Gun Control Efforts Have Stalled, One Year After the Christchurch Mosque Killings

Recoiling from Gun Control SEAN GLADWELL/Getty

On March 15, 2019, a gunman walked into two Muslim places of worship in Christchurch, New Zealand, and shot 51 people dead. He started at the Al Noor Mosque, continued to the Linwood Islamic Center and was merciless; the youngest of his victims was 3 years old, the oldest 77. Forty-nine people were injured.

Police found five guns at the scene—two semi-automatic weapons, two shotguns and a lever-action firearm. The alleged gunman Brenton Tarrant, a 28-year-old Australian, had acquired a New Zealand gun license in November 2017, and had collected these weapons legally.

New Zealand's political response was swift. Briana Spainhour, 20, regional organizing director for the student-led March for Our Lives movement formed in the wake of the killings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, said: "It took just days there to do something that in America we have been working on my entire life."

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern Hagen Hopkins/Getty

Within a week, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that all military-style semi-automatic and assault rifles would be banned. On April 10, every lawmaker in New Zealand's parliament bar one, voted for the first of two rounds of changes to the country's gun laws, which banned semi-automatic firearms, magazines and parts. In June, a six-month amnesty and buyback scheme was announced as was a second round of legislation that includes a gun registry intended to let police keep tabs on all of the estimated 1.5 million weapons in the country.

Philippa Yasbek, co-founder of lobbying group Gun Control NZ, says, "Obviously no buyback is going to get every firearm out of the community, but doing it makes quite a big difference to overall safety." She adds that the arms narrative in New Zealand has been rewritten: "Gun ownership is not actually a private matter because gun ownership affects everybody—not just the people that own them."

But after a weapon is fired comes the recoil. The nearly unanimous support Ardern had in the aftermath of the massacre has now faded, and both the New Zealand gun lobby and Ardern's political opposition have taken issue with the country's gun-control legislation, including the proposed gun registry.

After Christchurch, New Zealand had followed a blueprint for fast action written in Australia. Strict gun-control measures following the Port Arthur massacre in Tasmania which killed 35 in 1996 restricted access to firearms for Australians and 650,000 weapons were turned in. Between 1979 and 1996, there had been 13 fatal mass shootings in the country. After the gun-law reforms, there have been two.

Alexander Gillespie, professor of international law at the University of Waikato in Hamilton, New Zealand, says the post-Christchurch legislation "was rushed through very quickly," but that "if you have ever had a time of urgency, this was it, because New Zealand had never had a massacre like that before."

This decisiveness was popular. In April 2019, less than a month after the massacre, 61 percent of Kiwis agreed with the new laws, and a further 19 percent said they did not go far enough, according to a survey by New Zealand pollsters Colmar Brunton. "The scale of the massacre that happened was not just large by New Zealand standards, it was big by international standards, and so in terms of having to act quickly because something terrible had happened, the measures fitted the bill," Gillespie says.

An Auckland police officer during an amnesty and weapons buyback program Phil Walter/Getty

Chris Cahill, president of the New Zealand Police Association, agrees that momentum was key to implementing a buyback scheme, with law enforcement overseeing 600 collection events before a December 20 deadline, at a cost to the taxpayer of $NZ 102 million ($64 million). He says New Zealand "certainly is safer—56,000 firearms have been handed in, another 3,000 modified, these are the most dangerous. These are semi-automatic assault rifles, the vast majority, the most serious and most dangerous of weapons, so on any measure that has to have made New Zealand safer even if we can disagree on how many are still out there."

That number remains in question. A 2019 government-commissioned assessment by consulting firm KPMG estimated that the number of now-banned guns still in private hands in New Zealand could be between 50,000 and 170,000.

And not everyone is happy about the buyback. The Council of Licensed Firearms Owners (COLFO), which represents some of New Zealand's estimated 250,000 legal firearms owners says that the buyback scheme did not fairly compensate people who handed in guns and demonized law-abiding owners. According to COLFO spokeswoman Nicole McKee,"Right up to three weeks before the end of the compensation period, they were still adding things to be banned and not really getting that information out to people. We expect that there are still quite a large number of law-abiding people that are in possession of prohibited items and are not aware of it."

She adds, "It is not that COLFO are against this, it is that we are for effective change for good outcomes."

Phil Cregeen, secretary of the Sporting Shooters Association of New Zealand, is angry that the buyback targeted weapons other than military style semi-automatics and says many owners who handed in guns did not receive fair compensation. Payments ranged from 95 percent of retail price for new or near-new weapons to 25 percent for those in poor condition.

"The reforms currently proposed by the government are not evidence based, but appear to be based on an agenda driven by political ideology," Creegan says, adding "Many of our members feel victimized at being used as scapegoats for an act of terrorism in an attempt by government to cover up its failings that allowed the attack to occur."

New Zealand gun licenses are granted for 10 years to any applicant deemed "fit and proper" by the police. There are no limits to how many "A Category" firearms, which covers most legal rifles and shotguns, a licensee can own. The category once included the AR-15 that Tarrant allegedly used. The proposed gun registry is intended as a way to keep track of all the weapons in the country, not just the individual owners. The government has argued that a registry would be central to any meaningful change. COLFO, however, opposes it. "We want the registration gone," says McKee, "We are seriously concerned about the safety and security of firearms owners by having a registration that is able to be breached," she added, pointing to a data breach in December when details about gun owners in the buyback scheme were briefly made public online.

For the Arms Legislation Bill to pass the 60-vote threshold in the 120-seat parliament, it needs the support of the New Zealand First party which is in coalition with Ardern's Labour Party. NZ First leader Winston Peters, whose deal with Labour brought Ardern into power in 2017, is known for playing his cards close to his chest and once again holds Ardern's future in his hands.

The Al Noor Mosque in Christchurch where 51 people were killed in 2019 Tessa Burrows/Getty

The upcoming anniversary of the Christchurch killings is likely to refocus public attention and emotion on guns. Ardern faces re-election in September, and gun reform is likely to be a campaign issue. A Royal Commission of Inquiry into the tragedy will file its report at the end of April.

Meanwhile, the prime minister has been trying to maintain the sense of urgency about gun control that united her nation last year. In a recently unclassified government paper, Ardern said New Zealand was now at "greater risk" of another terrorist attack and called for more money to boost to counterterrorism efforts aimed at "preventing such a tragedy occurring again."