Firearms in New Zealand

January 2013

Guns are scary, powerful, and can kill. Let's acknowledge that up-front. They're instruments of death, designed to kill things, and if you're anti-death you're probably anti-gun.

On the other hand, guns are just tools. They're inert, passive objects, only imbued with purpose and power by their human operators, and as such no different to a hammer, or a knife, or a car. (This is the ‘guns don't kill people, people kill people’ argument.)

It happens that both perspectives are true. But the main purpose of a gun, the reason for its existence, is quite different to that of a car. A car primarily exists to move people and things about. A gun primarily exists to punch very traumatic holes in things at some distance. Cars and guns lend themselves to quite different sets of purposes.

So let's set aside potential uses – basically anything can be used to kill, and guns account for only a tiny number of (human) deaths in New Zealand:

[In New Zealand] around 1,400 people suffer an untimely death from criminal or accidental causes each year. Firearms typically contribute to around 6 of those. That’s fewer than the number who die through falling off their chair.
Gary Elmes

What we really want to concern ourselves with are primary purposes, and there is no denying that the primary purpose of a gun is to kill living creatures. (Target-shooting is a pretty popular secondary purpose, but a secondary purpose it is.)

The New Zealand Arms Code has this to say (emphasis mine):

People who have…

  • a history of violence or
  • repeated involvement with drugs or
  • been irresponsible with alcohol or
  • a personal or social relationship with people who may be deemed to be unsuitable to obtain access to firearms or
  • indicated an intent to use firearms for self defence

…may find it difficult to satisfy the Police that they are fit and proper to have a firearm. […]

Self-defence is not a valid reason to possess firearms. The law does not permit the possession of firearms ‘in anticipation’ that a firearm may need to be used in self-defence.

Section 4 of the NZ Arms Code

So, this allows us to focus our discussion a bit; in New Zealand, self-defense is not a legitimate justification for gun ownership, and intent to use a gun (or actual use) against a human being is most likely already criminal. If our concern is guns being used against people, that's a question of the details of effective regulation, but there's otherwise not really any discussion to be had, here.

Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.
— Mao Zedong

An armed society is a polite society.
— Robert A. Heinlein

This ‘not for self-defence’ restriction pretty well neutralises the fact that guns can serve (politically and socially) as an implied threat of violence. Obviously the armed forces and the police still have access to guns with a certain scope for use against people, but ‘civilians’ do not, so we can (in New Zealand) safely ignore the political and social overtones. (The government monopoly on legal violence is a whole 'nother discussion.)

(To me, incidentally, Heinlein's ‘polite society’ seems more of an intimidated one, where citizens have to tiptoe around and offer opinions carefully and quietly lest they offend the wrong person. Guns in Heinlein's society are simply another form of power and privilege.)

So, if you're here in New Zealand, the ‘gun question’ boils down to really a single problem: what is the place of hunting in our increasingly urban, gun-shy, and blood-shy society?

Personally, I think hunting springs from a very similar impulse to veganism. I know that sounds quite strange, but think of it like this: both hunters and vegans recognise that factory farming and exploitation of animals is a problem; that we are out of balance with nature; that our rule of the natural world is more oppressive domination than benevolent management.

The difference is in the response to such a recognition. Those with the vegan impulse (who usually live in cities, and I don't think that's incidental) react in much the same way conservationists do when they recognise we are damaging our environs – that is, they distance themselves, limiting their interactions. ‘Take only photographs, leave only footprints’ is a pretty succinct summary of the philosophy; essentially, enjoy it, but don't get involved, don't interfere. Look but don't touch. For vegans, that means completely avoiding all animal products and by-products.

Hunters, on the other hand, (who are frequently country-dwellers, and that's not incidental), upon recognition of this damaged relationship, seek to increase their involvement, to insert themselves back into these natural systems in a more integrated fashion. Animals have hunted animals for millions of years; this is how a system stays in balance. Why should we be any different?

(Of course, this is a post-facto justification; likely a majority of hunters have never consciously thought this. I think it would be fair to describe hunters as generally less ‘aware’ than vegans. But you don't have to be conscious of a thing to be living it.)

