The day after a white nationalist killed 50 people in two mosques in Christchurch, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that her cabinet would pursue gun reform in New Zealand. “I can tell you one thing right now: our gun laws will change,” Ardern said on Saturday morning. “Now is the time for change.”
On Monday, Ardern made good on her pledge, and met with her cabinet to begin the process, announcing an “in-principle decision” to reform gun-ownership laws in New Zealand. Ardern also stated that she would open an inquiry into the country’s intelligence services, believing the community was too focused on potential threats from Muslim sources.
The ten-day turnaround between mass shooting and political action represents a radically different approach to gun reform than in the United States, which averaged at least one deadly mass shooting per month in 2018. “New Zealand has to have this debate,” Alexander Gillespie, a law professor at the University of Waikato, told the New York Times. “This is a place where your car has to be registered, your dog has to be registered. But your gun doesn’t.”
It’s likely that debate in New Zealand will revolve around military-style semi-automatic rifles, of which the Christchurch shooter had two. (All of his five weapons were obtained legally with a gun license.) At a vigil on Friday, Attorney General David Parker reportedly announced that the government would push a wholesale ban on semi-automatic weapons, though he walked back that pledge on Saturday. “We need to ban some semi-automatics, perhaps all of them,” he told Radio New Zealand. “Those decisions have yet to be taken but the prime minister has signaled that we are going to look at that issue.”
As of 2018, 15,000 of New Zealand’s 1.5 million firearms were military-style semi-automatic rifles. The minimum age to own a gun is 16, but for semi-automatics, New Zealanders must be at least 18. Last year, such weapons reentered public debate: similar to the conflict over bump stocks in America, police in New Zealand pushed for tighter regulations of aftermarket accessories and high-capacity magazines that can turn guns into semi-automatic assault weapons.
Gun laws in New Zealand are more restrictive than those in the United States, though firearms are common throughout the country. Of the 3.9 million New Zealanders old enough to own guns, around 6 percent have a firearm license — compared to 3 in 10 American adults who said they owned a gun in 2017.
New Zealanders do not have a constitutional right to bear arms, and it is prohibited by law to obtain a gun strictly for reasons of self-defense. Gun owners must pass a firearms test and a background test before they can purchase any weapons. For New Zealanders to obtain some firearms, like guns and semi-automatic weapons, they must get “endorsements” from police, and additional permits that need to be renewed once a decade. All types of guns must be registered, save for shotguns and hunting rifles. Handguns require a permit for each purchase, making it more difficult for an individual to build a large cache.
Since 2005, civilian gun ownership in New Zealand has increased 62 percent, and most guns can be sold legally on the internet or in newspaper ads. But it appears that the private sector may be matching the government’s decision to crack down on the distribution of firearms after the deaths in the Christchurch shooting surpassed the country’s homicide total for 2017. On Monday, Trade Me, which advertises itself as New Zealand’s “#1 auction & classifieds site” announced that it would no longer sell semi-automatic weapons.
This post has been updated.