Buyback Blowback

It’s a sign that things have gone seriously awry when otherwise law-abiding citizens are talking revolution, burying their firearms and legal action against the Government rather than participating in New Zealand’s current firearms buyback scheme. Even more concerning (tongue-in-check) is when I find myself agreeing with journalist Mike Hosking’s worldview.

It’s unsurprising that politicians want to be seen to be doing something. I wrote about the ‘legislation virus’ in an article soon after the Christchurch mosque shootings occurred. However, they have completely misread this situation. There wasn’t much actually wrong with the existing firearms system. There’s the odd hunting accident and a few criminal acts involving weapons, many of which are committed by people who aren’t legally in possession of said weapon. Suicide by firearm might just as easily have been by other cause were the weapon not available. I’m not seeking to minimise the seriousness of any of those events. It’s just that, as a country with a lot of firearms, we do pretty well in terms of safe and sensible use.

I spent 25 years in the NZ Defence Force. Several of those were as a weapons instructor and range safety officer. I have taught and supervised use of everything from a pistol and hand grenade through to ‘over-the-horizon’ weapons and carried a firearm continuously when on operations. The consistent thread that joins all those experiences, when it comes to firearms safety, is attitude. Instructors had to continually re-shape the mind-sets of recruits to get them to understand that an up-turned saloon table wouldn’t stop a .45 revolver round; that pistol-whipping someone on the head didn’t mean they ‘had a little sleep’ then got up as normal – their skull was caved in; that a 7.62mm round in the shoulder didn’t result in the casualty saying “ughh I’m hit” then carrying on fighting – that they actually had a 6 inch wide exit wound. In the past, these lessons were passed on from parents and other family members but no longer for most.

Dave Grossman summed this up well in his seminal work ‘On Killing’ and the follow-up ‘Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill.’ His view is that if you want to break the cycle of gun (and other) violence, society must start with addressing violence and ‘conditioning’ in TV, movies and video games – particular those that involve ‘first person shooter’ themes.

The real casualty of this political decision is trust in Police. In that, I feel a bit sorry for them as this ‘buyback’ is ideologically driven. However, they had the opportunity to say “Bad idea to pay so little, Minister.” Who knows? Maybe they did and have been over-ruled by Cabinet. The offering on the table is that a gun in new or near new condition would get 95 per cent of its base price; guns in used condition, 70 per cent and guns in poor condition would see 25 per cent. The compensation for prohibited parts and magazines would not require a valid licence and would be 70 per cent of base price for those in near new or used condition; and 25 per cent of base price for those in poor condition.

The problem is in the term ‘base price’. This is deemed to be the wholesale price, not what the owner paid for the firearm. No matter what condition the weapon is in, the owner is out of pocket by the retail margin. Not a great start point to engender support for the scheme. Asking accountants to set a fair buyback price is akin to asking whisky distillers how much the ‘angel share’ should be. It’s never going to be the larger of two numbers.

‘Blowback’ has several meanings. It is a method by which semi-automatic weapons reload themselves. It’s also used to describe a situation where a locked breech opens prematurely during firing – very dangerous for the person using the weapon. The US intelligence community has taken this meaning to describe the “unintended consequences, unwanted side-effects, or suffered repercussions of a covert operation that fall back on those responsible for the aforementioned operations.” There are some parallels to be drawn here, unfortunately.

In this situation, buyback is a misnomer. Firearm owners are not selling their weapons. They are having them compulsorily confiscated. The sum on offer is compensation for loss of a property right – pure and simple. If it is deemed inadequate of course it should be challenged in court. Have we learned nothing from Treaty of Waitangi compensation claims and settlements?

What might have worked was agreeing the formula with gun owners (and only them). The Government is prepared to top up the $208m allocated for buyback as required. The real concern is if it turns out to be enough money which will probably indicate that a lot of weapons are still in circulation – a political own goal and one which will make the Police task that much harder and potentially criminalise previously law-abiding Kiwis.

UPDATE: The latest iteration of legislation virus includes a national firearms registry. This has been well traversed by Heather Roy on her blog.

UPDATE 2: Heather has published another excellent piece on 1 September regarding recently leaked firearms legislation change plans.

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