Welcome to the gun show

Welcome to the gun show

Standing in the kitchen of my flat, I turn to my flatmates and ask them how many firearms there are in New Zealand. One replies, “80,000.” Another - deciding to push his guess - replies, “about 100,000.” When I tell them that there are, in fact, approximately 1.1 million firearms in New Zealand they each react with surprise. With 230,000 licensed firearms owners, that’s almost five guns per owner. And that’s just the above board figures - the number of weapons that are either being made or imported illegally is difficult to determine. “We have more guns in private hands than are available to the New Zealand army and police combined,” Professor Kevin Clements - the Director of the New Zealand National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies - tells me. “If there was a desire to have an armed revolution in New Zealand, then there’s certainly the weaponry available.”

Alongside this vast quantity of weaponry, the law regulating firearm use is permissive rather than restrictive. “In a New Zealand context, we register gun owners but we don’t register guns, although we used to,” Clements explains. “As long as gun owners are registered they can buy as many guns as they like. They can purchase high velocity air rifles, for example, which have killed policemen in the past or very high-powered rifles. There are bans on assault weapons, which is a step forward. But we don’t know how many of those weapons have already come in to the country.”

While people can’t get gun licenses if they have protection orders against them or criminal convictions or show signs of mental instability, if they can satisfy the safety requirements and agree to keep their weapons under lock and key they are likely to be awarded a licence. Having got a licence, there’s nothing stopping them from going out and purchasing a gun - or several guns and as much ammunition as they like.

Somewhat surprisingly, this has not yet resulted in a rise in the numbers of homicides using guns. In 2013, for example, New Zealand saw a total of 83 homicides but only 8 were by gun. This is a strong contrast to the situation in the United States where there is a very high correlation between guns and murder rates. This does not, however, mean that guns are safe. “Those who are on the verge of some sort of mental breakdown or psychotic break could - if they satisfied the minimal licence requirements - go and purchase a high powered rifle - or borrow and steal one from friends.”

Before talking to Clements I didn’t consider the fact that we should be concerned about our gun culture - but early on in our conversation, I began to realise otherwise. By no means wanting to encourage a community of fear or create a sensationalist piece, an awareness of the number of guns in Otago made me contemplate some worst-case scenarios for the University of Otago campus.

For example, unstable students who focused on gun incidents in the United States could get ideas that might create mayhem on the campus.

According to Everytown for Gun Safety there are now 1.37 school shootings per week in the United States. This figure is due to a range of factors, such as pro-gun activists’ constant reliance on the Constitutional right to bear arms as dictated by the second amendment. One of the most recent shootings was at the University of California in Santa Barbara where Clements has friends. In this case, the extreme anti-feminist advocate Elliot Rodger first stabbed three men to death in his apartment before driving to a sorority house and shooting at four people inside. The rampage continued when Rodger drove to a deli and killed another student. After fleeing in his car through Isla Vista he committed suicide from a self-inflicted gunshot. In the end, Rodger killed seven people and wounded thirteen more. “Santa Barbara is a completely tranquil, slightly alternative campus in California. It’s the last place you’d expect to have a campus shooting,” Clements reflects. “The quality of campus life and the quality of the university is really not of any great consequence. The critical thing is whether there are any individuals around who have such a deep sense of grievance or such a deep sense of humiliation or distress that they will act out their feelings violently.”

Such individuals exist everywhere and Dunedin has been home to a disturbing number of them. The Aramoana massacre in 1990 was one of the deadliest shooting sprees in New Zealand’s history. Thirty-three year old David Gray - unemployed and known to be a loner since primary school - killed thirteen people with a semi-automatic after a triggering argument with his next-door neighbour. Four years later, five members of the Bain family were murdered by gun in Andersons Bay. This year, despite two alleged breaches of protection orders against his estranged wife, Edward Livingstone, a Department of Corrections employee, shot his two children and then committed suicide in Saint Leonard’s. While crime statistics show do not show that Dunedin’s level of crime is particularly high when compared to other centers throughout New Zealand, and domestic-related shooting can sadly occur throughout the nation, these Dunedin cases received a high profile by the media, drawing the nation’s attention to our small University town.

“There is a gothic side to Dunedin,” Clements states as we discuss these cases. The reports on these tragedies frequently discuss loner qualities and social issues as central aspects of these crimes, but Clements suggests that “there may be a range of other dynamics at play as well. Dunedin’s weather could have a negative impact on people with depressive or aggressive personalities” (although past news reports do not mention this as a central contributing factor). “The weather can work both ways. Cold weather can generate a very creative interiority, but for people that are subject to bipolar disorders or psychotic breaks I can imagine that the weather might be the final straw and that they would either direct their sadness towards themselves or, alternatively, play their internal depression outwards and cause serious harm to themselves and others.” These incidents aren’t aided by the fact that Otago has one of the highest rates of gun ownership in the country in terms of registered gun owners. “There is a fascination with guns in Otago,” Clements states. “When you couple that fascination with pathology - that’s when it becomes potentially lethal.”

