The Slatest

Why New Zealand’s Gun Laws Can Be Seen as Both Strict and Lax

An armed officer holds his rifle while standing guard outside a fenced property. Other police and their vehicles can be seen in the background.
Armed police outside a mosque in in Auckland, New Zealand, on Friday .
Phil Walter/Getty Images

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Friday afternoon that “our gun laws will change” after the mass shooting in Christchurch, by far the most deadly mass shooting in the country’s history.

According to Ardern, who spoke to reporters at a press conference Friday (Saturday morning local time), the suspect had a gun license from 2017 and used two semi-automatic weapons, two shotguns, and a lever-action firearm in the shooting.

Friday’s shooting has ignited conversations about gun control in a country with a history of relatively low gun violence.

New Zealand has not enacted major gun legislation since 1992, which was prompted by the last major mass shooting, known as the Aramoana massacre, two years earlier. In that shooting in a small seaside town, 13 people, including police, died at the hands of a man who became enraged by a dispute with a neighbor. Friday’s shooting—in which nearly 50 worshipers died in two mosques and in which one suspect, an Australian man, livestreamed the attack on Facebook and released a hateful far-right “manifesto”—could serve as an even grimmer and more potent impetus for gun reform.

New Zealand’s Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters has said the government would investigate how the perpetrator acquired his weapons and review the country’s gun control laws, considered strict by global standards (and especially when compared with the United States’) but are more relaxed than those of many Western countries. “We’ve watched abroad while these terrorist attacks have happened,” he said. “But we never, though prepared for them, contemplated they would emerge in the shape they have today in New Zealand.”

The debate will likely center around assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines, as those are so often involved in mass shootings, but other recent debate in the country dealt with the more common issue of gun registration and even gun licensing. The baseline for the debate is different than in the U.S., and the arguments that always follow a mass shooting will be shaped in New Zealand by the current state of its particular gun laws.

Firearms Licenses

The minimum age to own a gun in New Zealand is 16. To obtain a 10-year license, applicants must pass a background check of criminal and medical records and character references, complete a training course for firearm law and safety, pass a test, and have police visit their homes to inspect the guns and their security. A history of violence or drug and alcohol abuse can disqualify applicants from buying a gun.

According to GunPolicy.org, applicants are required to submit their specific reasons for wanting to own a pistol, semi-automatic assault rifle, or other restricted type of firearm. (Hunting and sports rifles do not require this step.) Shooting for sport, pest control, and firearm collection are all considered valid reasons, but self-defense is not—it is specifically prohibited by law.

Assault-Style Semi-Automatic Weapons

To own a military-style semi-automatic rifle, New Zealanders have to be 18, and the background check is more stringent. (Rules for storage, too, are more stringent.) But anyone passing that test can own one. This marks a difference between New Zealand and countries such as Australia and the United Kingdom, where these weapons are banned. (New Zealand restricts fully automatic weapons to an even stricter category for “collector” licences, and the weapons must be kept disabled when not being used.) The relative laxness of these requirements compared with Australia’s has been cited as a possible reason for why the gunman chose to carry out his attack in New Zealand.

As New Zealand media reported, the debate over assault-style weapons was reignited in the past year, as police have said that laws regulating “military-style semi-automatic” rifles can fail to catch firearms that are categorized as different weapons but can effectively be used in the same way. Police noted that a rifle could converted into military-style semi-automatic by adding a larger capacity magazine, something that does not require a firearms license to buy. A law enforcement report last year stated that these loopholes had already been exploited in some killings.

In the 1990 Aramoana massacre, the gunman used a semi-automatic assault-style rifle. At that point, the nation’s gun laws, first passed in 1983, were considered fairly lax. The resulting 1992 amendment placed tighter restrictions and regulations for semi-automatic firearms.

In 1997, officials commissioned a review of gun laws in the country and recommended the military-style semi-automatic rifles be banned altogether and collected through a mandatory buy-back program. (It also recommended fully automatic weapons be permanently disabled.) None of the recommendations from the report were implemented.

Gun Registration

According to the Guardian, most guns can legally be sold in New Zealand through the internet or through newspaper ads. And while licensed dealers must keep a record of the sales, New Zealand is one of just a few countries where most weapons don’t have to be registered, another way its regulations differ from many other developed nations’. (The United States also is notable for allowing many of its firearms to go unregistered.) Assault-style semi-automatic rifles, pistols, and other types of restricted firearms do have to be registered, but common rifles and shotguns do not. Licensed gun owners may purchase as many firearms as they like, although not, if buying a semi-automatic rifle, all at once.

In 1997, the firearms review concluded with the recommendation that each firearm be individually registered. As with the other recommendations, it was not implemented.

Because the majority of firearms are unregistered, police do not know exactly how many guns there are in the country. In 2017, police estimated there were 1.5 million—around one per three people. In the United States, there is more than one gun for every civilian, but New Zealand’s gun ownership rate is still considered relatively high. Australia has one gun for every eight people. The U.K. has only one gun per 27 people, and Canada has one for every four.

Guns in Public Spaces

In New Zealand, it is illegal both to openly carry a firearm in plain view in a public space and to carry a concealed firearm in a public space.

It’s hard to place the country on a scale of gun tolerance because some of its regulations are strict and some are lax. The United Kingdom, undeniably on the strict side of the scale, bans handguns except in extremely rare circumstances. From that perspective, New Zealand has lax gun laws. But compared with the U.S., where many citizens can openly carry a handgun around a public university, for example, the country’s laws look stringent.

Similarly, New Zealand’s gun and crime statistics complicate any comparison with other countries. The nation’s gun ownership (likely clustered in more rural areas, in the hands of recreational users with multiple guns) is high, but overall crime—driven by several factors beyond gun use—is low. Friday’s events may mark a major shift for the country’s attitudes toward firearms, or it may underscore to the nation’s gun law defenders just how rare this violence is. As the BBC pointed out, the 49 people who died Friday exceeded the average total number of people murdered in New Zealand each year. One view of that fact is that the terror attack was a horrific anomaly. The other view was expressed by Deputy Prime Minister Peters to the BBC: The attack means the end to the country’s “age of innocence.”

Update, March 15, 2019, at 5:55 p.m.: This post has been updated with information from Ardern’s press conference.