Recognise, Respond, Reform: Assessing New Zealand’s reaction to Christchurch and why their neighbours’ approach two decades ago may provide a persuasive and powerful lead

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“Our gun laws will change, now is the time … People will be seeking change, and I am committed to that.”

These were the words of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern following the deaths of 50 Mosque-goers in Christchurch on 15th March at the hands of a white-nationalist.  This was the biggest fatal gun-attack witnessed in New Zealand’s history, the deaths of 13 people in Aramoana in 1990, and the previous mass shooting in 1997 in Raumiru, where 6 people were killed.

The Christchurch attack brought a truly peaceful nation to its knees as the rest of the world watched on in horror.

However, through the pain and suffering caused, New Zealand has recognised what has happened and has responded accordingly, to do justice to those who lost their lives.

The best way to do that? Gun reform.

Response

This is exactly what PM Ardern promised in the aftermath of the attacks.  Within 72 hours she had called for every semi-automatic weapon used in the attack to be banned.

The proposed legislation, which Ardern hopes to implement into law by 11th April, also includes proposals for a gun buy-back program for military-style semi-automatic weapons (MSSAs).  She announced that MSSA owners will receive “fair and reasonable compensation” for weapons purchased legally and has set out a figure between NZ$100-NZ$200 million for buy-back scheme.

As of last year, some 15,000 of New Zealand’s 1.5 million firearms were military-style semi-automatic rifles. The minimum age to own a gun is 16, but for semi-automatics, New Zealanders must be at least 18. In the attack in March, the Christchurch shooter used two semi-automatic rifles, both of which he purchased legally online.

The Australian Example: A case for optimism?

In terms of inspiration, New Zealand will see a plethora of developed nations which have themselves witnessed mass gun violence, have acted in response, and have achieved positive change.

Perhaps the best example took place just 3,000 miles away in New Zealand’s Antipodean neighbour, Australia.  In 1996 in Port Arthur, Tasmania, a lone gunman left 35 people dead and 18 seriously wounded by firing a military-style semi-automatic rifle.

Australia’s response? A mere 12 days after the shootings, in John Howard’s first major act of leadership as Prime Minister, his government announced nationwide gun law reform.

This included the banning of rapid-fire rifles and shotguns; gun ownership licensing was tightened and remaining firearms were required to be registered to uniform national standards.  The introduction of a comprehensive registration and licensing system made the requirements for owning a gun much tougher. A mandatory buy-back scheme resulted in at least 600,000 guns being handed over to the authorities.

Howard and his government met significant dissent, especially within Conservative interest groups, but the majority of Australians, shocked and appalled by what had taken place, backed the proposals.

Dissent is something Ardern will surely experience, considering New Zealand’s powerful gun lobby and its connections to the country’s hunting and farming communities.

But has action in Australia worked? Undoubtedly.

In the two decades before the law changed, there were 13 mass shootings.  In the last 20 years there have been just two mass shootings where four or more people were killed.

It is this kind of recognition, response and reform that New Zealand will surely hope to replicate itself.

What can we expect in New Zealand? Will it be 4th time lucky?

Although it is extremely encouraging to see swift and immediate action in response to the events in Christchurch, New Zealand’s track record on gun reform is not promising.

In her first address following the attacks, Ardern referred to previous attempts to change gun laws in New Zealand on three separate occasions: in 2005, 2012 and most recently in 2017.

Ominously, there has not been a significant change in New Zealand’s gun laws for more than 26 years.  This does not provide great cause for optimism.

This is why Australia’s example is so important.  The statistics don’t lie and Australia has undeniably seen positive change.

 

Hopefully, New Zealand will see the same.

James Rowan

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