New Zealand’s relaxed gun laws are partly to blame for the horrific Christchurch terror attacks that killed 50 innocent people on Friday. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says changes to those laws will be announced within 10 days of New Zealand's “darkest day”.
An expanded cabinet which included the Green Party met on Monday to discuss the need for gun law reforms after the attacks "exposed a range of weaknesses”. Ardern said the parties made a unified decision but they will be putting it to the test at next week’s cabinet meeting before committing it to law.
New Zealand's gun laws have been widely criticised in the wake of the mosque shootings, with thousands of Kiwi’s petitioning for a ban of semi-automatic rifles. University of Waikato International Law Professor Alexander Gillespie says "all firearms are a risk, but some are a much greater risk than others. It’s absolutely not about banning guns – it’s about banning that high-risk gun.”
The majority of New Zealand gun owners have an “A-Category” licence which means they can lawfully own rifles, shotguns and airguns. There are also a number of semi-automatic weapons included, but this licence can only permit guns that hold seven bullets or less.
Currently, anyone over the age of 16 years old can get their hands on this standard firearms license if they satisfy a police background check and pass theoretical and practical tests. Police will also visit the applicants home to decide whether they are “fit” to possess firearms and inspect where the firearm will be kept.
But if someone wants to get hold of a military-style semi-automatic (MSSA), weapons that can fire significantly more rounds, they will need to have an “E-Category” licence. The security checks for this type of licence are a lot tougher and the person needs to be at least 18-years-old. Police figures show 7000 Kiwis are endorsed for this type of weapon.
Brenton Tarrant, the alleged attacker, had an A-Category licence which he used to buy weapons. But one of the most obvious and devastating flaws in this law is these standard guns can be illegally modified to become semi-automatic, making them much more deadly.
"If he had walked into the mosque with a [Category A] rifle with bolt action and had to reload each bullet you would have [far fewer] people dead. Because he walked in with a semi-automatic firearm, he has managed to kill 50 people,” said Gillespie.
We are one of very few countries where gun owners don’t have to register individual guns, they just have to register themselves. The terrifying thing about this is, no one actually knows how many guns are in New Zealand. Estimates range anywhere from 1.2 million to two or three million, making our gun ownership per capita higher than Australia and 20th-highest in the world.
The Police Association's Chris Cahill told RNZ changing this would make it a lot easier to keep track of who has what, not just who is allowed to own a gun. “If someone was building up a cache of weapons and there was some alarms around that, it would be something that could be followed up," he said. "But as it stands now, we have no idea who's buying weapons and where they're keeping them or how many they have in New Zealand."
Back in 2016, the Police Association warned parliament that New Zealand's loose gun laws leave our country incredibly vulnerable to another mass killing, potentially on the scale of the Aramoana massacre in 1990. But pressure from gun lobbyists and the narrative that these devastating events are still rare has meant nothing has really changed.
The 2017 Inquiry into Illegal Firearms report put forward 20 recommendations to toughen gun laws, but then Police Minister Paula Bennett accepted only seven of these. One recommendation would have required police to record serial numbers of all firearms possessed by licence holders when they renewed their licence, but this was rejected because it “would not deliver advantages over that which is already provided through the current voluntary process, and would be very expensive."
Over the weekend New Zealanders have been “panic buying” semi-automatic weapons, ammunition and magazines after Ardern’s promise to amend our gun laws. But Trade Me, the country’s largest auction website, has banned the sale of any semi-automatic weapons after being bombarded with criticism.
The South Otago rifle club where Tarrant was a member, has also closed its ranges for the “foreseeable future” and may never open again. The move follows claims made by Pete Breidahl who raised concerns with police after allegedly overhearing members talking about mass shootings and complaining about how New Zealand’s stance on refugees would lead to terror attacks.
Bruce Rifle Club vice-president Scott Williams would not comment on the allegations but said the club is “feeling a bit stunned and shocked and a bit betrayed, perhaps, that we've had this person in our club who has ended up doing these horrible things.''
Reforms to New Zealand’s gun laws will be announced next Monday. In the meantime, Ardern is encouraging Kiwis to surrender their firearms to the police. "To make our community safer, the time to act is now," she said. "I want to remind people, you can surrender your gun to the police at any time. In fact, I have seen reports that people are in fact already doing this. I applaud that effort, and if you are thinking about surrendering your weapon, I would encourage you to do so."
Due to the current environment and heightened security, police ask that you call them first before attempting to surrender a firearm. You can get in touch with your local police station or your local arms officer to get advice on the safest way to transport the firearm to police.
This article originally appeared on VICE NZ.