Do gang members really have more access to guns these days, and were we truly surrounded by child-faced killers in the recent past? Dr Sarah Monod de Froideville’s research looks at moral panics and how we can better understand them.  

These days it’s P cooks poisoning our houses to fuel the epidemic, or the trigger-happy gang members down the street with an arsenal of weapons at their fingertips that we should all fear. While in the past it was the dangers of speeding boy racers, and even further back the threat of comic books that caused society to panic.

Moral panics are phenomena that regularly sweep through societies, and yet they are not fully understood, says Sarah Monod de Froideville, a lecturer in Victoria University of Wellington’s Institute of Criminology whose book, Making Sense of Moral Panics, explores the concept of moral panics and how they should be studied. 

“A moral panic describes a period when we jump up and down about something we believe threatens us—usually a new behaviour or event (or object) that we don’t understand that well—and our reaction is out of proportion to a threat, if there is one at all,” says Monod de Froideville.

“Usually something will trigger the reaction. Something will happen, somebody will jump on it and then the media seizes on it and talk about the behaviour or event in a highly emotive way, and then an interest group will take it up to try and direct the discourse because it serves their interests to do so. Politicians tend to get nervous at this point, and call for an inquiry or a law to be passed.”

These behaviours and events then become an issue for society that “very often has nothing to do with any kind of real problem” and leads to some “very awful legislation that can be quite punitive and unjust in its effects”.

An established concept in Sociology and Criminology, there’s the idea that moral panics have five stages that researchers can use to identify them. However, Monod de Froideville says that approach doesn’t look at the nuances of each event.

“I’m more interested in looking at each event and seeing what is different or similar about it, and what it says overall about the phenomena. The framework I’ve developed in my book allows people to analyse each moral panic in more depth to understand them individually and what they say about the society that is doing all the jumping up and down.”

Two case studies from New Zealand’s recent past are used in Monod de Froideville’s book to explore these phenomena—one on murderous teens, and the other on gangs and guns.

It was a photo that set off the first moral panic, centred around the manslaughter conviction of 12-year-old Bailey Junior Kurariki for his part in the murder of Michael Choy, a pizza delivery worker in Auckland. The now-iconic image shows Bailey in court, smiling and “looking the epitome of childlike innocence” under a headline about the face of evil. 

“At the time, it set off an explosive social reaction about normal, innocent-looking kids becoming cold-blooded killers,” Monod de Froideville says.

“Bailey subsequently became the ‘poster boy’ for youth crime, and we’ve seen this same image for years in the media; to the point where we have an article in 2015 that has nothing to do with Bailey at all. It’s about another case, but because his case was so famous we recognise him, as a society, and we immediately understand that the article is about young killers.” 

Monod de Froideville says it was “media overkill” as there weren’t “loads of kids becoming killers”, and the impact on Bailey himself was very destructive.

Although media don’t intend to start a moral panic and are merely focusing on stories that get people’s attention, Monod de Froideville says that’s often what happens when they get involved.

Media can also be defined as an interest group in the generally-agreed understanding amongst social scientists that there are three points of origin for panics: elite-engineered panics, where the elite “freak out and make something up”; interest group panics; and a grass roots panic, where people in a community gather around an issue, usually after an event has occurred in their local area. 

“In modern-day moral panics, the media—and increasingly social media—are always involved in some way,” Monod de Froideville says.

This was also the case in the “gangs and guns” Kawerau shooting incident that Monod de Froideville includes in her book, and which highlights the involvement of another interest group—the gun lobby.

“The Police were doing a flyover looking for marijuana crops and thought they heard shots coming at them,” Monod de Froideville explains.

“They located the shots at a house where there was a guy who did have a gun—although they didn’t know that at the time—and cordoned off the area. It turned into a 23-hour standoff, with the media present the whole time, reporting everything that unfolded. Because this had happened six days after a gang raid by the police in Auckland where they had found drugs and guns—the media was able to tie the two events together.”

Before the man involved in the stand-off, Rhys Warren, was arrested there was already a call by politicians for an inquiry into “gang members getting hold of guns”—despite him not being involved in gangs at all. 

“There was this link made between these unrelated events and suddenly there was an issue to worry about and that was ‘guns and gangs, or criminals getting their hands on guns because police are getting hurt,” Monod de Froideville says.

“One of the policeman in the Kawerau shooting had been hurt, but it turned out he had shot himself in the hand—which wasn’t made public.”

Enter the gun lobby, who “were very active in the media and on blogs, to keep the focus on criminals’ access to guns”.

“That really explains the very swift movement, over the course of a week, from the event to the Government launch of an official inquiry into criminal access to guns. The whole thing was blown out of proportion,” says Monod de Froideville.

It’s easy to become cynical when studying such phenomena, Monod de Froideville says, and her research has made her much more sceptical of the reasons for legislation. 

“Moral panics perform a function in that they create a collective consciousness that brings us together to mark those boundaries around who we are as a society. They also serve to solidify the power of elite groups,” she says. 

Because of the way the New Zealand government is organised and legislation can be pushed through a single house, and the fact “we have quite a punitive and conservative mindset,” Monod de Froideville believes New Zealand is also more vulnerable to the fallout from these society-wide panics.

“Moral panics generally erupt around behaviours or events that can be associated with people who sit on the edges of societies. These people can be made to seem like obvious outsiders really quickly, and often for no, or little reason. In this way panics are destructive phenomena. They help to alienate some parts of society by facilitating processes of defining what is acceptable and ‘morally right’—which, often, is white, middle-class and male.”

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