The results of this difference in philosophies shows up in the Department of Conservation's use of poisons to manage New Zealand's ecosystems. As all our mammal species (deer, possums, goats, rabbits, wallabies, pigs, tahr, chamois, rats, stoats, ferrets, dogs, cats…) were introduced to New Zealand (by both white and Maori settlers), these species aren't in balance with the environment here; that kind of balance takes long ages to form. So, to avoid our bush being destroyed, native birds made extinct, and our environment left in tatters, DOC has to do something about it.

And the unfortunate reality is that poisoning is the best way to manage animal populations; hunters definitely contribute to this management, as do possum trappers and commercial game-meat sellers, but there just aren't enough of them, and they can't do enough between them, so it falls to aerial poison drops to manage numbers.

And while poison causes painful deaths, and is thus awful and inhumane in the small, in the large it's still better than doing nothing; a sufficiently large animal population can strip their habitat of food so quickly that the usual natural (intrinsic) population controls don't have time to kick in; it's not unheard of for animal populations in New Zealand to destroy their habitats and starve themselves to death.

Hunting used to be as Kiwi a thing as ever there was. Take these anecdotes of the good old days [sic]:

Don't think I would try and catch the bus back from National Park [like I used to], throwing the venny [venison; deer] into the cargo hold then climbing aboard with rifle, blood soaked swanny and a big smile from all the passengers.

My stepdad moved from Aussie to NZ back in the day - he carried his gun on the plane in the overhead luggage […] - carried it through the airport and cruised through customs no worries they just asked a couple of questions. Walked down Queen St in Auckland with the rifle shouldered without raising an eyebrow.

As this old video shows, air travel with a rifle used to be a truly casual affair!

Neither my dad nor my uncle were ever professional hunters, but my uncle used to keep all the meat he hunted and still cover the costs of his trips by selling all the ‘interesting’ bits to a chinese man who made alternative medicines.

If you became a professional hunter during the culling days of the 60s and 70s, you'd disappear into the bush with a rifle for months at a time. The government would sell you cheap ammunition, and pay you for every deer tail you carried out. Plenty of guys did well enough to buy their first homes, or set themselves up in business.

New Zealand has a long history of hunting; we even had moose introduced to Fiordland in 1910 (and there's some evidence that a few are still kicking around down there.)

There aren't many countries in which all mammals are introduced; in some ways it makes New Zealand a hunters paradise. Our introduced species are considered pests, and as such there are no bag limits or restrictions on hunting them. (There are restrictions on access to many hunting areas, but that's a different story.)

New Zealand now is a far cry from New Zealand then. We're an increasingly urbanised country – our three largest cities alone account for half of our population. A large number of New Zealanders will never see a gun outside of a TV screen.

We laugh about the vegetarian who doesn't realise that chicken is an animal, or those who say ‘hunters are cruel, why can't they just get their meat from the supermarket where no animals have had to suffer’, but the reality is that we live in a society of increasing distance from the gory, bloody bits of life, and in this context hunters are a regressive force, swimming against the tide. Often-times media reports about hunters and guns make errors of the same kind of magnitude as the ‘chicken isn't meat’ vegetarian, but no one outside the ‘gun community’ knows enough to spot it.

Hunters and other gun-owners aren't always sympathetic figures, either. Cowboy spotlighters, idiots shooting at road-signs, Ewen Macdonald, people who got the license but have no background and no knowledge of ideas like ‘humane killing’, and just want to go hurl bullets at things for a laugh – these people exist, and they don't do anyone any favours.

On top of this, we're also in a place where many people only ever experience guns through TV, movies and games, and usually only in very limited situations. Almost all on-screen depiction of guns sees them used against other human beings; primarily in crime/law enforcement, terrorism, or military combat scenarios. We don't tend to see movie depictions of deer-stalking or duck-shooting, and our perceptions of firearms become coloured by what we do see.

(Which of course creates a feedback effect; there are gun-owners who just want to live the movie fantasy of Dirty Harry or John McClane or, god forbid, Travis Bickle.)

Hunting is one of the oldest traditions in the world, and even in its modern form it has a long history in New Zealand. However, the world moves on, and traditions run the risk of being left behind. I think hunting is an important, perhaps even crucial part of our relationship to our world, and it would be a tragedy to lose it.

I shoot with a .25-06 in which the “-06” is short for “1906 Springfield,” which is when and where its predecessor was designed. It hasn't been changed much since then, either. I also shoot a .22LR, which was designed by another American company in 1887.

A few related links: