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In New Zealand, broad support for ban on assault weapons following massacre

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 3/21/2019 Anna Fifield
 
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CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand — It has not even been a week since a gunman spouting anti-immigrant hate stormed into two mosques here, killing 50 people and changing New Zealand forever. The funerals have only just started.

Yet New Zealand has moved with astonishing speed to prevent this kind of mass shooting from ever happening again.

Six days after the shootings, politicians from across the spectrum and many lobby groups associated with gun use rallied around the government’s decision to ban semiautomatic weapons as well as the accessories that can convert lower-caliber guns into military-style assault weapons. People who own these weapons will be required to surrender them in a buyback program, and owners who fail to do so will face fines and prison time.

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“There is a general recognition that we don’t need these military-style weapons in New Zealand, so it’s very easy to win cross-party support for this,” said Mark Mitchell, who was defense minister in the previous, center-right government and who supports the ban initiated by the center-left-led Labour Party.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who has earned plaudits across the country and the world for her compassionate and swift response to the shootings, announced Thursday that the government is banning “military-style semiautomatics” — defined as semiautomatic guns capable of being used with a detachable magazine that holds more than five cartridges. Parts and accessories that can be used to convert less-powerful guns into military-style weapons are also banned, along with all high-capacity magazines.

The Australian man accused of carrying out last Friday’s attacks had five guns, two of which had been modified into assault rifles, essentially making them military-style weapons, police said.

Jacinda Ardern looking at the camera: Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand's prime minister, speaks during a news conference in Wellington, New Zealand, on Thursday, March 21, 2019. © Mark Coote/Bloomberg Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand's prime minister, speaks during a news conference in Wellington, New Zealand, on Thursday, March 21, 2019.

“The time for the easy availability of these weapons must end, and today it will,” Ardern said at a news conference Thursday afternoon, using her power to create rules under existing legislation to put the ban into immediate effect. “In short, every semiautomatic weapon used in the terrorist attack on Friday will be banned in this country.”

Ardern said the ban takes effect immediately to prevent the stockpiling of firearms while legislation to make it permanent is being drafted.

New Zealand is a farming nation where guns are often used for controlling pests, or recreationally for hunting and sport. There are as many as 1.5 million guns in the country — one for every three people.

Ardern acknowledged that there are legitimate reasons for people in farming communities to have guns, so exceptions were made for .22-caliber rifles and for shotguns commonly used for duck and rabbit hunting. But these guns can have magazines that hold no more than 10 rounds.

There will be narrow exemptions for professional pest control, and for the police and defense forces.

But Thursday’s decision amounts to a total ban on the kind of weapons that were used in Christchurch — and in mass-casualty shootings in the United States, such as in Parkland, Fla., Orlando and Las Vegas.

Among gun-control advocates in the United States, there was immediate admiration that New Zealand was able to act so quickly and decisively, and frustration that American lawmakers have not been able to institute even the smallest of gun-control measures, even after 20 first-graders were killed in their Connecticut school in 2012.

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“This is what real action to stop gun violence looks like,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) tweeted after Ardern’s announcement.

There are some distinct differences about New Zealand’s system.

For one, there is no equivalent of the Second Amendment here. In fact, anyone who wanted a gun for self-defense would be denied a gun license. People who want guns must go through a vetting process and obtain a license first. Even at shooting ranges, it is highly unusual to see a human figure as a target.

Second, the scale of the attacks was like nothing New Zealand has ever seen before. The worst mass shooting before Friday occurred in Dunedin in 1990, when a gunman killed 13.

And, crucially, New Zealand has a unicameral Parliament, where only a simple majority is required to pass legislation.

“It’s easier to do here because we have a different type of democracy,” said Paul Buchanan, a former American intelligence analyst who has lived in New Zealand for the last 20 years. “There are so many veto points in the United States, and that’s part of the problem. It allows the lobbyists to come in at any one of the veto points,” he said.

Legislation to make the ban permanent will be introduced in Parliament in the first week of April. It is assured of passage, given that the coalition government and its supporters have 63 of the 120 seats. Still, the leader of the main opposition National Party, which has 55 seats, pledged his support for the legislation as well.

The lone critic is David Seymour, the only sitting member of the libertarian Act Party. He supports the ban in principle; he simply objects to the rush.

The new law is expected to be in place by April 11.

Aside from Seymour’s objection, there is no tangible concern about the government using its powers to expedite the legislation.

“It has hit home because New Zealand is so horrified by what has happened, and also because there is a consensus that we should have done this ages ago,” said Andrew Geddis, a law professor at the University of Otago. In addition, he said, “New Zealand has a tolerance for strong government action to achieve social goals, which is probably different to that which exists in the United States.”

Ardern announced an amnesty and buyback program to encourage owners of guns that are now banned to surrender their weapons.

Current penalties for possessing guns illegally include fines of up to $2,700 or three years in jail, but Ardern said she planned to increase these as part of the process.

a group of people sitting in front of a crowd: Locals look on during the vigil held at Forsyth Barr Stadium on March 21, 2019 in Dunedin. © Dianne Manson/Getty Images Locals look on during the vigil held at Forsyth Barr Stadium on March 21, 2019 in Dunedin.

Because the government does not have a gun registry, it is not sure how many weapons fall into the banned categories now, although it estimates that there are about 13,500 of these firearms in the country and that it would cost between 100 million and 200 million New Zealand dollars ($70 million and $140 million) to purchase them from their owners.

From mid-April, only people who have a special “E” category of gun license — a group of only 7,500 people nationwide — will be allowed to own military-style weapons. Ardern told people not to bother trying to obtain an E license. “My advice to them is that they’re wasting their time,” she said.

Interest groups including Fish and Game, the agency that regulates bird hunting, and Federated Farmers, an agricultural organization, supported the ban. Major retailers had already pulled all military-style semiautomatic firearms from sale nationwide.

Only the Council of Licensed Firearms Owners, a small lobbying group, said the ban was not needed.

By moving so quickly, Ardern made it impossible for the group to put up much of a fight, said Buchanan. “Because the country is still in shock, the prime minister caught the gun lobby when they are on the back foot,” he said.

New Zealand’s actions echo those taken by Australia after the Port Arthur massacre in 1996, when a gunman killed 35 people in half an hour with military-style assault weapons.

Australia’s prime minister at the time, John Howard, introduced sweeping gun-control legislation 12 days later.

“I knew that I had to use the authority of my office to curb the possession and use of the type of weapons that killed 35 innocent people,” Howard wrote in the New York Times in 2013.

Howard banned semiautomatic and assault-style weapons and implemented a buyback plan under which owners of these guns were required to surrender them. The Australian government collected and destroyed about 650,000 weapons, mainly rifles and shotguns, at a cost of 500 million Australian dollars.

There was very little grumbling about the cost, which was met by adding $15 to the Medicare bill of each Australian taxpayer.

And there is widespread recognition that it worked. The death rate from guns fell from 2.9 per 100,000 people in 1996 to 0.9 two decades later.

Although Ardern’s actions appear swift, this is an issue that has been debated in New Zealand for several decades.

a person sitting on a leaf: A person places a fern on the ground with others during a vigil to remember victims of the Christchurch mosque attacks, on March 21, 2019 in Christchurch, New Zealand. © Carl Court/Getty Images A person places a fern on the ground with others during a vigil to remember victims of the Christchurch mosque attacks, on March 21, 2019 in Christchurch, New Zealand.

In 1997, a year after the Port Arthur massacre, a government inquiry came up with 60 recommendations to tighten gun control, including banning semiautomatic firearms. The Police Association, the police officers’ union, has also been pushing for this ban for years.

But little changed, in part because there was no catalyst. Friday’s mass shooting provided one.

“What New Zealand has done is take it in one fell swoop right up to the Australian standard, which is the global standard,” said Philip Alpers, a gun-control expert at the University of Sydney.

“But,” he added, “only in one aspect — New Zealand still has a glaring loophole in its lack of registry.”

The Police Association and other gun-control advocates have further steps in mind, including the establishment of a registration system for individual weapons, not just owners.

Ardern has signaled that she plans to introduce that next.

anna.fifield@washpost.com

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