18 Aug 2019

Do reports of gun owners’ anger stack up?

From Mediawatch, 9:13 am on 18 August 2019

All our MPs but one voted to change the gun laws. Opinion polls showed a majority approved and thousands of banned weapons have been peacefully surrendered. Do reported claims of widespread discontent among the nation’s gun owners stack up?

A selection of firearms which are now prohibited, on display to media at a police press conference.

A selection of firearms which are now prohibited, on display to media at a police press conference. Photo: RNZ / Ana Tovey

Last Monday CNN, The Guardian, USA Today and several other overseas outlets reported more than 10,000 guns had been peacefully surrendered so far after the gun laws here changed in June.  

"New Zealand’s program to buy guns . . . may be a lesson for the US in how to conduct a dialogue with gun owners," said the Christian Science Monitor in an editorial the same day headlined: A seed for society’s safety 

"Many of its gun owners . . . took their arms to the police rather than taking up arms. It is a shift in thought that marks a start toward a consensus on what enables greater peace and safety in a community," the CSM concluded. 

But the spokesperson and secretary of the Council of Licensed Firearms Owners (COLFO) had a different message on the ABC’s PM show in Australia that same day.

“It’s still quite a small proportion of firearms owners who are handing in when we estimate there are 250,000 firearms that need to come back,” said Nicole McKee. 

The same day COLFO urged gun owners here to hold back from surrendering banned guns until terms were more favourable. It also said in a statement some gun collection venues had become “hostile environments.”

COLFO - and spokesperson Nicole McKee - is the most commonly-quoted source in news stories about gun owners’ grievances. 

In a news update back in April Ms McKee said she would “represent the united views of the shooting groups that make up COLFO . . . supported by a small media team preparing key messages."

One key COLFO message is that the new law is “the thin end of the wedge being driven through the firearms community.”

Last month, COLFO joined Gun City retailer David Tipple to challenge gun law reforms with a campaign called Fair and Reasonable.

The New Zealand Herald reported that under the headline: Gun lobby campaigns for hundreds of thousands to fight for 'fair compensation'

“Council spokeswoman Nicole McKee told the Herald about 90 per cent of Colfo's 40,000 members were "absolutely furious" at the (compensation) price list,” the Herald reported. 

The 40,000 figure is repeated in several recent news stories - and as far back as December 2017 when Stuff reported on gun owners’ concerns about possible restrictions, long before the Christchurch mosque massacre prompted the Arms Amendment Bill.

Only a handful of national groups in New Zealand have as many signed up members. 

This week COLFO’s claim was challenged in a statement from Otago University: How large is the pro-gun lobby?

Dr Hera Cook - a co-founder of Gun Control NZ - is also a senior lecturer in the department of public health at Otago University in Wellington, where Dr Marie Russell is a senior research fellow. 

They challenged COLFO to substantiate its reported claims to represent 40,000 members - and that 9 in 10 of them are dissatisfied with the  buy-back scheme's compensation.

COLFO has nine affiliated firearms organisations - some big, some small. 

The New Zealand Deerstalkers Association has thousands of members in 47 branches nationwide while the New Zealand Black Powder Shooters Federation has a membership of just dozens. 

For those without a published membership on record, Dr Cook and Dr Russell divided the groups' annual income declared in financial statements to the incorporated societies register by the current membership fees. 

They concluded the combined total membership was probably closer to 20,000 - about 7 or 8 percent of the country’s licensed firearms owners.

The COLFO website also said it has individuals as members. (Its $23 memberships were suspended last month when it invited supporters to donate to its Fair and Reasonable campaign instead). 

But Dr Cook and Dr Russell said COLFO advised them it had between 600 and 1000 individual members.  

That leaves the total membership still well below 40,000. 

Mediawatch asked COLFO to confirm how many individuals it represents and if it has surveyed their opinions on the buy-back scheme and the compensation. 

COLFO spokesperson Ms McKee declined to be interviewed.  

In a written reply she described Dr Cook and Dr Russell’s conclusions as “fake news from Otago University researchers using taxpayer money to pursue their personal anti-gun agenda”.

She said COLFO estimates “around 40,000 people are affiliated to it through licensed firearm owners via their membership of specialist organisations and clubs - and importers and retailers”.

She did not respond to the question of whether COLFO had surveyed its membership about the gun buy-back scheme and the compensation.