March 15 will forever be synonymous with what New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Adern called one of the nation’s “darkest days,” with at least 49 people killed and almost 50 wounded in shootings at two mosques in Christchurch.
In the country’s first gun massacre for nearly 30 years, gun control experts told Newsweek that Friday’s shootings, which Ardern said “can only be described as a terrorist attack,” are likely to bring about “huge changes” to New Zealand’s gun control laws.
“I don’t know the details of exactly what will happen in New Zealand. All I know is that there is bound to be change,” gun control expert Philip Alpers, a New Zealand-born researcher at the University of Sydney and founding director of GunPolicy.org, which tracks gun laws around the world, told Newsweek.
Whereas the U.S. has been slow to see significant change in gun control measures in response to mass shootings, Alpers said: “As a New Zealander, I can’t imagine a country that is less likely to ignore this and do nothing as the U.S. has done after Columbine, Sandy Hook and all the others.”
The Weapon of Choice
Already, in the hours following Friday’s terror attacks, debate around New Zealand’s gun policies has come to the fore. Many have asked how the suspected shooter, a 28-year-old Australian-born man, obtained the firearms, including at least one suspected semi-automatic rifle, that were used in the attack.
“We don’t know the circumstances yet behind these firearms, or exactly what type they were,” Alpers said. “But it does seem the photographs that have been released so far strongly suggest that they are semi-automatic rifles, which are the weapon of choice for these shootings.”
Additionally, Simon Chapman, emeritus professor of public health at the University of Sydney and former co-convenor of the Coalition for Gun Control, told Newsweek: “We don’t know whether the gunman obtained his semi-automatic weapons legally or illegally, but in New Zealand, you can get hold of semi-automatic weapons if you’re given a permit to have one.”
Indeed, in New Zealand, only certain classes of weapons require registration, including handguns and military-style semi-automatics. Meanwhile, most semi-automatic rifles, shotguns and airguns can be lawfully owned without registration by anyone in possession of a standard firearms license.
Both Chapman and Alpers said they believe all that could be about to change, however, with New Zealand likely to follow in the foosteps of its closest neighbor, Australia.
In Australia’s Footsteps
In Australia, 1996 gun law reforms triggered by the Port Arthur massacre, which saw 35 people killed, have been largely credited for a 22-year absence of mass shootings in the country. So much so that a study published last year by researchers at the University of Sydney and Macquarie University put the odds of the lack of mass shootings in Australia since the 1996 gun reforms came into place as due to chance at one in 200,000.
“In Australia, we outlawed civilian possession of rapid-fire semi-automatic weapons, rifles and pump-action shotguns,” Chapman said. The country also instituted mandatory buyback programs in 1996 and 2003, which allowed firearm owners to turn over their weapons for compensation and saw hundreds of thousands of firearms destroyed.
“We changed our gun laws in 1996 and did not have a mass shooting for 22 years afterward…after having 13 in the 18 years before,” Chapman said.
Chapman said that for years, Australia’s gun lobby had pointed to neighboring New Zealand as “an example of a country with liberal gun laws where you can get hold of semi-automatic weapons and they’ve always said that’s how it should continue to be.”
“The gun lobby has often said that Australia and New Zealand are countries that share a lot of heritage. We are close geographically, we speak the same language, we play the same sports, we listen to much of the same music, we have all these cultural similarities,” Chapman said. “But, in New Zealand, they allow their citizens to have access to semi-automatic weapons. In Australia, they don’t.”
“They’ve always said, well, they haven’t had a mass shooting in New Zealand… Well, now they have,” Chapman said.
Alpers said the fact that the suspected shooter in Friday’s massacre was Australian raised the possibility that he might have traveled from Australia to New Zealand to carry out the attack “because it was easier to obtain the kind of weapon” he used.
He said that while we do not yet know whether that was the case, if it does turn out that “that person flew to New Zealand…and committed this crime largely because they were enabled by New Zealand’s less stringent gun laws, then they have an object lesson. That will surely be an object lesson for a lot of New Zealanders.”
For Chapman’s part, the researcher said he had “high hopes that New Zealand will introduce gun laws mirroring Australia’s,” particularly when it comes to enforcing universal gun registration and ease of access to certain weapons.
“Gun registration is just a no brainer,” Chapman said. “If you want to take gun control seriously, it’s one of the first things you do.”
“We register cars, boats and even dogs,” he said. “Police say, ‘Well, this car was involved in a hit and run, who owns it?’ And then they trace the registration to the owner. That should be the same with guns…you don’t treat it like it’s just selling something like a child’s toy on eBay.”
Alpers said he cannot “imagine a country more likely to change its gun laws” after a tragedy like the Christchurch shootings.
“New Zealanders will absolutely horrified. The country will be in a state of shock for weeks, for months,” he said. “This is not something that New Zealanders are going to take lightly.”
“Our police are routinely unarmed, so you rarely see guns in New Zealand,” he said. “This is going to shock New Zealanders to the core and I cannot imagine the gun laws not being changed.”
‘The United States Is a Total Outlier’
Commenting on why he believes New Zealand is likely to bring about “huge” control changes in response to the massacre, while in the U.S. any movement toward tighter gun control measures have been hard-won, Alpers said the difference between the two countries’ approaches to gun control was like “chalk and cheese.”
“In some ways, our gun laws are very, very, very much more stringent than in the U.S., but in that one way, in New Zealand, they are almost identical to the U.S. and that is that there is no registration for almost 96 percent of firearms,” Alpers said. “And that includes some of the most common firearms, the ones that are most commonly used in crime, domestic violence and suicide.”
Where New Zealand differs, however, is that as a nation, it lacks “the United States’ fundamental ideological belief in firearms and in firearms being the solution to pretty much anything,” Alpers said. “Americans see firearms as the solution to the problem, whereas the rest of the world sees firearms as part of the problem, so there is a fundamental difference between the United States and virtually every other country in the world.”
“Nobody else has the Second Amendment and there is no other country in the world that has a Second Amendment that distorts every facet of firearm injury prevention,” Alpers continued. “It’s almost impossible to explain why America has such a different approach to firearms to others unless they have experienced it. If they haven’t been to the United States and seen the deep fascination with guns, the deep reliance on guns, they will find it very difficult to understand.
“It’s not impossible to explain, but it takes a while to tell people why it’s so different in the United States,” he said.
Over the past year, gun control advocates in the U.S. have seen some progress after the Trump administration moved to ban bump stocks, which allow semi-automatic rifles to fire at the rate of machine guns, in the wake of the 2018 school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which saw 17 students and school staff members killed.
The Florida Legislature also passed a bill titled the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, which raised the minimum age for buying rifles to 21, set waiting periods and background checks for firearm buyers and banned bump stocks, while other states enacted similar laws.
Still, Alpers said he “could not imagine” the reforms that have taken place in Australia and that may soon be mirrored in New Zealand, being brought into effect in the United States.
According to the 2017 Small Arms Survey, New Zealanders owned more than 1.2 million firearms, which works out at 26 firearms per 100 people. Meanwhile, in the U.S. the total number of firearms owned by civilians was nearly 400 million, which works out to 120 firearms per 100 people.
But while New Zealand might seem “strict” on gun control compared with the U.S., contrasted with its closest neighbor, Australia, the country comes away appearing relatively “liberal” with its lack of universal registration and ease of access to semi-automatic weapons, Chapman said.
“It’s all relative. Everything is strict compared to the United States. The United States is a total outlier.” Chapman said. “It’s a basket case nation when it comes to gun control.”