New Zealand: Massacre puts spotlight on gun laws

Last Updated 18 March 2019, 08:57 IST

New Zealand's gun laws are under intense scrutiny in the wake of the Christchurch mosque massacres, with the arms dealer who supplied guns to the killer saying he feels no responsibility for the tragedy.

The slaughter by an avowed white supremacist of 50 Muslims last Friday stunned the usually peaceful, isolated country, casting a spotlight on the ease with which the accused killer, Australian Brenton Tarrant, legally purchased the semi-automatic weapons he used.

"We can't ignore the galling fact he came to New Zealand to buy firearms he couldn't get in Australia," Police Association president Chris Cahill said.

As the bodies were being readied for return to the families on Monday for burial, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said her cabinet had decided unanimously to tighten gun laws, with details to be announced within a week.

She has said the measures could include a ban on some semi-automatic rifles and a weapons buy-back scheme.

At present, anyone over the age of 16 and considered to be "fit and proper to possess firearms" can get a general A-category licence in New Zealand.

This allows them to buy firearms including the AR-15 which was reportedly used by the Christchurch gunman and is frequently the weapon of choice in mass killings in the United States.

According to New Zealand police data from 2017, the year Tarrant obtained his licence, there were 43,509 applications for a firearms licence with a 99.6 percent approval rate.

Cahill called for a ban on easily-modified semi-automatic weapons and the creation of a national gun registry.

"As it stands now, we have no idea who's buying weapons and where they're keeping them or how many they have in New Zealand," he said.

David Tipple, whose Gun City company sold four weapons online to Tarrant, said there was nothing illegal about the sale.

Tarrant was "a brand new purchaser with a brand new licence. It was an ordinary sale", he said.

Asked if he felt any sense of responsibility for Friday's tragedy, Tipple said: "No, I do not."

He added he would continue to sell weapons to anyone with the same credentials as the gunman.

The last time New Zealand carried out serious gun reforms was after a mass shooting at Aramoana near Dunedin in 1990.

Gunman David Gray, armed with a semi-automatic rifle, killed 13 people including children following an argument with a neighbour.

Laws on gun ownership were tightened in the wake of that attack but attempts to push through further reform in 2005, 2012 and 2017 were unsuccessful.

Now even the advertising of weapons is in question, with anger focussed on Gun City's billboard on a busy highway showing a man teaching two children how to shoot.

"It absolutely staggers me that a sign like that is allowed to be put out, advertising guns with a couple of kids," said Richard Griffiths, whose medical practice is near the Linwood Mosque where seven were killed.

Advocates for semi-automatic weapons argue against a total ban, saying the arms are needed for mass culls in areas overrun with pests such as deer and wild goats.

Andrew Taylor, owner of Shooters Supplies on the western outskirts of Christchurch, closed his store for the weekend after the shootings and has removed large-capacity magazines as well as AR-15s and similar weapons from the shelves.

The semi-automatic weapons he sold were usually bought by "helicopter guys shooting pests, deer and out of control goats from choppers", he said.

About 250,000 people possess firearms licences in the country of under five million people, with conservative estimates suggesting a total of 1.5 million weapons.

This equates to three guns for every 10 people, well below the US ratio of more than one weapon per person but higher than neighbouring Australia, where gun ownership was slashed in reforms following the 1996 Port Arthur massacre in which 35 people died.

Following Friday's shooting, the Kiwi Gun Blog Facebook page was flooded with messages fearing responsible gun owners would be unfairly punished.

In an open letter to Ardern, an organisation calling itself Shooterslottery demanded a public inquiry to determine whether the massacre was a failure of police, security services, the arms legislation or "the unpredictable actions of a monster".

"It concerns us greatly that you are rushing to institute changes to the Arms Act. More so that this is being done in back rooms, by unknown people and without public consultation. That is not democracy," the letter said.

Other gun owners argued for their rights to be unfettered, but agreed there was no need for military-style semi-automatic weapons in New Zealand.

(Published 18 March 2019, 08:46 IST)

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