The shootings that killed at least 49 people at two mosques in New Zealand on Friday have placed new scrutiny on New Zealand’s gun laws and sparked a fervent debate about whether they were a factor in the gunman’s decision to carry out his attack there.
Only hours after the massacre,Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern indicated that she will push for tighter gun control.
‘‘I can tell you right now, our gun laws will change,’’ she said, adding that the circumstances under which the alleged shooter acquired the license he has held since November 2017 would be investigated. ‘‘Now is the time for change.’’
She said that the ‘‘primary perpetrator’’ in the mosque shootings was a licensed gun owner and legally acquired the five guns used in the shootings.
In New Zealand, civilians hold around 1.5 million firearms, averaging out to approximately one gun per three people in a country of around 5 million. By comparison, American civilians are estimated to own nearly 400 million firearms, or about 120 per 100 people.
Police have described the gunman as a man in his late 20s and officials have said he was an Australian citizen, which has led to comparisons between gun laws in that country and in New Zealand.
While New Zealand’s laws governing the purchase of semiautomatic rifles are more restrictive than those in the United States, the country is much freer with firearms than Australia is, allowing most guns to be purchased without requiring them to be tracked.
“New Zealand is almost alone with the United States in not registering 96 percent of its firearms — and those are its most common firearms, the ones most used in crimes,” said Philip Alpers of GunPolicy.org, a clearinghouse for gun law data worldwide. “There are huge gaps in New Zealand law, even if some of its laws are strong.”
In the years since a gunman killed 35 people in Port Arthur, Tasmania, in 1996, Australia has embarked on one of the world’s most expansive efforts to rid a society of gun violence. Officials significantly strengthened gun laws, severely restricted semiautomatic weapons and engaged in a buyback program that took more than 650,000 firearms off the streets.
The gun laws in New Zealand are more layered and do not fit easily into a pro- or anti-gun rubric.
Semiautomatic rifles and handguns, for example, require special licenses; a person can only buy one semiautomatic weapon at a time.
“The police will look very askance at you if you want four or five of them,” Alpers said. “It gets harder and harder if you want more and more.”
Still, Alpers said, it is possible to obtain a large cache of weapons — either by acting alone or if more than one person is purchasing.
As the law stands now, any person age 16 or older with an entry-level firearm license can keep any number of common rifles and shotguns without an official record of those guns being kept.
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.
Still, the country has generally been safe from gun massacres. Its last mass shooting, which left 13 people dead, was in 1990 — and it led to tighter rules around semiautomatic weapons.
Alpers predicted that lawmakers would work to make guns harder to obtain.
“This will certainly change things in New Zealand,” he said. “I can’t think of a country that’s more likely to change its gun laws after something like this.”Material from the Associated Press and The Washington Post was used in this report.