws and thereby radicalise the gun owning community into taking action to defend their rights. (Lenin used to call this tactic “heightening the contradictions”.)

According to Kiwi Gun Blog, PM Jacinda Ardern is playing right into the terrorist’s hands. Well, and more to the point though - so is Kiwi Gun Blog by whipping up the fears and resentments of its readers and contributors. As mentioned, the gun lobby faces a choice. It can selectively identify and protect its access to legitimate hunting and sporting weapons and the relevant rights that go with them, and thereby distance itself from the criminal/nutcase fringe - or it can choose to stand in persecuted solidarity alongside them.

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