It’s a watershed moment for gun control in New Zealand, but there are no quick fixes
In the wake of last Friday’s attacks in Christchurch in which 50 people were killed, New Zealand faces a defining moment on the availability of guns in society.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has pledged tough measures to limit their circulation — but in a country with a strong hunting tradition, where there is roughly one gun for every four people, it will be no easy path.
As Ardern herself said at the weekend, there have been unsuccessful attempts to tighten gun control in the past — in 2005, 2012 and again two years ago. For previous governments, it has not been a priority — because while having relatively high gun ownership, New Zealand has until now had relatively few gun-related deaths.
According to figures compiled by the University of Sydney, New Zealand had 0.17 gun-related homicides per 100,000 people in 2015. This is in contrast to the United States, which had 11 deaths per 100,000 people in 2015, according to a report from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Those figures will look very different in 2019 — and for Ardern’s Labour-led government, gun legislation is now the highest political priority.
The government certainly has public momentum behind it. Many New Zealanders are shocked that someone could acquire so many powerful weapons legally.
The alleged perpetrator of Friday’s attacks, 28-year-old Brenton Tarrant, possessed a “Category A” gun license, giving him the right to buy semi-automatic weapons.
Tarrant had two semi-automatic weapons and two shotguns among his arsenal.
“That will give you an indication of why we need to change our gun laws,” Ardern said at the weekend.
Obtaining a license involves police background checks and firearms safety. But they are rarely refused, according to the latest figures. In 2017, of the 43,509 firearms license applications submitted, just 188 applications were declined. And a Category A license allows the holder to obtain any number of sporting-type rifles and shotguns. You don’t need one license per weapon.
Visitors to New Zealand can apply for a firearms license that “will let you shoot for hunting or competition in New Zealand for up to a year,” according to police.
Some variants of the AR-15, which has been used in several mass shootings in the US, can be legally obtained by Category A holders in New Zealand. The power of such a weapon can then be enhanced by adding a high-capacity magazine. A police report two years ago warned that such adaptations opened the way to “criminal harm” and noted that “purchase of high-capacity magazines is unregulated and does not require a firearms licence.”
One such adapted weapon was used in the murder of two people in New Zealand in 2017.
New Zealand’s patchwork of gun laws have also allowed the import of semi-automatic rifles, of which there are about 15,000 legally in circulation, according to police estimates. The lack of a national register of gun ownership makes such estimates more difficult.
The New Zealand Police Association has long called for reform of the Arms Act and tougher measures to close loopholes on acquiring semi-automatic weapons.
Its president, Chris Cahill, said at the weekend: “There is no place in the upcoming debate for the radical gun lobby which has made its presence felt in previous attempts to make our country safer. We have seen what happens in the United States when gun radicals are involved. Nothing. That is not good enough for New Zealand.”
Cahill also makes the point that Tarrant would have found it more difficult to acquire such powerful weapons in his native Australia, which had its “Christchurch moment” back in 1996.
That was the year of the Port Arthur massacre, when a lone gunman with a semi-automatic weapon killed 35 people and wounded more than 20, using an AR-15 with a 30-round magazine. The Australian government moved swiftly to outlaw such weapons after the attack. Rapid-fire rifles and shotguns were banned, gun owner licensing was tightened and remaining firearms were registered to uniform national standards. An ambitious government-funded gun buyback program was introduced.
The Dunblane massacre — also in 1996 — when 16 schoolchildren and their teacher were murdered in Scotland brought about tighter gun controls in the UK. But it took several years for the number of criminal offenses involving guns to begin to fall.
New Zealand now faces a similar watershed moment.
David Small, a lawyer and professor at Canterbury University in Christchurch, says it’s a question of what’s reasonable in a country where guns are important for hunting and pest control. “There is nothing reasonable about owning a gun whose main purpose is self-defense,” he says, “and in New Zealand there is no constitutional right to bear arms. To introduce tighter gun control is not going to infringe basic liberties.”
Even with public sentiment behind her, Ardern’s government still faces a daunting challenge in devising watertight legislation that begins to regulate the availability of guns in New Zealand.
Speaking to CNN on Monday, Philip Alper, editor of GunPolicy.org, a Australian website that tracks armed violence, firearm law and gun control, said that the New Zealand gun lobby will likely resist any attempt to adopt tighter controls.
According to Alper, there have been four inquiries into possible changes to New Zealand’s gun laws during the past 22 years — and the gun lobby has stymied every one of them.
“The gun lobby is already talking about consultation, no knee jerk reactions. ‘Come out to the gun range and see were good people,’ and that has the effect of watering down every gun law that’s been tested,” says Alper.
One possible new route would be the introduction of a buy-back program, as well as closing loopholes that allow the import and adaptation of powerful guns, says Small.
“The time and place will never be better,” he told CNN. “No opposition party has anything to gain by opposing such legislation.”
Former New Zealand premier Helen Clarke agrees.
Gun laws need improving, she said, and “I would be surprised if the New Zealand Parliament didn’t accept that challenge head-on to strengthen the law.”
Former Australian Prime Minister John Howard, who passed through Australia’s strict gun control laws after the Port Arthur massacre, said Monday that he believes there would be “universal acceptance across the political divide” for gun control reform.
“Bear in mind getting anything accepted in New Zealand which is not a federation and only has a lower house of parliament, is a fairly simple issue if there is political will. I can’t imagine after this that there won’t be political will to bring their laws up to date,” Howard said.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s name. It has now been updated. This story has also been updated with the correct homicide rate for New Zealand in 2015.