New Zealand prime minister: "Our gun laws will change" after terror attack on mosques

She doesn’t know how yet, but no politician worries much about the rights of the law-abiding during the spasm of grief after a terror attack. Usually not much after the spasm subsides either.

The best primer on New Zealand gun laws that I’ve found online today is the BBC’s. To put the scale of this morning’s massacre in perspective, click here for last year’s report from the New Zealand police on homicide statistics and scroll down to page 12. Between 2007 and 2016, in a country of nearly five million people, with an estimated 1.2 million guns in circulation, there were 65 murders by firearm. Not quite seven per year on average for the entirety of New Zealand. All told, just one in 10 homicides was caused by a gun, far lower than the rate caused by stabbing/cutting weapons.

So, on the one hand, New Zealand sustained nearly as many gun murders last night as it typically sustains in a decade. On the other, despite the high number of weapons per capita, this is not a nation with anything like a systemic gun-violence problem. From the BBC:

The minimum legal age to own a gun in New Zealand is 16, or 18 for military-style semi-automatic weapons. Anyone over those ages who is considered by police to be “fit and proper” can possess a firearm.

All gun-owners must have a licence, but most individual weapons don’t have to be registered. New Zealand is one of the few countries where this is the case.

In order to own a gun legally, applicants for a firearm licence must pass a background check of criminal and medical records. Factors like mental health, addiction and domestic violence should be considered…

While most guns don’t have to be registered, a special application does have to be made to police to own military-style semi-automatic weapons, pistols, or other restricted firearms.

There’s no limit to the number of guns one can own. The Times adds another detail: “Most of the guns in circulation can be sold on the internet or through ads in newspapers, and the most popular types of firearms can lawfully change hands in private homes or even hotel parking lots with no requirement that a record of the transaction be kept.” Just from that precis, you can imagine the places lawmakers might start tightening the screws. They could create a national registry for weapons; they could institute background checks for all purchases; they could limit the number of weapons any individual can own; and/or they could increase the legal requirements for a license to own semiautomatic rifles or start banning certain “assault weapons.” “Both police and firearms enthusiasts noted that a rifle could be transformed into a [military-style semiautomatic rifle] simply by adding a larger-capacity magazine,” reports the Guardian, noting how easy it is to evade NZ laws requiring higher scrutiny of military-style weapons.

The nuclear option, of course, is to ban semiautomatic rifles (and pistols?) altogether. The mosque shooter carried two with him this morning, as well as two shotguns and a fifth weapon. The same Guardian story notes a relevant bit of history: “In 1997, a review of New Zealand gun laws commissioned by police officials recommended that [military-style semiautomatic] rifles be banned and subject to a mandatory buyback” although the recommendation was never adopted. The timing there is revealing. It was just a year earlier, in 1996, in the wake of the Port Arthur massacre that Australia implemented its famous national gun ban replete with mandatory buybacks. New Zealand authorities probably figured at the time that their nation, sharing a region, a language, and (to some extent) a culture with the Aussies, might become a destination for Australian would-be mass shooters who found themselves stymied by the new laws in their home country. This morning’s shooter is, in fact, Australian, not a New Zealander. “If he went to New Zealand to commit these crimes,” said one gun-law expert to the NYT, β€œone can assume that the ease of obtaining these firearms may have been a factor in his decision to commit the crime in Christchurch.” The shooter’s alive and may admit as much to police. If he does, that may be the end of semiautomatics in New Zealand, never mind that more than 20 years had passed since the Aussie ban without a mass-shooting incident in New Zealand.