The massacres at two mosques in New Zealand have triggered a renewed debate about the country’s gun laws, which are relaxed in comparison to those in nearby Australia, where mass shootings on this scale just don’t happen anymore.
“Our gun laws will change,” said New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Friday.
New Zealand does not ban semi-automatic firearms, unlike Australia and the U.K. (Norway will follow suit in 2021.) And while New Zealand gun owners are required to obtain a license and complete a gun safety course, they do not have to register their guns, with some exceptions, making it impossible for police to know the exact number of firearms in the country.
Small Arms Survey estimates around 1.2 million firearms are in the hands of private civilians in New Zealand. About 15,000 of those are what the country calls “military style semi-automatic” rifles, or MSSAs, which must be registered.
Both a semi-automatic shotgun and rifle were used in at least one of the shootings, The Washington Post reports. It’s yet unclear how the shooter obtained them or if they were registered.
Today, after the worst mass shooting in the country’s modern history, New Zealand’s laws stand in stark contrast to Australia’s.
More than two decades ago, Australia implemented strict gun laws banning semi-automatic rifles and shotguns, in response to the Port Arthur massacre where 35 people were killed. Its strict gun rules are credited with averting over a dozen mass shootings.
Whereas private gun ownership and the number of illegal guns making their way into New Zealand have soared over the past 15 years or so, according to Stuff Limited, Australia was able to take one-fifth of its illegal guns off the streets in just three months by implementing a gun amnesty program in 2017.
Compared to the U.S., New Zealand experiences very little gun violence: In 2015, only 8 people were murdered with a firearm, according to research by the University of Sydney. But mass shootings still do happen.
In 1990, a man killed 13 people in a massacre, using two military-style semi-automatic firearms, which led to new restrictions on that type of gun but not an outright ban. In 1997, police commissioned a firearms review and ultimately recommended banning military style semi-automatic rifles, complete with a mandatory buyback program.
None of those recommendations have been implemented, according to GunPolicy.org founder Philip Alpers.
In 2017, New Zealand again tried to add restrictions, but the majority of the recommendations were declined. Then-Police Minister Paula Bennett accepted recommendations that it be illegal for gang members to carry guns, but reportedly stopped short of implementing a number of other rules involving gun storage and ammunition.
This has been updated with a quote from New Zealand’s prime minister.
Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to Paula Bennett as police commissioner. She was police minister at the time.
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