The rainbow-haired troll on the front of the August edition of Police News has further fuelled the war between the Police association and NZ's hard-core gun lobby. Photo: Supplied

Firearms reform has always been a contentious topic, but the stakes increased when the US pro-gun lobby rode in.

It’s almost like Charles Dickens predicted the current social media age: for every public movement for good, there follows a vicious pile-on.

Nowhere is this more true than in the current online debate over our firearms reform.

Wider New Zealand has been relatively sheltered from the great gun debate, save a small group of persistent pro-gun lobbyists and MPs. But the game changed following the March 15 attack in Christchurch.

Now a large portion of those engaging in the social media discussion are talking about a different country, with different laws, and different values. They’re talking about the United States of America.

I was given a taste of this last month when I tweeted the stats from the first day of the gun buyback.

On July 13, I sent out what I thought was a pretty straightforward message:

“Gun buyback day 1: 224 prohibited firearms handed in, 217 prohibited parts and accessories. 169 firearms owners took part. Compensation totalling $433,682 processed for payment.”

When I checked Twitter the next day and saw 99+ notifications, my stomach dropped. Had my rogue thumb accidentally retweeted something horrific?

Nope. Just guns.

That tweet now has 2,300 likes and has been retweeted more than 600 times. For context, I have 2000 followers and the stats for most of my tweets remain in the single digits.

It didn’t take long to figure out most of the activity wasn’t coming from Kiwis, it was coming from the land of the Second Amendment, and it was overwhelmingly negative.

My example is not unique.

Recent social media analysis by police found where they can identify the location of the person posting (45 percent of activity), most of it is coming from overseas. A third (33 percent) is from the United States.

Police say sentiment from the US largely discusses the buyback negatively.

Someone who knows what it’s like to be the focus of an angry pro-gun lobby is Police Association President Chris Cahill.

On July 4, the association posted details about the gun buyback, including how firearms would be disabled.

Within four hours, the post had reached 32,000 people, had attracted more than 300 comments and been shared more than 100 times. Most of the comments came from the United States.

The association isn’t squeamish when it comes to social media debate but decided to pull the post, saying it was an “orchestrated attack”, which effectively shut out its members from commenting. It’s the first time the association has removed an entire post.

Cahill described the comments as illiterate, incoherent and rabid. Some were automatically blocked because of the language.

They showed limited understanding of the New Zealand situation, and from the tone appeared to be straight out of the NRA handbook.

Cahill planned to share this experience in the August edition of the association’s monthly magazine Police News, but found himself right back where he started after promoting the magazine’s cover.

ACT’s David Seymour had a crack at the association for “bullying” firearms owners by depicting them as trolls, and called for the Police News article to be pulled. The press release read like it could have been drafted by Mike Loder, the man behind pro-gun, anti-establishment social media group Kiwi Gun Blog. An interesting approach for proponents of free speech.

The rainbow-haired troll on the magazine’s cover wasn’t a reference to the majority of Kiwi firearms owners, it was directed at those who had joined the online attack on July 4 – and mainly those weighing in from the other side of the world. But as the old saying goes: don’t let the facts get in the way of a good yarn.

After mainstream media picked up on the issue, the association gave the context behind the rainbow-haired troll, which reached 47,000 people.

This is nothing new for Cahill who came into the job just as the select committee inquiry into the illegal possession of firearms kicked off – it was a baptism by fire.

The message from his predecessor Greg O’Connor: welcome to my world.

Newsroom has written extensively about New Zealand’s small but vocal pro-gun lobby, and the disproportionate sway it’s had over firearm reform in the past.

Some of the social media activity from this group has been vile, and has drawn comparisons between this Government and Hitler’s Third Reich, complete with graphic pictures from concentration camps.

The head of the association says his background in police has given him a pretty thick skin, but it’s not fair on his staff, and safety precautions have been put in place. Since the March 15 attacks, the association has also taken to reporting particularly threatening online comments to police.

A very small group of New Zealanders seems to view this type of behaviour as their way of holding the police union to account, and while some of it is abhorrent, this is no longer the biggest problem.

Things are changing with the addition of a wave of voices from North America,

The NRA has weighed into the gun debate in the past, and Marc Daalder has written for Newsroom about fake news spread by US media. But this level of engagement from the general public in the United States is unprecedented.

The new dynamic is making it hard to sort fact from fiction.

When the Government first kicked off firearms reforms in March, the police minister’s message to the US gun lobby was ‘butt out’. That message holds true.

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