New Zealand currently has about one firearm to every four people and no ban on semi-automatic military-style weapons, but that could all change in the wake of the mass shootings at two Christchurch mosques.
- New Zealand doesn’t have a gun register, prompting calls for tighter controls
- The weapon used by the Christchurch gunman appears similar to an AR-15, used in US massacres
- New Zealand ranks 18th in the world for the rate of civilian gun ownership
Speaking at a press conference on Saturday morning, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the Australian suspect, identified as Brenton Tarrant, had licences for the two semi-automatic weapons, two shotguns and a lever-action firearm he allegedly used during the terrorist attack that left 49 dead.
She also said he was not on any watchlists prior to the attacks.
Ms Ardern flagged immediate changes to the nation’s firearms laws, saying: “I can tell you one thing right now, our gun laws will change.”
Security expert John Battersby, from Massey University in Wellington, said until now the country had no ban on semi-automatic military-style weapons.
“Yes, we have a tough licensing system, but we lack the register that Australia has,” Dr Battersby said.
“We actually probably don’t know how many legal firearms there are in New Zealand and we certainly don’t know how many illegal firearms there are.
“How these individuals have got hold of these weapons, that’s going to be a big question.”
Before Ms Ardern’s announcement, former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark told the ABC that while the country had gun control, there was room for improvement.
“We do have gun control. People have to be fit and proper persons to have guns. But undoubtedly, the law can be strengthened and improved,” she said.
“Personally, I would be surprised if the New Zealand Parliament didn’t accept that challenge head-on to strengthen the law.
“I think we could do better, and a tragedy like this brings that forward as a priority.”
Counter-terrorism expert Greg Barton, from Deakin University, said there were questions to be asked about how Tarrant was able to gain access to certain weapons.
“New Zealand doesn’t have a gun register, so in that sense many people have for years been calling for a gun register and tighter control,” he said.
“You would have thought getting an assault rifle was very hard, not like it is in America where it’s very easy.
“How could that have happened? Was it a freak occurrence or was it fairly easy to do?”
How many guns are there?
New Zealand has almost double the number of guns per person compared to Australia — around one weapon for every four people.
The Small Arms Survey estimated New Zealand possessed 1.2 million guns for its 4.6 million population as of last year (although some media reports estimate it could be as high as 1.5 million).
That compares to Australia’s 3.5 million guns for 24.6 million people — around one weapon for every eight.
By comparison, for every 100 people in the United States there are 120 guns — more than one per person.
New Zealand ranks 18th in the world for the rate of civilian gun ownership, the Small Arms Survey said, higher than Kosovo, Pakistan and Iraq.
‘The difference one weapon can make’
Professor Barton said the Christchurch gunman’s weapon resembled an AR-15 — the assault rifle used in a number of US massacres, including the Las Vegas mass shooting that killed 58 people in 2017.
“The attacker was using a couple of guns, one was a shotgun, one was an AR-15 — that’s the so-called civilian equivalent of the M-16. It’s an assault rifle,” he said.
“What we saw was disturbing effectiveness in cold-blooded shooting, murderous shooting, which is why we now have 49 dead, perhaps even more to come.
“That shows the difference that one weapon can make.
“We haven’t seen these assault weapons used in Australia and New Zealand.
“I think now we’ve got to face the fact that they’re at large.”
How do our laws compare?
According to GunPolicy.org, run by Philip Alpers, a firearms analyst at The University of Sydney, Australia has the tightest gun control policies in the Pacific region, while New Zealand’s laws are considered more lax.
“Among developed nations it stands alone with the United States as the only two countries without universal gun registration,” he said.
Australia and New Zealand both have strict licensing around firearms, but most weapons aren’t registered with the police in New Zealand.
In Australia it’s illegal to have an unregistered firearm, and the government severely restricted automatic and semi-automatic weapons following the Port Arthur Massacre in 1996.
In New Zealand, you can apply for a firearms licence at 16 years or older to use shotguns and rifles for things like sport and hunting.
Self-defence is not considered an adequate reason for owning a gun in New Zealand.
Upon application for a licence, there are police background checks, firearms safety training, and follow-up police interviews.
New Zealand civilians can possess a military-style semi-automatic firearm if they are over 18 and have an additional special permit from police — they must be registered and there are special storage requirements.
But some media reports highlight concerns that unregulated add-ons could easily convert basic, unregistered weapons to be used like semi-automatics.
In 2015, a New Zealand journalist purchased a gun online without a licence, ostensibly in a bid to highlight loopholes in online gun buys.
One New Zealand gun shop, Gun City, came under scrutiny for selling and promoting the AR-15 in the wake of the Orlando nightclub shooting in the US.
Eighteen months ago, in October 2017, New Zealand’s Police Association president Chris Cahill lamented the “missed opportunity” to reform gun laws, after Police Minister Paula Bennett rejected 12 of 20 recommendations from a select committee inquiry into the illegal possession of firearms.
“It’s very frustrating the opportunity was missed earlier this year , and you know what it’s going to take to bring it on the table again, and unfortunately that’s a tragedy,” he told Stuff.co.nz at the time.
Ms Clark said that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern would “want to leave no stone unturned to get to the bottom of this, and to know what New Zealand needs to do better to stop it ever happening again”.
“This is not the New Zealand we know and love,” she said.
“We don’t see ourselves as a people who would ever accept such attitudes or such horrors in our community.”