The shadow hovering over NZ's gun owners

From Insight, 8:10 am on 7 April 2019

Insight - Up to 40,000 hunters are expected to head into New Zealand’s hills and valleys in the next couple of weeks for the peak of the deer stalking hunting season, the roar. But at the same time gun owners are being warned that some members of the public may be anxious about seeing a person with a gun. Philippa Tolley reports.

A red deer stag on the West Coast roars during its mating season.

A red deer stag on the West Coast roars during its mating season. Photo: 123RF

At this time of year, hunters would normally be checking their kit and replenishing supplies. They'd be keeping an eye on the weather forecast, organising food and transport, and chatting with friends about the best hunting grounds, how big the stags might be and where to meet up before heading into the bush. But after the events of March 15, so much has changed.

The response to the terrorist attack on two mosques in Christchurch, which killed 50 people, has been swift, with the clamp-down on the sorts of weapons that were used in such a deadly way almost immediate. First, an Order in Council made it illegal to own most semi-automatics and any parts that could be used to upgrade a less powerful firearm to something more lethal. Now, legislation is working its way through parliament to make those changes permanent.

But how has all this affected the nearly a quarter of a million licensed firearm owners, the majority of whom own and use their guns legally and responsibly?

The roar, or rut, is when stags call to female deer, or hinds. It's the time of year when the male deer are at their prime, and their antlers are fully grown - a huge attraction for trophy hunters.

But instead of all the preparation and planning, many hunters have been calling the Deerstalkers Association to check if they should be going out at all.

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Photo: 123rf

The advice has been to carry on as normal. But the immediate past president of the Association, Bill O'Leary, talks of most hunters sharing a sense of horror at the Christchurch attacks, and of being aware of how it has changed some people's perspectives of gun users. What's needed, he says, is a little bit more consideration and a little bit more awareness of public perception and reaction after that tragic loss of life.

"I think one of the things that has come through to me has been the reaction of quite a number of people's partners… There's certainly been some feedback from some of our members about how wives and partners have reacted to the situation. And there's been a little bit of negative pressure on people, not necessarily to give up shooting, but just a reluctance to engage in those conversations about hunting," he says.

And there is even the possibility that some might choose to give up the sport.

"People who live - particularly in the South Island and the rural areas - engage in hunting pretty much as an every day or every week activity. Certainly for people in the South Island with farms and pest problems...hunting is a fact of life for a large number of people...We've got people, maybe even quite a large number of people, who hunt on an irregular basis. But it might be something nostalgic, because it's part of a family tradition or they grew up in a hunting family. One or two, or who knows how many, will be affected to the point where they will say 'I don't really want to be associated with firearms', or perhaps pressure from family or from work may have some effect on them."

But O'Leary's message to the majority of gun owners is that hunting and shooting are lawful activities in this country, and that heading out into the bush is one way people might find some peace and space. "You know time has a way of healing things," he says

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Cam Stevenson, and his border collie Pig, are part of a hit team of professional hunters tasked with cleansing the area of feral goats.

The roar is one of the peak times of the hunting year Photo: RNZ / Logan Church

One of those out in the bush just about every week is gun owner Craig. He has a whole range of weapons for a whole range of gun-related pursuits, from hunting, to range shooting and pest control. He's come to terms with the fact he will have to give up a handful of his weapons, and thinks the majority of his fellow gun owners will adapt in the end to the more limited range of firearms available, even if the move to ban most semi-automatics won't be popular with some. But he's worried that in doing the right thing, gun owners could end up being victimised.

"I'm not ashamed of equipment I own, it's a little like someone with a really, really fast car, they don't need to be ashamed of it. But I don't want to be targeted like the rodeo riders. They're getting named and shamed. The people that go in and hand back their weapons in a buy back situation, we're the law abiding people, we don't need to be held up as examples of bad citizens," he says.

Craig wants to be sure he won't be pilloried or come to the attention of criminals because he has been asked to turn up to a police station with his guns. He'd like police to consider coming to him instead.

Decline in Deaths and Injuries

Part of getting a gun license is learning to safely handle and use a firearm, as the possibility of injury is very real when dealing with a lethal weapon. Not long after the mosque attacks, the doctor who was running Christchurch Hospital's emergency department on the day of the shootings spoke of his familiarity with gunshot wounds.

Figures released to RNZ by The Ministry of Health show 629 people were treated for gunshot wounds in the past five years. More than half of those were shot accidentally, followed by 63 people who shot themselves, Another 33 were shot intentionally by another person.

But despite those numbers, the statistics from the Ministry of Health show that gun related fatalities and injuries are on the decline. They show that from a recent peak in the late 1980s of over a hundred gun deaths a year, the numbers (until this year) have roughly halved.



And gun related injuries are heading in the same direction. On a global scale, New Zealand's rates of gun violence are extremely low. Police figures show that in 2016, there were nine gun murders or manslaughters in New Zealand, a rate of 1.87 per million people. By comparison, Australia had nearly 10 deaths per million in the same year.



Public suspicion

But no matter how often hunting groups reiterate that they are involved in a lawful recreational pursuit, their statements are tinged with the reality that at this time, many people are likely to be more wary of anyone with a gun. Duck hunters will be largely unaffected by the ban on semi-automatics as semi-automatic shotguns are exempt as long as the magazine does not carry more than five shots. But as hunters head out in the chilly, dark, early morning to take up positions in the maimai, the chairman of Fish and Game, Lindsay Lyons believes thoughts of the horror that was visited on those praying in the Christchurch mosques will be in the minds of many.

26741686 - flock of ducks

The duck hunting season opens in a month Photo: 123RF

When the season opens in four weeks, the first weekend in May, Lyons wants gun owners to be thinking not only about the days ahead enjoying time with family and old mates, but also people they may come across who could be worried by the sight of a gun.

"It's a case of being aware of how you present yourself with a firearm...not being silly with it…not being a bogan about's a case of making sure that we are all responsible firearm owners."

Bill O'Leary of the Deerstalkers Association admits some will feel aggrieved by having restrictions on the types of firearms they can use. But he is quick to acknowledge that gun ownership is not a constitutional right; it is a privilege.

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