Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s Cabinet will begin overhauling New Zealand’s gun laws on Monday after the nation’s worst mass shooting in modern history left 50 people dead.
The gunman opened fire on worshippers in two mosques in the South Island city of Christchurch on Friday, and live-streamed the attack to social media. Police recovered two semi-automatic weapons, two shotguns and a lever-action firearm, which the attacker could own legally because he had a category-A gun license.
“Why is it that we have a situation where military style semi-automatic weapons are available to license holders?” Ardern asked in an interview with Radio New Zealand Monday. “We’ll be looking to move as quickly as we can.”
New Zealand’s gun ownership rate has risen in the past decade to become one of the highest in the world, yet its homicide rate remains well below global norms as many of those weapons belong to hunters and farmers. The previous government in 2017 rejected recommendations from a parliamentary inquiry to tighten the laws.
Ardern has indicated her response to the mosque shootings may echo that taken in Australia, which enacted sweeping reforms after a massacre in 1996 left 35 people dead.
The South Pacific nation of almost 5 million people is reeling from last week’s apparently well-planned terrorist attack. The gunman walked into a packed central city mosque and opened fire, killing more than 40 people. He then drove across the city to another mosque and continued the rampage. He was arrested as he fled in a car from the second mosque, with police running him off the road.
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Brenton Tarrant, a 28-year-old Australian, appeared in court at the weekend charged with one count of murder and is likely to face further charges, according to police. He didn’t show up on any government security watch-list, nor did he have a criminal record in New Zealand.
Civilian gun ownership in New Zealand has increased 62 percent since 2005, according to GunPolicy.org, a firearm prevention group, with the total number of weapons, both legal and illicit, reaching 1.5 million in 2017.
Nevertheless, murders using guns are rare. In the decade to 2015, there were only two years in which the number of such homicides reached 10 or more. The nation’s overall homicide rate of 1.2 per 100,000 people is well below the global rate of 6.4, according to a WHO report from 2015.
Gun licenses can be obtained starting at 16 years of age. Residents must show up at their police arms office, typically at the police station, to apply in person. There are restrictions on semi-automatic guns, and the licenses of gun dealers must be renewed annually.
A parliamentary inquiry released in April 2017 urged tighter gun registrations, more controls on gun dealers and owners, and the creation of a new category of restricted semi-automatic weapons. Most of the recommendations were rejected by the government, then ruled by the center-right National Party.
Australia undertook a huge overhaul of gun-ownership laws in the wake of the 1996 massacre in the tourist town of Port Arthur. Conservative Prime Minister John Howard angered the gun lobby and some rural voters by quickly pushing through legislation that banned semi-automatic weapons and tightened registration rules. The changes have been credited with making mass shootings relatively rare in the country.
“Australia’s reforms after Port Arthur should be an inspiration for all nations,” said Hera Cook, a lecturer in public health in Wellington for the University of Otago. “Debate about gun reform here is driven by the gun lobby, but it should be centered around the principle that New Zealanders deserve to be kept safe.”
Along with a ban on semi-automatics, she says New Zealand needs a clampdown on weapons advertising and a register of all firearms.
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Gun shops reported increased sales around the country on Saturday, including semi-automatics, ammunition and magazines, as people rushed to acquire them before the government acts, according to the Newsroom website.
New Zealand auction site Trade Me said Monday it was halting the sale of semi-automatic weapons while it waits for more clarity from the government.
“We want to work with police, politicians and government,” Firearm Owners United N.Z., a group which says it represents recreational shooters, said in a Facebook post Saturday. “We just ask that any potential changes are considered rationally and the proper democratic process is followed.”
Tarrant grew up in the small Australian city of Grafton and worked in a local gym as a personal trainer, Australia’s Nine News reported. He left his job in 2010 after the death of his father and traveled extensively. Turkey has confirmed he spent considerable time there, and there are reports he also visited Pakistan, North Korea and Eastern Europe.
He posted a manifesto online before the attack, suggesting a racially-motivated act of terrorism. In a rambling document that’s dozens of pages long, he says he was inspired by Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik, who was responsible for the deaths of 77 people in 2011. Officials are reviewing whether his actions on social media should have brought him to the attention of intelligence agencies.
Australian authorities are helping New Zealand with its investigations. Counter-terrorism officers on Monday searched two homes in the same region as Grafton to obtain material to assist with the probe.
Tarrant’s family continue to “assist police with their inquiries,” police said in a statement.
Ardern said she is seeking advice on Tarrant’s possible deportation to Australia but it was too soon to say whether that is likely.
“He will certainly face the justice system of New Zealand for the terrorist act he committed here,” she told a news conference on Sunday. “As for the remainder I am seeking advice. I don’t want to pre-empt anything.”