WELLINGTON, New Zealand — Some rushed to their trusted online dealers and stores to stock up on semiautomatic assault-style rifles. Others unlocked their secure cabinets, picked up their firearms and turned them in to 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 changes to New Zealand’s firearms laws. Leaders have hinted that the changes will affect the proliferation and availability of semiautomatic weapons in particular.
The changes were 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. Details of the changes will be announced within the week and must be passed by Parliament.
The swift action in New Zealand stands in sharp contrast to the intractable debate over gun rights and regulations in the United States, where efforts to impose more regulations on guns nationwide have largely failed despite frequent mass shootings.
The U.S. gun debate gained momentum last year after a gunman killed 17 students and staff at a high school in Parkland, Fla., but the resulting campaign for an overhaul left most gun laws unchanged. Another proposed overhaul of gun regulations was rejected by Congress — in what President Barack Obama declared was a “shameful day” — months after a massacre of 20 children and six teachers in Newtown, Conn., in 2012.
In New Zealand, police have identified the gunman in Friday’s attack on two mosques as a 28-year-old Australian, Brenton Tarrant, who pledged allegiance to white nationalist causes. He has been remanded on one charge of murder with more to follow. The shooting rampage killed 50 people — 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 known for its extremely low murder rate.
Simon Bridges, the leader of the center-right National Party, which is part of the ruling coalition, said Monday that he was “open to any and all changes” and that banning military-style semiautomatic weapons is “probably the right way to go.”
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 that he has given up his AR-15 rifle and ammunition because his “convenience doesn’t outweigh the risk of misuse.”
Still, some gun dealers have 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 the mail.
Gun City has been the focus of criticism, and small protests have formed outside its 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 that the country is in a state of mourning over the killings.
Tarrant obtained his gun license in November 2017 and purchased his first firearm about a month later, Tipple said. He bought his last firearm from Gun City in March 2018 and purchased ammunition as well. Tipple said he has shared this information with authorities.
But in a testy exchange with reporters, Tipple pushed back on the charge that the guns he sold Tarrant were the same ones used in the mosque 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,” Tipple said. “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 the mass shooting. One gun owner who owned several AR-15s but has since given them up said they cost only $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, has no requirement for gun owners to register their weapons, unlike many other countries.
Tightened gun laws would put New Zealand in line with several other countries that have changed legislation in the wake of tragedy. A 1996 massacre in Port Arthur, Tasmania, in which 35 people were killed shook Australia and resulted in gun legislation that strictly restricted 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, when 13 people including local police were killed in the seaside town of Aramoana, changes were made to firearms legislation, including 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.
Emanuel Stoakes in Christchurch, New Zealand, contributed to this report.