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CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand — Nick Smith owns two guns: one Kriegeskorte & Co. Stuttgart .22 that he bought to teach his sons how to shoot on the farm where he works, and one Remington .243 he inherited from a friend years ago, which he uses to hunt pigs and deer.
Smith says his guns are just a farm tool, like his pickup truck. He resents that gun owners, farmers and hunters especially, could be “tarred with that dick’s brush,” referring to the gunman who killed 50 people at two Christchurch mosques last Friday.
“We’ve got guns, but we don’t shoot people, you know what I mean? But I guess that’s what most of America says, don’t they?” said Smith, who lives in North Canterbury, about an hour outside the city.
“It’s not the time to fight over a little gun. It’s not that important.”
Before last week's massacre, New Zealand's gun culture bore little resemblance to the U.S: The country had fewer than 10 gun deaths each year, compared to nearly 40,000 in America last year. And while its per capita gun ownership numbers are among the top 20 in the world — a 2017 government inquiry found there were more than 240,000 licensed gun owners in New Zealand, and an independent survey the same year estimated 1.2 million guns — they appear to be largely associated with farming. Perhaps because of this, New Zealand’s gun laws were lax; there was no national registry of guns, and assault weapons were legal.
That changed on Thursday. New Zealand had spent just six days engaged in the same sort of fierce debate over firearms that the U.S., which sees a mass shooting nearly every day, has been having for years. But Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced a ban on the sale of military-style semi-automatic (MSSA) weapons, assault rifles, high-capacity magazines, and all parts able to convert a firearm into an MSSA.
Ardern said the government would also implement a buyback scheme. “In short, every semi-automatic weapon used in the terrorist attack on Friday will be banned in this country,” she said.
Legislation will be introduced to Parliament in the first week of April, and Ardern expects it to be in place by April 11. In the meantime, all the weapons to be banned have been reclassified as weapons requiring a stricter license. In the interim before the new legislation goes into effect, applying for this license would be a waste of time, Ardern said. The announcement has been met with broad support, including from gun owners and New Zealand’s National Rifle Association, which already doesn’t welcome military-style weapons into its organization (and has considered changing its name so as not to appear affiliated with the U.S.’ NRA).
Smith said while he thinks “city people” generally lack understanding about guns and what they're used for “out here,” now — while the country mourns, and the scale of the tragedy sinks in — isn’t the time to fight stricter regulations.
“The whole country’s on the same wavelength right now,” he said. “No one’s going to fight it; it’s not the time to fight over a little gun. It’s not that important.”
In the days since the Christchurch slayings, gun owners like Smith have found themselves grappling with the place of firearms in society and whether civilians should have access to semi-automatics at all.
Mike Loder believes the ban was implemented too quickly. He’s an Auckland-based competitive shooter, a contributor to the Kiwi Gun blog, and a campaigner for the harsher sentencing of firearms offences. “We haven’t had an inquiry,” he said. “The prime minister has come up with solutions, [but] we don’t even know the questions yet.”
He believes reforms should have focused on tightening regulations on semi-automatics. There is a special license required to hold an assault weapon, called an E-category license, which only 7,000 New Zealanders have. He suggested that all semi-automatics require that license — particularly since they can be modified to be deadlier. “There probably were loopholes in the law that were taken advantage of and we need to address those,” said Loder. “If it can take a big magazine, make it E-category. Problem solved.”
Banning all semi-automatic weapons — and implementing a government buyback scheme for such weapons — he said, would be a purely emotional response to a tragedy about which we don’t yet have all the facts. “The number of people affected here is catastrophic. It’s tens and tens and tens of thousands of people. The buyback could be a billion dollars.” Ardern, in her statement, estimated that it would cost between $100 and $200 million. "That is the price we must pay to ensure the safety of our communities,” she said.
But most seem ready to embrace the ban.
“We’ve got guns but we don’t shoot people. But I guess that’s what most of America says, don’t they?”
John Hart, a sheep and beef farmer in Wairarapa, told VICE News that he had always considered his own semi-automatic — a 7.62mm calibre rifle, with a seven-round magazine — as a tool, and a pretty useful one. But he was “freaked out” by Friday’s terror, which gave him pause to consider the usefulness of semi-automatic guns in the country.
“The risk they hold in the country far outweighs any potential benefits,” he said. “Conscience dictates that I should probably get rid of my own.”
Hart said he believes New Zealanders attitude toward guns is behind the country’s low levels of gun crime relative to the rate of ownership. “The people I know who have firearms treat them as tools. They are not glorified … I think it’s definitely a different cultural approach.”
He supports the new gun control measures, saying they “strike a good balance between public safety and keeping some options for gun owners.”
Hart said the attack had even made him question whether pure recreation such as shooting ranges and gun clubs were valid enough reasons to want to own a gun. “Maybe it should be stripped back, so that it’s a tool, or law enforcement or farming or hunting,” he said.
Pointing out that the Australian shooter traveled to New Zealand — where he also bought his guns — to carry out his attack, Hart said “Was it too difficult for him to do it in Australia? Perhaps their current gun laws are part of that reason.”
Cover: A farmer walks along as dairy cows make their way to a milking shed at a New Zealand farm on Thursday, March 19, 2015. (Photographer: Brendon O'Hagan/Bloomberg via Getty Images.)