March 16, 2019 / 7:32 AM / 6 months ago

New Zealand pledges reforms as relaxed gun laws scrutinized

MELBOURNE (Reuters) - New Zealand is normally peaceful and calm - and has plenty of guns.

New Zealand’s reputation as a laid-back and safe country, where even police are mostly unarmed, belies easy access to weapons and a private firearm ownership rate among the highest in the world.

That has been thrown into the spotlight by the killing of 49 people by a shooter rampaging through two Christchurch mosques with an arsenal of high-powered guns.

It has prompted an immediate promise of stricter gun laws from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who said that the mosque attacker was a licensed gun owner and that five firearms were used during the rampage, including two semi-automatic weapons and two shotguns.

The weapons also appeared to have been modified, Ardern told reporters in Christchurch on Saturday.

“That’s a challenge that we will look to address in changing our laws,” she said.

Rules in New Zealand require gun owners to be licensed, but unlike neighboring Australia, laws do not require all weapons to be registered, giving authorities poor oversight of the country’s firearms, according to GunPolicy.org.

“The police don’t have a clue how many guns there really are in New Zealand,” said Philip Alpers, an Australia-based expert in gun laws and director of GunPolicy.org.

He said New Zealand, with a population of just under 5 million, had an estimated 1.5 million firearms.

Military-style semi-automatic rifles, banned in neighboring Australia, are permitted in New Zealand but must be registered.

In Australia, which is seen as culturally similar to New Zealand and has lively farming and hunting communities, the catalyst for outlawing high-powered weapons was the shooting of 35 people at Port Arthur in Tasmania in 1996.

Strict gun law reforms received bipartisan political support at the time and there has not been a mass shooting since. Australia also held a firearms amnesty in 2017 to reduce the number of unregistered guns.

“I think we must be clear that the context of the gun laws between New Zealand and Australia are very different,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Saturday.

“They’re very different as a result of the massacre that occurred in Australia all those years ago. But I tell you, the events of the last 24 hours - it was over 20 years ago but it all comes back ... I can only imagine now how New Zealanders are feeling. I say to them again stay strong.”

Police stand guard after Friday's mosque attacks, outside Masjid Al Noor in Christchurch, New Zealand, March 16, 2019. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

New Zealand’s firearm laws have remained largely unchanged since 1992, though subsequent government reviews have called for reforms.

In New Zealand, police officers don’t routinely carry firearms. The country has historically had a low homicide rate.

New Zealand police said last year that murder rates had dropped to the lowest level in 40 years, with 48 homicides in 2017.

Reporting by Will Ziebell in MELBOURNE; additional reporting by Tom Westbrook and Jonathan Barrett in SYDNEY; Editing by Gerry Doyle

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