From Aramoana to Christchurch: A Shorthand of New Zealand’s Relationship With Guns

Nearly 30 years ago, a mass shooting in a small town reshaped how New Zealand regulates gun ownership. The attack in Christchurch could have a similar effect.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern meets representatives of the Muslim community at Canterbury refugee center in Christchurch.
Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand's prime minister, has promised to toughen the country's gun-ownership laws. (Reuters)

On a Tuesday in November 1990, the sleepy town of Aramoana was burned into New Zealand's collective consciousness.

The 13 residents killed in a gun rampage that shocked the nation were, until Friday’s attacks in Christchurch, victims of the country’s worst-ever mass shooting, one that opened a widespread reevaluation of New Zealand’s relationship with firearms. All subsequent gun debates here have been guided by the tragic events in Aramoana and their soul-searching aftermath.

Nearly three decades later, another horrific event is having a similar effect. The terrorist attack on two Christchurch mosques has focused international attention on this faraway country, seen as an idyllic place that is both geographically and emotionally separate from much of the world’s tumult. Domestically, it has exposed an attitude to gun ownership in New Zealand that experts argue has become increasingly lax, with the government set to discuss changes to the country’s gun laws on Monday. “I can tell you one thing right now,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told journalists in the wake of the shooting. “Our gun laws will change.”

It echoes the legacy of Aramoana. Mass shootings demand that all countries consider the role of firearms in the hands of their civilians. Some, such as Britain and Australia—victims of mass shootings in Hungerford in 1987 and Port Arthur in 1996, respectively—chose to clamp down on gun ownership, demanding that rigorous checks be fulfilled in order to grant access to firearms. After Aramoana, New Zealanders have chosen a path that focuses on regulation, with only selective prohibition. Legislation passed in 1992 amended the 1983 Arms Act, placing restrictions on the sale of military-style semiautomatic (MSSA) rifles and introducing 10-year limits for firearm licenses, requiring that holders reapply in order to maintain legal access to their armories.

Crucially, instead of trying to control the movements and sales of guns themselves, the New Zealand approach focuses on granting a firearms license to only those individuals whom the police consider 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 license, allowing the license holder to own and operate “any number of sporting-type rifles and shotguns,” provided that 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 civilians would be granted a firearms license—self-defense is not an acceptable justification. Only endorsed members of pistol clubs can get a B license, which allows access to pistols; ownership of MSSA rifles, often used in mass shootings, requires an elusive E license.

Yet while the country’s close relationship with guns has been tested by these regulations, it certainly hasn’t been 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 is 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 able to estimate only 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 were 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 might 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 prohibiting them, 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 the forces 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.

While guns were, for many years, primarily sold alongside gear for outdoor pursuits such as camping equipment and fishing rods, hidden in the margins, Cook believes they are slowly becoming more visible through the rise of Gun City—“The World’s Largest Gun Store,” according to its tagline—and other specialist firearms retailers. “Gun City has been a real step change in terms of selling guns in New Zealand,” she argues.

In the years since the events in Aramoana stunned New Zealanders, many here believed their country had found a way to balance a historically gun-toting society with the need for sensible, secure 21st-century firearms regulation. Now the illusion has been shattered, the scars of that debate have been ripped open once more, and Christchurch can replace Aramoana as shorthand for the worst of the country’s complex relationship with firearms.