Australia has had no mass shootings since the 1996 massacre in Tasmania. Not one. New Zealand has much to learn from Australian gun laws, an expert says.
US late night talk show host John Oliver took a short break from poking fun at New Zealand this week to praise the country for its collective strength in responding to the Christchurch tragedy.
A few years earlier Oliver extracted the michael from the US pro-gun lobby over its mantra that gun control doesn’t work – except of course for that one time that it did, in Australia.
If Oliver took a closer look at New Zealand he might find fresh satirical fodder, because when it comes to gun laws we’re an extremely poor cousin of our Aussie neighbours.
On the 28th of April 1996 the course of Australian history was changed when a shooter went on the rampage at Port Arthur, Tasmania, murdering 35 people and wounding many more. A mere 12 days later Australia agreed on sweeping gun law reforms, with the bulk of the new legislation devised, drafted, debated and implemented within three months.
At that time New Zealand had the opportunity to make similar changes, Sydney-based gun safety expert Philip Alpers says. We were represented at that May 10 special meeting of the Australasian Police Ministers Council, but were the only stand-out against the comprehensive changes. “That decision was directly responsible for what happened in Christchurch,” he says.
Since introducing much tighter gun laws there have been no mass shootings in Australia. There were 13 in the 18 years prior to Port Arthur. The number of gun deaths each year has plummeted from 685 in 1979 to 238 in 2016. Australia’s rate of gun homicide is now 25 times lower than the United States.
Numbers of deaths from firearms in New Zealand has also been on the decline, but at nowhere near the same rate. After the 1990 Aramoana tragedy in which 13 people died legislative reforms were made, such as the introduction of a special ‘E’ category license to cover military-style semi-automatic (MSSA) weapons, and certainly the toll fell – 140 people died from gunshots in 1988, compared with 55 in 2015. But the terrible truth is that Friday’s attack in Christchurch will cause a shocking spike in New Zealand’s annual gun deaths, very probably doubling the 2019 toll to over 100.
Jacinda Ardern is moving swiftly to capitalise on the moment and overhaul the nation’s gun laws, promising details of reforms which she says have been unanimously agreed by Cabinet within the next few days.
There is much New Zealand can learn from Australia’s post-Port Arthur experience, and in some ways it should be easier to affect change, Alpers says. Australia does not have federal gun laws, and the prime minister of the day John Howard had to bang the heads of eight states and territories together to bring them on board. “Queensland and Tasmania were adamantly opposed,” he says. “In the end Howard threatened to strip the states of their right to set their own gun laws. He said ‘I could win the referendum’, because opinion polling was running at 90-95 percent in favour of what he had announced,” Alpers says.
Ardern will be counting on public opinion to pass legislation which may include a ban on semi-automatic weapons and the registering of all firearms.
Anyone with a standard ‘A’ category firearms licence in New Zealand can buy a semi-automatic rifle such as an AR-15 – the weapon the Port Arthur shooter used to kill 20 people in just 90 seconds, and the same firearm allegedly used by the Christchurch terrorist.
New Zealand authorities have no idea how many guns there are in the country because we don’t register most of them. Kiwis do not need to prove they have a genuine reason for owning a firearm, weapons can be sold on auction sites or out of the boot of a car with impunity, and gun owners are re-vetted by police just once every 10 years.
In contrast, John Howard’s National Firearms Agreement prevented the general Australian public from owning MSSAs and semi-automatic rifles. The government put in place an extensive buy-back scheme taking 700,000 weapons out of circulation.
It introduced registration for all firearms, and the requirement that all licence applicants establish a genuine reason for why they need a gun – meaning many need to join an approved shooting club.
Anyone wanting anything other than a standard category A firearm must show that they have a special need for it. Owners have to get a permit for every new gun they buy, with a 28-day waiting period to enable appropriate checks to be made. The 1996 changes brought in stricter rules around firearms storage, and required that all sales of weapons be conducted through licenced firearms dealers.
Since 1992 New Zealand has had several gos at changing its gun laws, with minimal success. The biggest push was in 1997 with the year-long, million-dollar Thorp report by retired High Court judge Sir Thomas Thorp.
The report’s 60 recommendations included registering all guns, a buy-back of MSSAs, three-year vetting of owners, making it clear that self-defence is not a legitimate reason for owning a firearm, and limiting sales of ammunition to the types of guns the buyer is licenced to own. None of these recommendations were adopted.
In 2019 nothing less than finally accepting the Thorp findings will do, Alpers says. “They are the only ones that come close to bringing New Zealand up to Australia’s standard.”
Australia’s laws aren’t perfect, and in the 23 years since Port Arthur states have quietly backslid on some of the regulations, he concedes – some do not enforce the 28-day stand-down period, for example.
In addition the regulations have inadvertently bolstered the might of gun groups, as many Australians are forced to join shooting clubs to prove a genuine reason for owning a firearm. This has guaranteed a multi-million-dollar annual income stream for Australia’s pro-gun lobby, Alpers says.
Unlike other countries that lobby is also entrenched in Australian politics. The Shooters Party occasionally holds the balance of power and brokers small changes that weaken the gun laws. “That happens every year at every election in New South Wales and sometimes it happens in Victoria as well,” he says.
Nevertheless Alpers has examined the gun laws of most jurisdictions around the globe and believes that Australia can provide a template for New Zealand. “When you look at the laws in their entirety, and they cover so many aspects, they’re so complex, some of then run to 120 pages of legislation, France for example, Australia has by far the most comprehensive, the most modern the most holistic suite of gun laws.
“They have enacted gun laws which give them the best chance of avoiding gun mortality and injury of any country in the world.”
Geoff Jones, National President of the Sporting Shooters Association of Australia, says it “isn’t useful” for anyone in Australia to be telling New Zealand how to govern their country.
“We would simply urge New Zealand to be careful about making knee-jerk changes to its firearms laws, which may either have unintended consequences, or simply fail to address the problems you are trying to solve.
“It will be very important to ensure that whatever measures are taken, they are designed to not only be effective in the short term, but have the long-term result of law enforcement resources being used in a way which maximises public safety,” he says.
It’s understood Ardern will reveal her proposed reforms by Monday, a day faster than the 12-day turnaround by Australian politicians following Port Arthur.
Another reason it should be easier for Ardern to move is that she does not have to contend with two houses of parliament as John Howard did, Alpers says.
On the other hand she must garner the support of Labour’s coalition partner New Zealand First or the opposition National Party. NZ First has favoured the gun lobby in the past.
National Party leader Simon Bridges has stated publicly that changes to the gun laws are needed and committed his party to working constructively with the government.
Howard brokered a multi-party agreement, with every party except One Nation getting on board, Alpers says. “If Ardern can broker a deal with National she won’t need New Zealand First. I’m sure New Zealand First are aware of that.”