Hypermasculinity and a residual Barry Crump notion of New Zealand male identity does nothing to aid the dark side of this gun culture. “It’s much less now than it used to be, but the notion of the New Zealand male being a good keen man who can thrive in the outdoors and take his fishing rod and gun and survive in adverse conditions persists,” Clements tells me. “These old stereotypes generate a sense that guns are a part of New Zealand’s concepts of masculinity. If that New Zealand male has just had a painful divorce or has been upset by a woman or whatever it might be,” think Livingstone for example, “then we could have a situation where you get Aramoana or the
Bain murders.”

This prospect is not that remote. The other night I was sitting outside Refuel with my friends, watching people walk by. Out of nowhere, a group of shirt-clad boys approached a more alternatively dressed group who were talking and smoking outside the bar. Most likely, none of the individuals in the two groups knew each other. If there was any provocative comment made it was minimal. But suddenly fights were breaking out everywhere. At one point a person threw a punch that knocked another person to the ground - it was only luck that his resulting head injury wasn’t more critical.

Shaken at the intensity and velocity of the violence I wondered what might have happened had one of those individuals had a gun? What would happen if - spurred on by the constant reports of campus shootings in the States as well as Dunedin’s own history - a person in ownership of several guns was to have a psychotic break on our own campus? Any bystander involved could turn to the University’s emergency flip-chart, that hangs in every lecture theatre and throughout the campus. However, in an emergency like this, it is unlikely that anyone would have the time to turn to the flipchart. Even if they did, instructions like, “Remove yourself and others from immediate danger if possible and it is safe to do so,” and “If you feel unsafe at any time immediately CALL 111,” are hopefully common sense.

In terms of the University’s emergency plan, if an incident like this was to happen then the Vice-Chancellor - on deciding that the incident was a valid emergency - would declare a State of Campus Emergency. The Incident Controller (usually the Proctor unless otherwise delegated) then decides operational priorities and allocates resources during the initial response, with an immediate focus on saving life and property. The Incident Management Team gathers at the Emergency Operations Centre, a centralised facility, where the team assumes their roles. There is also a Wide Area Emergency Broadcast System, which sends real time or prerecorded broadcasts to the units with the blue lights throughout campus. Notably, Otago was the first New Zealand university to adopt this response system. Of course, if such an emergency were to occur external agencies like the Police, who regularly train for armed situations, have their own protocols and plans for dealing with
armed incidents.

However, after talking to University staff about the emergency procedures for a threat like this, it became clear that there were minimal preventative measures for incidents of shootings. Instead, most of the protocols in place were reactionary. Understandably, issues like campus shootings or attacks are much lower down on the agenda at annual meetings on emergency procedures. “Normally when you are trying to evaluate the significance of these kinds of things you are looking at lethality and probability,” Clements explains the lack of in-depth discussion of gun threat scenarios on campus. “If somebody is habituated to guns and has access to them then there is a better than zero probability that they might be used. It’s not an absolute or inevitable probability but it will remain a probability that could have devastating consequences.”

Another issue in these emergency situations is the lack of immediate action of bystanders observing this kind of violence. “The worrying dimension of a mass shooting on campus is that it would be so alien to most people’s expectations it would take a while to realise what was happening,” Clements tells me. “It’s a frightening scenario. You can’t do anything to prevent this situation. But what you do need to think about is a culture of prevention so you make it less probable – we shouldn’t, for example, reinforce notions of hypermasculinity or have any tolerance for weapons on campus. People need to be at least aware of the problem so that if the unimaginable happened people could react in a timely fashion.” But Clements doesn’t agree with the way American universities are going, either: “I’ve worked in American universities. There they have armed police on campus and they also have people walking through metal detectors. Both of these factors generate an unhealthy anxiety about weapons.”

Nationally, Clements believes one positive step would be to require gun owners to register their guns. “We also need to have much more proactive mechanisms to ensure the police keep guns out of the hands of those who might use them for nefarious purposes. Police also need to be more vigilant in ensuring that weapons do not fall into the hands of those with protection orders against them. For example, in the recent Saint Leonard’s shootings, Livingstone had a protection order against him and shouldn’t have had access to guns. There should have been much closer monitoring of their availability for him.”

However, groups like Sporting Hunters Outdoors Trust firmly oppose this idea, with spokesperson Laurie Collins stating in response to the Livingstone murders earlier this year that “A gun registry will not prevent one death or one crime” and that the incident was “not a ‘firearms issue,’ but a tragedy involving the systemic failings of the Justice Department, mental health ‘professionals’ and the police themselves who failed to protect the victims in this case.”

In terms of what the University could do, Clements believes actively declaring the Campus gun-free would be a step in the right direction: “Just like a smoke-free environment I think it would be good for the University to declare this a gun-free environment. It is also important that we do not exaggerate the risk and probability of an armed attack on campus. On the other hand, I think it’s important that there is some awareness that it’s a possible scenario - you can’t rule it out as 100 per cent unlikely. The presence of guns, a masculinist culture and phobic attitudes towards those who might have hurt you can generate conditions in which gun violence might be considered. I would hope that there are enough formal and informal controls in place to prevent a worst-case scenario. But you can never be sure. We should work on best-case assumptions rather than worst-case assumptions. I don’t think we need to operate on the most pessimistic scenarios, but on the other hand we shouldn’t be oblivious to the probable consequences of a low probability event.”
This article first appeared in Issue 18, 2014.
Posted 9:43pm Sunday 3rd August 2014 by Loulou Callister-Baker.