New Zealand doesn't register 96% of civilian guns. The Christchurch tragedy could change that.

“How could they have amassed the guns?"
New Zealand doesn't register 96% of civilian guns. The Christchurch tragedy could change that.

Hours after a mass shooting at two New Zealand mosques left at least 49 people dead and dozens more injured, critics have already started calling for the country to revisit its gun laws.

"Questions are now being asked,” former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark told the BBC. She added, “How could they have amassed the guns?"

New Zealand authorities have yet to officially name the suspect believed to be behind the attacks, and it is not yet clear where and how he stockpiled his weapons — the video he posted showed a cache of guns in his car trunk — but some leading voices, like Clark, have already started pushing for tougher gun control measures.


“People have to be fit and proper persons to have guns, but undoubtedly the law can be strengthened and improved,” Clark said, according to the Guardian. “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.”

It wouldn’t be the first time a tragedy inspired such measures in the country. After a gunman killed 13 people on the New Zealand island of Aramoana in 1990, lawmakers tightened their country’s firearm laws to limit access to military-style semi-automatic weapons. But New Zealand’s policies remain more relaxed than its neighbors — in particular, Australia, which famously implemented a series of gun control reforms after it endured its own mass shooting more than two decades ago.

Gun owners in New Zealand need to apply for a license, a process which includes a background check, police interviews, and a gun safety lecture and test. Applicants must be over 16 and have a “proper, and sufficient purpose” to possess a gun — and self-defense doesn’t qualify. They also need a special license to own pistols and military-style automatic weapons, which police track.

But unlike Australia, New Zealand does not maintain a registry of all guns. New Zealand police say they don’t know for sure how many firearms are floating around, though they estimate that there are as many as 1.2 million guns in the country. That’s about one for every three people, according to the Sydney Herald Tribune. In Australia, by contrast, there’s about one gun per every eight people.


“New Zealand’s decision not to register 96 percent of civilian firearms makes it a standout exception, alone with the United States and Canada,” Philip Alpers, a gun policy researcher at the University of Sydney, told the Guardian.

Yet for much of the last two decades, the annual number of gun deaths in New Zealand has remained relatively small. In 2015, eight people were killed in firearm-related homicides, according to the most recent available data from the University of Sydney. In total, 55 people died from gun deaths, which works out to about one gun death per 100,000 people.

Australia has a nearly identical annual rate of gun deaths. (The United States, on the other hand, had nearly 12 gun deaths per 100,000 people in 2015.) However, Australia has far more comprehensive gun health and control policies than nearly every other country on the planet, according to an analysis by Alpers.

After a 1996 shooting left 35 people dead in Port Arthur, Tasmania, Australia embarked on an ambitious gun reform package, which included restricting gun ownership, completely outlawing semi-automatic military-style assault weapons, and setting up a mandatory government program to buy back the banned weapons. Those initiatives led to a drop in both gun suicides and homicides, researchers have found.

After implementing these programs, Australia did not have another mass shooting for more than 20 years.

Nicholas Sabloff contributed reporting.

Cover: A police officer patrols at a cordon near a mosque in central Christchurch, New Zealand, Friday, March 15, 2019. Multiple people were killed in mass shootings at two mosques full of worshippers attending Friday prayers on what the prime minister called "one of New Zealand's darkest days," as authorities detained four people and defused explosive devices in what appeared to be a carefully planned attack. (AP Photo/Mark Baker)