Mass shootings and gun control debated

Issues around mass shootings and gun control are the subject of a public lecture at Massey University's Wellington campus on Tuesday.

Mass shootings in the United States are such an everyday occurrence that they are practically a staple of media coverage, and Massey University senior journalism lecturer Dr Catherine Strong says in a lecture at the Wellington campus next week that cultural and sociological traditions mean they will continue to blight that country in the foreseeable future.

Dr Strong will be joined for the lecture Mass Shootings and Gun Control by Centre for Defence and Security Studies teaching fellow Dr John Battersby. He will discuss this countries gun licensing systems and how they have helped societies outside of the US avoid the scale of their mass shooting scourge. The lecture is part of a winter Our Changing World series.

A mass shooting is defined as someone shooting four or more people at one location. In the United States there is an average of seven mass shootings per week, whereas New Zealand has had only seven instances of mass shootings in the last 80 years.

Research shows in the six months to the end of June the United States had already experienced 345 mass shootings. Last year gun deaths there were 30 per 100,000 people compared to 1.6 per 100,000 in New Zealand and 1.4 in Australia.

On a study visit to America last year, Dr Strong discovered a pressing problem was the number of people “packing”, that is, carrying a licensed concealed weapon. This included concealing guns while going to church, shopping malls and parks.

Her informal survey of more than 100 people in Massachusetts, Florida, Ohio and Washington state about their right to “pack” produced some alarming results – especially when compared with New Zealand.

“About 99 per cent said they had a concealed weapon. Most had no specific danger to warrant carrying a gun under their jersey, but felt it would be handy ‘just in case something happened,” she says.

The year 2017 saw the highest number of mass shootings in the United States ever recorded, and Dr Strong witnessed the way gun culture was so deeply embedded in society there that the public seemed immune to its prevalence, despite some public institutions adding cautionary notices to street signs and sandwich boards.

Following advice from American police to so-called soft targets such as schools and churches not to advertise that they don’t have guns, some signs in public places now carry the message ‘We are not a gun-free zone. We are heavily armed.”

Dr Strong’s time on Florida also gave her insight into another disturbing phenomena which that state leads – that of road rage turning into gun violence.

While she accepts road rage also happens here it very rarely eventuates with someone being shot.

“Sure, people get worked up here, but you don’t have that fear that the argument is going to escalate into bullets being fired.”

Dr Battersby reaffirms that is partly due to the tight gun licensing regulations other countries other than the United States have, including Australia and New Zealand. But the culture of a country is important too, he says.

“Australians and New Zealanders will not tolerate people carrying guns in public and do not claim any right to do so. Iceland has a high level of gun ownership, an effective licensing system and virtually no gun crime.  In New Zealand the public do not want to even see the police carry guns.”

He describes the Australian firearm licensing system as a “very stringent regime.” New Zealand is not as strict and has no national gun register to definitively document the estimated 1.3 million legally owned firearms here. “This is a problem – we used to have one before the Arms Act was enacted in 1983, but we have not had one since. For the last 35 years no one has recorded how many guns are owned, bought and sold in this country,” he says.

A concern in both countries are the estimates for illegally-held guns. “At present there’s not enough resourcing or the legislative authority to provide that information so we need to think about how we do that.” No system – whatever it is – will be perfect. In both countries the link between organised crime, drugs and illicit guns is of long standing and is showing no signs of abating, he says. “With the cyber environment becoming the emerging market place for everything, there are new challenges presenting themselves for managing the importation of firearms.”

In Australia illegal firearms have been discovered connected to various terrorist incidents, which adds another dimension of concern.

Dr Battersby says that instances of New Zealand mass shootings are rare, but tentative themes can be observed – often they have occurred in remote locations, by individuals who have withdrawn from society or want to be left alone, and something snaps when someone intrudes into their space.  Large collections of firearms, often with illegal modifications to them and military style semi-automatic weapons are all factors.  

Of the seven incidents outlined, four of them happened in the 1990s – a time that coincided with a rise in the importation of drugs and firearms, but also changing trends in news consumption too.

“In the 1990s you could say we were emerging out of our innocence with the onset of cable television and round the clock TV coverage of events such as mass killings which brought the reality of these horrific events into our living rooms.

“The nineties – and especially the Aramoana incident – were a revelation that these events could happen here.”



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