(Bloomberg) -- New Zealand has banned military style semi-automatics and assault rifles and will establish a nationwide buyback of the weapons in the wake of a terrorist attack on two mosques that left 50 people dead.
The ban takes immediate effect to prevent stockpiling of firearms while the legislation is being drafted, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told reporters on Thursday. Further changes in gun laws to tighten licensing and increase controls over ammunition will be made in coming months.
“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,” she said. “What we’re banning today are the things that were used in last Friday’s attack.”
In sharp contrast with the U.S., where a string of gun massacres have failed to spur political action, Ardern’s announcement comes just days after the worst mass shooting in New Zealand’s modern history. On March 15, a lone gunman attacked Muslim worshippers during afternoon prayers in the South Island city of Christchurch, filming and live-streaming the attack to social media. A 28-year-old Australian man was arrested and charged with murder.
Police recovered two semi-automatic weapons, two shotguns and a lever-action firearm, which the attacker could own legally because he had a category-A gun license. A loophole in the law made it easy to convert standard semi-automatics to military-style weapons by inserting an unregulated high-capacity magazine.
That loophole will now be closed, with all parts used to convert assault rifles into military style semi-automatics, or MSSAs, also being banned. The changes exclude low-capacity semi-automatic shotguns and 0.22 caliber rifles, which are commonly used by farmers and hunters.
“These are initial measures but they’re a great start, especially because the government’s reaction has been so quick,” said Hera Cook, a lecturer in public health in Wellington for the University of Otago. In the U.S., a politicized gun lobby backed by commercial interests has championed the Second Amendment right to bear arms, making gun-law reform a lot more difficult, she said.
New Zealand’s shock at the terrorist attack has united all mainstream political parties behind the government’s push to tighten gun laws. The main opposition National Party welcomed today’s announcement, and the farmers’ lobby group said while some would be disappointed, a clampdown was “the responsible path to take.”
Cook is still concerned about the number of proposed exemptions, including access for farmers to semi-automatics, and said she hopes a gun registry will be announced in the next tranche of reforms.
The government estimates there are 13,500 MSSAs in the country. Details of the buyback, which could cost between NZ$100 million and NZ$200 million ($140 million), are still being finalized, Ardern said.
In its response to the mosque shootings New Zealand has looked to Australia, which acted quickly to tighten gun laws after the 1996 Port Arthur massacre left 35 dead.
Prime Minister John Howard’s government pushed through legislation that banned certain semi-automatic weapons and introduced new licensing rules. A national firearms registry was established, and the government bought back and destroyed 640,000 civilian-owned guns.
Televised images from the time show truckloads of weapons being dumped.
After the reforms, the total number of homicides involving a firearm decreased by half, and the number of gun-related deaths also fell. The changes have been credited with all but ending mass shootings in the country.
Samara McPhedran, director of the Homicide Research Unit at Griffith University in Australia, said the measures announced by New Zealand aren’t as tough as Australia’s response.
“Australia essentially banned all semi-automatic firearms, both sporting configuration and military configuration,” she said in an emailed statement. “Australia also banned pump-action shotguns. New Zealand’s changes do not go anywhere near that far.”
Ardern said she was confident the reforms would have a similar effect and close the gap between the two countries on gun regulation.
New Zealand’s homicide rate is well below the global average, but gun ownership has risen in the past decade to become one of the world’s highest rates per capita. The government said today there are an estimated 1.2 million to 1.5 million firearms in the country, which has a population of just under 5 million people.
The terrorist attack stunned New Zealand, a peaceful nation in the South Pacific where gun violence is relatively rare. There has been an outpouring of grief and emotion as the country struggles to comprehend how something so abhorrent could occur.
“On 15 March our history changed forever; now our laws will too,” Ardern said. “To owners who have legitimate uses for their guns, I want to reiterate that the actions being announced today are not because of you, and are not directed at you. Our actions, on behalf of all New Zealanders, are directed at making sure this never happens again.”
(Updates with academic comment in 7th and 15th paragraphs.)
--With assistance from Jason Scott.
To contact the reporters on this story: Tracy Withers in Wellington at firstname.lastname@example.org;Matthew Brockett in Wellington at email@example.com
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