Some rushed to their trusted online dealers and stores to stock up on semiautomatic assault rifles. Others unlocked their secure cabinets, picked up their firearms and turned them into police stations, no questions asked.
The estimated quarter of a million gun owners across this largely quiet, peaceful South Pacific country, many of them dedicated hunters, are bracing for what are likely to be significant reforms to New Zealand’s firearm laws. Leaders have hinted the changes will impact the proliferation and availability of semiautomatic weapons in particular.
The changes, agreed to in principle by the country’s coalition government Monday – just 72 hours after the deadliest act of gun violence in New Zealand history – put the country in line with others that have taken swift action following tragedy within their borders. Details of the changes will be announced within the week, and must be passed by parliament.
A gunman who pledged allegiance to white nationalist causes killed 50 people at two mosques in Christchurch on Friday, and has been remanded on one charge of murder with more to follow. He has been identified by police as 28-year old Australian Brenton Tarrant who in one day killed more than all the people murdered across New Zealand in 2017.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern labeled the massacre “the worst act of terrorism on our shores” and immediately promised swift action, calling for gun laws to be changed. Her declarations have been celebrated by many in New Zealand, some of whom had no idea that military-style semiautomatic weapons were so prolific in a country famously known for its extremely low murder rate.
On Monday, the e-commerce website Trade Me, similar to eBay, halted the sale of semiautomatic weapons on its platform.
“We’ve had a lot of contact from Kiwis over the weekend about this issue, and many felt we should stop the sale of these items in the wake of this attack,” Trade Me said in a statement. “We’ve listened to these sentiments and we’ve put this ban in place while we await clear direction from the government.”
John Hart, a gun owner, said on Twitter he had given up his AR-15 rifle and ammunition because his “convenience doesn’t outweigh the risk of misuse.”
Still, some gun dealers have also bristled at the idea that they or the weapons they sell are culpable in Friday’s events, and have resented being put on the spot.
“We have good laws, we’ve always had good laws,” said Wayne Chapman, owner of The Gunshop in Upper Hutt, a city northeast of Wellington. His store, he said, “has not seen a surge or had any problems.”
David Tipple, managing director of Gun City, one of the largest firearms retailers in New Zealand, called a news conference Monday to announce that Tarrant had bought four guns from Gun City’s online store and had them delivered through mail.
Gun City has been the focus of criticism and has seen small protests outside their stores in recent days. Many on social media have said a billboard outside the store’s Christchurch outlet, which shows a man teaching two young children how to shoot, is in poor taste considering the country is in a state of mourning over the killings.
Tarrant, he said, had obtained his gun license in November 2017 and purchased his first firearm about a month later. He bought his last firearm from Gun City in March 2018, and had also purchased ammunition Tipple has shared this information with authorities.
But in a testy exchange with reporters, he pushed back on the charge that the guns he sold Tarrant were the exact ones used in his attacks. Tipple said the guns were “A-category” guns, which can be bought with the most basic weapons license.
Assault rifles are A-category guns as long as they have a magazine that holds only seven rounds. The weapons seen in a video of the massacre that Tarrant live-streamed had much larger magazines.
“I totally agree there should be a gun debate, but today is not the day,” said Tipple. “We are not a country of emotional responses, we are a country with laws [and] what we are doing is legal.”
New Zealand gun owners point out that it is exactly the loophole Tipple brought up – purchasing larger magazines – that enabled Tarrant’s shooting spree. One gun owner who owned several AR-15s, but has since given them up, said they only cost $1,200 in New Zealand, but would cost $25,000 or more in Australia on the black market, because they are effectively banned there.
“You can get an AR-15 from anywhere really, and while the [30-round magazine] is not allowed legally, they will fit and they will work,” said Pete Breidahl, a gun owner and former competition shooter who recently gave up his firearms license. “How, in 2019, can this still be going on? How has this loophole not been fixed?”
New Zealand, like the United States, also has no requirement for gun owners to register their weapons, unlike many countries in the world.
The tightened gun laws will put New Zealand in line with several other countries who have changed legislation in the wake of tragedy. The Port Arthur massacre in Australia in 1996 shook the continent, changed gun legislation the Pacific nation, strictly restricting self-loading rifles and other weapons.
A buyback program destroyed thousands of guns and high-capacity magazines. A shooting at a primary school in Dunblane, Scotland, that same year also prompted a campaign for tighter restrictions on firearms, which led to a virtual ban on civilian ownership of handguns.
Still, New Zealand has made the decision in almost record time. In Australia, it took 12 days after the mass shooting for the government to finalize changes to legislation. It took almost two years for the ban on handguns to become law in the United Kingdom in 1998. Ardern has promised details of changes within 10 days of the attack.
Experts argue that New Zealand has indeed been on the cusp of change in gun legislation for years, but never had political unity around the issue. After the country’s last mass shooting in 1990, where 13 people including local police were killed in the seaside town of Aramoana, changes were made to firearm legislation including some restrictions on semiautomatic firearms and the requirement for 10-year licenses.
Four inquiries have been undertaken by government in recent years. A 1997 review recommended that all guns should be registered and that the government institute a full buyback of all military-style assault weapons, similar to what was done in Australia.
These suggestions, said Philip Alpers, an adjunct associate professor at the University of Sydney and founding director of GunPolicy.org, “are all now back on the table.”
The government’s decision, he said, has been in part motivated by the frequency of mass shootings in the United States, which has among the most lax gun laws in the world.
“There is a baseline determination not to go down the American road,” he said.
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The Washington Post’s Emanuel Stoakes in Christchurch, New Zealand, contributed to this report.
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