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New Zealand MP Stephen Franks insists that
New Zealanders have a right to defend themselves.

Timaru Herald, 29th December 2004

ACT MP Stephen Franks argues the case for his bill that would allow property owners to use self defence against intruders intending to commit a crime.

Bank tellers with guns! scoffed Justice Minister Phil Goff in reaction to my Crimes (Self Defence) Amendment Bill. "Stephen Franks wants to Americanise New Zealand and arm our hank tellers," he claimed. No matter to Mr Goff that the bill made no mention of bank tellers, or that I'd made no such proposal. But he did set me thinking.

MP Stephen Franks Self Defence Bill - New Zealand.Meanwhile, his cabinet colleagues joined in. Agriculture Minister Jim Sutton hooted that the bill was a "licence to shoot trespassers." This was supposed to persuade journalists to dismiss self defence law reformers as extremists. He tried the same tactic against Federated Farmers when Agnes Nicholas, the widow of murdered Peter Nicholas, pleaded with the Government not to legalise trespassing on farm riverbanks.

The tactic failed. Rural anger over insecurity and crime is now focussed. This time the frustration and sadness will not peter out ineffectually. Demanding law reform is a practical expression of outrage. It is mainstream - not a project of ignorant rednecks. We know from the Federated Farmers survey that 80 per cent of farmers intend to defend their farms whatever the law says.

Does rising to Mr Goff's "bank teller" bait put that respectability at risk? Is it deeply alien to New Zealand values to allow bank tellers to be armed? Plainly Mr Gaff thought the idea was outlandish.

I've got stunning new for Mr Goff when he gets back from holiday.

Armed bank tellers are a deeply Kiwi tradition. It would not be an American import. Until recently it was not just common, it was utterly normal.

Mr Goff thought he was raising a spectre so remote from respectable New Zealander's thinking that it would brand the reformers with a violent foreign image. He was wrong. He just showed how distant he and the Labour Party are from real New Zealanders.

I asked the Parliamentary library to research. Only 30 years ago our bankers were armed. In small towns and large throughout New Zealand, in main banking chambers and small branches, managers, accountants and tellers were routinely armed to stop bank robberies. I've confirmed it directly with former senior officers of ANZ, BNZ and Westpac, and current archivists at ASB and BNZ.

Until 1974, when the police asked banks to hand in their revolvers, relevant staff practised shooting at least once a year. BNZ practised twice per year, and staff enjoyed the outing. The revolvers were kept in desks or under the counter. Of course staff almost never had to use them. Hand robberies were virtually unheard of.

Bank robbery statistics were not separately reported by the police, but the overall robbery statistics make interesting reading. The police began to discourage self defence in the early 1960s. In 1964 they told the banks that staff under age 21 would not get firearms licences. That year New Zealand recorded 89 robberies in total, none of them armed with firearms. But attitudes were changing. Some banks started to withdraw their revolvers.

By 1973, the year before the police called in all remaining weapons from banks, the overall robbery rate had risen 300 per cent in nine years to 310, of which eight were armed. The next year there were 22 armed robberies, out of 328 in total. Ten years later, in 1984 there were 944 robberies, and by 1994-95 we had reached 1887, around the current level. That is a 2100 per cent increase in less than 30 years. Police figures stopped revealing how many were armed.

It is not hard to work out why bank robbery became more fashionable after 1974. Robbers are practical. Mr Goff thinks that criminals can't help themselves - they are tragic victims of uncontrollable impulses implanted by their unfair upbringings. Yet mysteriously these violent impulses seem rational enough to suppress themselves if the intended victims could make the criminals' lives short as well as tragic.

Would-be robbers could work out that they needed a small platoon to carry out a bank robbery. When any or all tellers might be armed how could they know which of half a dozen might shoot them? They could not point one or two guns at every one at once.

Such practical self defence lay at the heart of New Zealand's long decades of safety for everyone, and low crime rates. Policing adhered to simple principles laid down by the founder of modem policing, Sir Robert Peel. One of his nine principles held that police had no special privileges. Every honest adult had the same rights and responsibilities to stop crime. The difference was that police did full time what ordinary citizens did only when necessary. The police were not an elite with the sole right to meet criminal intruders' force with force.

Accordingly my bill is deep in the best traditions of New Zealand law. It would restore to vulnerable families their legal right to threaten to strike or harm a criminal intruder, and to carry out the threat if, after the warning, the intruder carried on.

New Zealanders only lost those rights in defence of their property with a 1980 change to the Crimes Act. It removed the defence of provocation, except as a means of reducing a murder charge to manslaughter.

My bill would continue to require that the force be reasonable, but it reminds the courts how unreal it is to tell people far away from police help that they must run and hide from robbers and thieves if they can, and leave any confrontation to the police alone.

Innocent rural families, like the husband and children of Beverly Bouma, and Peter and Maggie Bentley, have been paying the price for the political naivety of those 20-year-old law changes. Their suffering has proved how things actually work when the law encourages thugs and threatens the victims.

Our rural crime rates are scandalous but not mysterious. They are politically created.

I hope the coming elections will see every party and candidate harried with questions about rural security. Don't let them duck the issue with weasel words. If they don't support self defence law reform, ask why. Don't let them get away with glib jibes like "Americarisation" or "redneck".