New Zealand terror attack: lax gun laws unchanged since 1992

Ownership of unregistered military-style ‘assault weapons’ legal for those over 16

Police officers guard the area close to the Masjid al-Noor mosque after a shooting incident in Christchurch on March 15th.  Attacks left at least 49 dead. Photograph:  Tessa Burrows/AFPs

Police officers guard the area close to the Masjid al-Noor mosque after a shooting incident in Christchurch on March 15th. Attacks left at least 49 dead. Photograph: Tessa Burrows/AFPs

 

The toll of 49 dead and more injured in mass shootings at two New Zealand mosques will put renewed scrutiny on New Zealand’s gun laws – particularly the debate over restrictions on military-style rifles and high-capacity ammunition magazines, which are frequently used in mass shooting attacks worldwide.

Civilians in New Zealand own an estimated 1.2 million firearms, according to the 2017 Small Arms Survey. That makes New Zealand’s per capita rate of gun ownership higher than Australia’s, but still far below the US, where there is more than one gun per person in civilian ownership.

The Christchurch shootings highlight “the disparity between New Zealand gun laws and those of other developed nations”, Philip Alpers, an Australian researcher and the founding director of GunPolicy.org, which tracks gun laws worldwide, wrote in an email.

Unlike the UK and Australia, New Zealand does not ban the ownership of semi-automatic, military-style “assault weapons”. Most guns can be legally sold on the internet or through newspaper ads. Any person 16 or over with an entry-level firearm licence can keep any number of common rifles and shotguns without having to register them.

“New Zealand’s decision not to register 96 per cent of civilian firearms makes it a standout exception, alone with the United States and Canada, ” Mr Alpers wrote.

Police scrutiny

Over the past year, New Zealand has seen a renewed debate over what police have called loopholes in the way military-style, semi-automatic rifles are defined by law. Possession of these “MSSA” rifles is supposed to be subject to a higher level of scrutiny from the police, and there are only about 15,000 registered military-style rifles in civilian hands, as of last year.

But because of the way military-style rifles are defined by law, guns with slightly different features but virtually the same function can fall outside of the stricter regulations. Both police and firearms enthusiasts noted that a rifle could be transformed into a MSSA simply by adding a larger-capacity ammunition magazine.

In 1997, a review of New Zealand gun laws commissioned by police officials recommended that MSSA rifles be banned and subject to a mandatory buyback. But none of the recommendations of that report have been implemented, Mr Alpers said.

The country’s gun laws have remained largely unchanged since 1992, when controls were tightened after the 1990 Aramoana massacre, in which an unemployed man killed 13 people with a semi-automatic rifle.

A briefing document sent recently to a New Zealand police minister complained that gaps in the law had already been exploited in violent incidents, and noted that “purchase of high-capacity magazines is unregulated and does not require a firearms licence”, Stuff.co.nz reported last year. – Guardian