New Zealand confronts gun control debate after deadliest attack

New Zealand police estimate there are around 1.2 million legal firearms owned by civilians in the country

An armed police officer stands guard at a cordon blocking a road that leads to Linwood Mosque in Christchurch on March 17, 2019, two days after a shooting incident at two mosques in the city. The death toll from horrifying shootings at two mosques in New Zealand rose to 50, police said Sunday, as Christchurch residents flocked to memorial sites and churches across the city to lay flowers and mourn the victims. / AFP / Anthony WALLACE

When the Christchurch gunman stepped out of his vehicle to begin his shooting rampage that killed at least 50 people on Friday, he had five weapons in his arsenal: two semi-automatic weapons, two shotguns and a lever-action firearm.

Now, New Zealand is confronting the very gun control debate that has proved so divisive in the United States.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has promised changes to gun legislation, but many wondered why such a peaceful country would need to alter them at all, or expressed surprise that the suspected gunman was able to get his hands on so many firearms.

So how did he get manage to get hold of them?

The suspect, 28-year-old Brenton Tarrant, obtained his gun licence in November 2017 and began buying firearms from December 2017. Anyone over the age of 16 can own a gun in New Zealand, and a military-style weapon if over the age of 18. Those who seek a license must pass background criminal and medical checks. Other factors are taken into consideration, such as domestic violence and mental health.

It appears that the suspect passed all of these tests and was able to buy as many weapons as he liked.

But New Zealand still has stricter gun laws than some states in America, as it has outlawed open carry and carrying a firearm without a permit.

New Zealanders also do not have a constitutional right to carry a firearm, as in the States. In comparison to Australia, though, they are not as tight. Canberra has an almost complete ban on private ownership of semi-automatic rifles, a ruling that cut the country’s civilian arsenal by almost a third.

The level of gun ownership in New Zealand is surprising given its population of less than five million. Police estimated as of 2016 that there are more than 1.2 million firearms in the hands of civilians in the country. That’s a ratio of around one gun to every four people.

Still, the country has very low levels of gun violence, hence the surprise that so many could be killed in cold blood on the streets of a New Zealand city.

Only 859 restricted firearms were seized by New Zealand police between 2008 and 2017, so a rate of 85 a year, while 12,688 firearms of all types were confiscated by authorities in that period.

In terms of gun violence, just 28 homicides took place that involved a perpetrator who owned a gun license in those ten years.

In 2015, New Zealand had more than 20 times less gun deaths than the United States per 100,000 people. And Friday’s mosque shootings equalled six years of gun homicides, based on previous rates.

Even so, research has shown that where there exists more gun control, and fewer weapons, there are less deaths related to firearms. Therefore, looser gun laws allow those who want to do harm an easier route to doing just that. So Ms Ardern, New Zealand’s government and the wider public – possibly including other gun owners – will be at pains for a change to the current regulations that allowed this shocking attack to take place.

The last mass shooting to take place in New Zealand took place in 1990, when David Gray’s shooting spree left 13 people dead. The country’s gun laws came under scrutiny and semi-automatic firearms were regulated two years later.

But, after the worst mass shooting in New Zealand’s history, deadlier than Columbine and Parkland combined, the country is now experiencing what could be its very own defining gun-debate moment. Ms Ardern’s cabinet is set to meet on Monday to discuss the changes that will likely be unopposed by a stunned Kiwi populace.

Though, whether that push for safer gun laws in the country is successful or not remains to be seen.