Asia-Pacific

'New Zealanders deserved better gun laws': Could NZ have emulated Australia's gun-control policy?

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In the wake of the 1996 Port Arthur massacre, then-Prime Minister John Howard worked quickly to change Australia's gun-laws. Now, New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has vowed to do the same.

Mostly viewed as a progressive and safe nation, experts say Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s vow to change New Zealand’s gun laws has been a long time coming.

New Zealander and national deputy director of the Australian Institute of International Affairs, Dr Bryce Wakefield was in his twenties during Australia’s Port Arthur massacre in 1996.

"It’s easy in 20/20 hindsight to say this, but I think gun laws in NZ have long needed to be much tighter whether the impetus from that came from Port Arthur or some other incident - or simply the fact that we as New Zealanders deserved better gun laws," Dr Wakefield told SBS News.

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Jacinda Ardern addresses the media on Christchurch attack
Jacinda Ardern addresses the media on Christchurch attack

"Port Arthur could have acted as a point of discussion in New Zealand, but it never did. There was certainly discussion after Port Arthur, but the laws were not changed."

In New Zealand, there is an estimated 1.5 million firearms.

This roughly divides to one firearm for every three citizens.

While this rate is incomparable to other countries with ‘relaxed’ gun control such as the United States, it is a startling statistic for a nation which has had rare encounters with gun violence.

"It [Port Arthur] was obviously something that New Zealanders watched closely; I mean we are a similar country to Australia. But it was considered something that happened overseas," Dr Wakefield said.

"Tasmania seems far away from New Zealand. There wasn’t a great rush to strengthen our gun laws in New Zealand on the basis of something that happened in a different country."

Prior to the mass shooting in Christchurch on Friday, New Zealand’s deadliest shooting occurred in 1990, in the rural town of Aramoana.

A gunman killed 13 people following a dispute between neighbours.

"There have been attempts every year to re-write gun legislation and they’ve generally not been taken up by parliament, or [the attempt] fizzled out when they have been [taken up by MPs]," Dr Wakefield said.

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World leaders condemn the Christchurch terror attack
World leaders condemn the Christchurch terror attack

"Guns have not traditionally been a problem in crime in New Zealand - but increasingly this is the case."

According to Dr Wakefield, New Zealand never had a compelling reason to push for reform.

"One of the problems for gun control advocates in New Zealand is that you have a strong minority group that supports weaker gun laws, or the gun laws as they are. [On the other hand] you have an urban-based population that doesn’t really see gun control as affecting [them] so much - because it never has," Dr Wakefield said.

"That may well change after this incident."

The mass shooting in Christchurch at two mosques claimed the lives of 49 people.

It has sparked a momentum for gun reform, with Prime Minister Ardern announcing New Zealand’s laws "will change".

"Whatever opposition or resistance to gun control in New Zealand that there was, and there was opposition…will be greatly reduced no doubt," said Dr Wakefield.

"Particularly surrounding automatic and semi-automatic weapons - which are already restricted in New Zealand."

Some speculate that Ms Ardern may look to New Zealand’s closest neighbor for a legislative gun-control approach.

With Australia touted as having the ‘gold-standard’ of gun-control legislation enforced under the Howard government, Dr Wakefield said New Zealand "can look to Australia to see what happened in the wake of Port Arthur to formulate more sensible gun regulation".

Noting the island nations have different political circumstances, Dr Wakefield told SBS News that: "New Zealand will have to do what’s best for New Zealand".

"Australia will probably be the country that [New Zealand] looks to most, given [New Zealand] is most similar to Australia," he said.

"Australia’s gun control legislation has been very successful - no doubt New Zealand will look to Australia to emulate that success."

Additional reporting: AAP

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