When a gunman opened fire on a mosque in New Zealand on Friday, and a second mosque came under attack, the resulting death toll of at least 49 people meant that more were killed on one day than are usually murdered in an entire year in the country, according to national police statistics.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern addressed the public Friday evening local time, calling it “one of New Zealand’s darkest days.”
Only hours later, on Saturday morning, Ardern announced that New Zealand’s gun laws would be changed, as she confirmed that the attacker held a firearms license. The quick response marked a stark contrast to reactions by other leaders in countries where mass shootings have occurred, who often respond far more cautiously to demands to reform gun ownership laws.
Three suspects are in custody, and the man who held a firearms license, according to Ardern, released a manifesto online hinting at the years-long relative peacefulness in New Zealand as one motive for the attack, which he suggested would show “that nowhere in the world was safe.” His claim echoed remarks by an apparent role model, Norwegian far-right extremist Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people – many of them teenagers – in 2011. Norway has roughly the same population as New Zealand and an even lower murder rate.
In the coming days, debate over New Zealand’s gun laws is likely to intensify in response to the massacre and Ardern’s announcement.
“I can’t imagine a country less likely to let this slide than New Zealand,” said Philip Alpers, a New Zealander professor at the University of Sydney who founded a website that tracks gun policy worldwide. “Jacinda Ardern is not likely to say ‘our thoughts and prayers are with you’ and then move on,” Alpers said before Ardern’s announcement that laws would have to change.
In New Zealand, gun owners must be licensed to carry guns and gun ownership is seen as a conditional privilege, but firearms do not have to be registered. Gun licenses are valid for 10 years, and Alpers said the process for licensing involves interviews with individuals who have intimate relationships with prospective gun owners, including spouses, ex-spouses and roommates.
Gun laws came under scrutiny in New Zealand in 1997, when retired High Court judge Thomas Thorp released a report that endorsed mandatory registration and said self-defense should no longer be considered reason enough for purchasing a gun. The report also recommended that the government buy back military-style assault rifles, among a number of other suggestions that were not adopted in legislation. Now, Alpers said, essentially all those measures will be back up for discussion, particularly regulation of assault weapons. “They are the choice of mass killers and they will be the focus of everybody’s attention,” he said.
Although New Zealand’s gun laws have triggered tense but restrained debates in the past, the conversation isn’t as heated and ideological as it is in the United States. By comparison, American civilians are estimated to own nearly 400 million firearms, or about 120 per 100 people. In New Zealand, civilians hold around 1.5 million firearms, averaging out to approximately one gun per three people in a country of around 5 million.
“New Zealanders see themselves certainly not as a gun-free nation but as a nation with fewer firearm problems than most,” Alpers said. “They look on the U.S. as most of the world does . . . with some degree of horror.”
In his alleged manifesto, the suspect charged with murder in the mosque attack implicitly hoped for a gun debate.
“I chose firearms for the affect it would have on social discourse, the extra media coverage they would provide and the effect it could have on the politics of United States and thereby the political situation of the world,” the manifesto says. The implied hope was that the debate might eventually escalate tensions between supporters of gun rights and opponents and result in civil-war-like violence that would cause more damage than one attacker or group could commit alone.
Although some New Zealand residents have joined Islamist militant groups, the threat of terrorist attacks has consistently been regarded as low. The European debate over the cycle of crimes blamed on migrants and right-wing violence has largely been unknown in New Zealand, where the far right remains marginalized. Instead, authorities have predominantly focused on bringing down the number of incarcerated indigenous Maori people, who are disproportionately represented in the country’s prisons.
Until recently, police in New Zealand had not felt the need to carry firearms on duty. Last month, however, the Canterbury district on New Zealand’s southern island broke with that protocol after a series of incidents that left a shooting suspect on the loose.
At the time, New Zealand Police Association President Chris Cahill told Reuters that “more and more policemen are finding criminals with guns, so unless we find a way of stopping these firearms from reaching them, we will have no other choice but to arm our officers.”
(c) 2019, The Washington Post · Rick Noack, Siobhán O’Grady