How New Zealand Was Able to Change Its Gun Laws Within Days of the Christchurch Killings

March 21, 2019, 12:45 PM UTC

New Zealand has banned the sale of all “military-style” semi-automatics, assault rifles and high capacity magazines, less than a week after 50 people died in live-streamed shootings at two Christchurch mosques. In addition to the immediate stop on sales of weapons to avoid stockpiling, the government will use a buyback program to remove now-banned weapons from the streets.

“I strongly believe that the vast majority of legitimate gun owners in New Zealand will understand that these moves are in the national interest, and will take these changes in their stride,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Thursday. “What we’re banning today are the things that were used in last Friday’s attack.”

Ardern said she expected new legislation to be in place by April 11. “Our history changed forever. Now, our laws will too,” she said.

The legislation will be introduced when parliament meets in the first week of April, with a “short, sharp select committee process” for feedback on technical aspects of the law. It is unlikely to encounter resistance in Parliament; the largest opposition party quickly said it supports the measures, the New York Times reports.

How, exactly, was New Zealand able to ban assault rifles so quickly after a shooting? New Zealand’s overhauls were inspired partly by Australia’s actions after a mass shooting in 1996 that claimed 35 lives: a mix of buybacks, registration and outright bans.

In the U.S. however, no new national-level gun laws have been enacted, despite a spate of massacres including the Parkland high school shooting in 2018, in which 17 people died. Some U.S. companies decided they would stop selling assault rifles or high-capacity magazines in the immediate aftermath of the Parkland murders but while Florida’s new law raises the gun purchase age from 18 to 21, it also allows for local school districts to arm teachers.

That’s due in large part to the Second Amendment of the Constitution, which guarantees Americans’ right to bear arms, and the political strength of the National Rifle Association, which is challenging the Florida law in court.

Americans remain deeply divided about the issue of guns. Pew Research reports that 76% of Republicans say it’s more important to protect the right of Americans to own guns than it is to control gun ownership, while just 19% of Democrats agree with that statement. Overall, 57% of U.S. adults say gun laws should be more strict, while 31% say they are about right and 11% say they should be less strict.

In contrast, New Zealand Police Minister, Stuart Nash, said Thursday that “owning a firearm is a privilege and not a right” in the country.

Prime Minister Ardern also said she and the Cabinet will work through legal exemptions to the ban, such as for farmers needing to cull their herds but said these loopholes would be “tightly regulated.”

A few dozen Kiwi gun owners voluntarily turned in semi-automatic weapons before the ban was enacted on Thursday, such as John Hart, a farmer who shared this tweet:

The buyback of the estimated 13,500 military-style weapons could cost New Zealand up to NZ$200 million ($138 million), the BBC reports. To put that into perspective: the Los Angeles Times says that New Zealand’s 4.7 million population owns 1.5 million guns; the United States’ 328 million population has between 265 million and 393 million guns.

Once the amnesty period ends, anyone in possession of a banned weapon could face a fine of up to NZ$4,000 and three years in jail. Ardern said the immediate changes are directed at the guns that are “most critical to be addressed urgently” and that “there are a range of other amendments” in the pipeline.

“For other dealers, sales should essentially now cease,” she added. “My expectation is that these weapons will now be returned to your suppliers and never enter into the New Zealand market again.”