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Policy meets harsh reality?

Thursday’s shocking shooting incident in Auckland has understandably reignited discussion about aspects of law and order, and justice policies in New Zealand.

One of these, according to a local stringer for The Guardian anyway, is gun control – the global news organisation published an article on Friday that largely rehashed the various changes to firearms legislation enacted since the 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings, including the requirement [as of last month] that all firearm license owners must register their guns on a new digital platform.

As the article notes, it is currently not known where the shooter Matu Tangi Matua Reid got the pump-action shotgun with which he killed two people and injured six others before he was killed himself.

An investigation into the source of the firearm is reportedly ongoing, and that’s something it’s important to know – though only up to a point. The ability to get your hands on guns should obviously be regulated, but there’s only so much that regulation can do if those enforcing them are falling down on the job [lest we forget, the mosque mass murderer was only issued a firearms license because police failed to follow the existing rules] or there are already a large number of firearms in the hands of those with no intention of following the law [which is clearly the case].

The other aspect mentioned by the Guardian writer [who appears to believe this is of secondary importance] is that Reid “was the subject of a home detention sentence, but had an exemption to work at the building site where the shooting occurred”.

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins is quoted as saying there will be a “full review into the circumstances into the shooter’s home detention”, which is all well and good, but other coverage already indicates Reid received his five months’ home detention for domestic violence offending against his then-girlfriend that included strangling her to the point of fracturing her neck.

One might be forgiven for being dumbstruck at how such offending ‘earned’ Reid such a sentence.

One might also legitimately wonder whether the reason Reid received such apparent leniency is connected to Labour’s determination [announced in 2018 by Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis] to “reduce New Zealand’s prison population by 30 per cent”.

It’s hard to disagree with the view [first expressed by then-deputy PM Bill English in 2011] that prisons are “a fiscal and moral failure” that, in part, act as a “pipeline where [young people] start with a minor offence and end up with a 10-year sentence”.

It’s also difficult to disagree with the observable reality that the majority of those who end up in prison come from a background of “systemic deprivation” in which they themselves were victims of violence, as was reportedly the case with Reid.

But could it be that Thursday’s incident is the unintended consequence of a well-intentioned attempt to address these undesirable trends without ensuring there were the “safe and effective alternatives to prison” that Davis spoke of in place?

All policies have trade-offs, but seldom do they appear to be so starkly illustrated.

With electioneering heating up, it’s probably too much to hope that there’ll be anything other than kneejerk responses to this awful example.

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