New Zealand Eyes Stricter Gun Laws After Mosque Killings

By Patrick Goodenough | March 16, 2019 | 4:28pm EDT
Amid vigils across New Zealand, flowers are left outside one of the two mosques in Christchurch where 50 people died as a result of Friday’s attack. (Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

( – New Zealand’s gun ownership laws have been more relaxed than those in many Western countries but that looks set to change after Friday’s deadly shooting in two mosques in Christchurch, which killed 50 people.

“Our gun laws will change,” New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told reporters in Wellington on Saturday, noting that the suspected “primary perpetrator,” had used “two semi-automatic weapons and two shotguns” in the shooting, and had also been in possession of a “lever-action firearm.” Some appeared to have been modified.

Brenton Tarrant, a 28-year-old Australian living in Dunedin in the south of New Zealand, appeared in court Saturday charged with murder. He did not enter a plea and remains in custody pending a next appearance in early April. Two other suspects are also in custody as investigations continue.

Friday's attack was the worst mass murder in the history of New Zealand, which has consistently been near the top of lists of the world’s safest countries.

Ardern said Tarrant had obtained a firearm license in November 2017 and began buying firearms legally a month later.

“While work is being done as to the chain of events that led to both the holding of this gun license and the possession of these weapons,” she said, “I can tell you one thing right now: Our gun laws will change.”

A ban on semi-automatic weapons, she said, was “certainly one of the issues I'm looking at with an immediate effect.”

In Tarrant’s home country of Australia, he could not have legally obtained the type of weapons used in Friday’s attack.

After a mass shooting in the Australian island state of Tasmania, in which 35 people were shot dead by a young man armed with a semi-automatic rifle and described by a judge as a “pathetic social misfit,” the government in 1996 banned automatic rifles, semi-automatic rifles, and shotguns, and introduced strict licensing rules.

An amnesty period was established for the surrender of unregistered and now-banned firearms, and more than half a million firearms were purchased under a federal government buy-back scheme.

In New Zealand, while gun-owners must apply for a license, most individual firearms are not licensed, with no national registry linking firearms to owners.

Background checks for license applicants include reviews of criminal, mental health, domestic violence and addiction records, and interviews with spouse or next of kin.

There are no restrictions on the number of firearms and amount of ammunition a license holder may legally own. Regulations require safe storage for all firearms.

License-holders may own “military-style semi-automatic” firearms (MSSAs), although only with a special license “endorsement,” required since laws were tightened in response to New Zealand’s previously worst mass shooting, when 13 were killed in a small seaside town south of Christchurch in 1990.

It is ownership of these MSSAs that Ardern indicated would likely be targeted. MSSAs are defined as those possessing at least one of certain specified features, including flash suppressors, folding or telescoping stocks, and bayonet mounts.

While strict in comparison with many U.S. states, New Zealand gun laws are generally more relaxed than those in other Western countries, including Australia, Britain, France and Germany.

With no registry, New Zealand police have no exact figures of the number of firearms – legally owned or otherwise – in the country, but estimate there are about 1.2 million.

That’s a rate of about one for every three citizens, although most are believed to be held in rural areas, with owners often having more than one firearm each, used mostly for hunting.

Firearm crime rates are low in New Zealand, comprising about 1.4 percent of all violent crime, a parliamentary report noted in 2017.

“On behalf of the 250,000 fit and proper firearms licensed holders in New Zealand, we send our thoughts and condolences to the families and the communities of Christchurch, and indeed wider New Zealand,” the country’s Council of Licensed Firearms Owners said after the shooting.

The group said it “utterly condemns this violent attack by extremists who have no right to use intimidation, threats, violence and death as a modeled means to make their point.”

The Sporting Shooters Association of New Zealand also condemned “the actions of the people who perpetrated this terrible crime and all who support their actions.”

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