From Aramoana to Christchurch: A Shorthand of New Zealand’s Relationship With Guns
Crucially, instead of trying to control the movements and sale of guns themselves, the New Zealand approach focuses on granting a firearms licence to only those individuals who the police consider to be to be a “fit and proper person”. Applicants must have no history of violence, drug abuse, or mental health problems, and applications must be supported by their partner or next of kin. Anyone over the age of 16 can apply for a basic A firearms licence, allowing the license holder to own and operate “any number of sporting-type rifles and shotguns” provided they are kept in a “lockable cabinet, container, or receptacle” that needs to be of “stout construction”.
This emphasis on “sporting-type rifles” is critical, and is typically the main reason why civilians would be granted a firearms licence—self-defence is not an acceptable justification. Only endorsed members of pistol clubs can get a B licence, which allows access to pistols, and ownership of MSSA rifles, often used in mass shootings, requires an elusive E licence.
Yet while the country's close relationship with guns has been tested by these regulations, it certainly hasn't broken. Figures from New Zealand’s police show that in October 2018 there were 248,764 active firearms licenses, meaning about 5 percent of the resident population are approved for handling a firearm. Worryingly for authorities, Ardern has confirmed that the primary shooter in the Christchurch terror attack was among those who held a firearms license.
But because license holders just need to register restricted weapons (of which there were 65,837 at last count, the authorities are only able to estimate how many guns are being held by civilians. The police believe there were up to 1.2 million firearms in 2014, and the 2018 Small Arms Survey calculated there to be 26.3 firearms per 100 New Zealand civilians, one of the highest such ratios in the world—comparable to Switzerland, though far short of the United States, where the figure is 120.5.
Some of these rules may soon have to change, argues Alexander Gillespie, a professor of law at the University of Waikato, shifting from licensing the ownership of firearms to outright prohibition, and adding a complete firearms register. “The problem,” he told me, “is that the regulation is not strict enough.”
Guns capture the rural-urban social and political divide here, conspicuous through their absence in major urban areas. Even the question of whether city police forces should carry firearms, as opposed to keeping them secured in their vehicles as they typically do, splits opinion. But in rural communities, hunting with guns remains central to many communities, with wild deer, pigs, and goats among those primarily targeted. These and other invasive species were deliberately introduced by colonists for the explicit purpose of killing for sport, creating a culture of hunting that persists in contemporary society. “'It was part of a vision of New Zealand masculinity,” explains Hera Cook, a historian and researcher into New Zealand firearms policy at the University of Otago.