New Zealand’s basic bargain around firearms ownership and policing always seemed rather sensible. It was very much a feature of New Zealand’s general “Outside of the Asylum” approach to policy.
Background checks on potential firearm owners limit access to firearms in the interest of public safety. The police then have no need to be routinely armed. It seems a far more sensible approach than America’s, where a heavily armed public has increasingly led to a militarised police force.
New Zealand’s bargain seems to be breaking down with an increasingly armed police force coinciding with far tighter restrictions on civilian firearm ownership. It puts at risk basic principles of good policing dating back to London’s Metropolitan Police Force in 1829.
New Zealand is one of the few countries that has maintained an unarmed constabulary. Police Commissioner Mike Bush put things well in 2009 after a rare shooting of a police officer led to calls for arming the police. He described our unarmed constabulary as a unique and cherished feature of New Zealand policing, and warned that routine arming of police would make community policing considerably more difficult.
The fundamental relationship between police officers and members of the public changes when one of them has a sidearm at the ready. The trial of roving squads of armed police ready in case of armed incidents has already led to their use in more routine stops.
Sir Robert Peel outlined the basic principles of policing that have stood for almost two centuries as the foundation for policing by consent. Those principles recognise that policing and good order depends on the public approval of police actions and the willing cooperation of the public, and that both of those are diminished when police are too quick to resort to force and shows of force.
Policing is challenging. But there has been no surge in violent or property crime involving firearms; police statistics going back to 2015 suggest a flat or somewhat declining trend in court action. And restrictions on private firearms ownership have strengthened considerably over the past year.
New Zealand’s experiment with roving armed police should end. It is an unneeded show of force. And it is contrary to Peel’s dictum that the best test of police efficacy is the absence of crime and disorder rather than the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them.