How New Zealand gun laws changed after the Christchurch massacre

Get the best of Grid in your inbox, every day.

New Zealand’s Christchurch massacre was one of the world’s deadliest mass shootings. Here’s what happened next.

When news broke of shots fired in Christchurch on a Friday afternoon in 2019, a mass killing would not have crossed most reporters’ minds, nor the minds of most New Zealanders. I’d been a journalist for nearly 15 years and had never covered a mass shooting. The last major terrorist attack here happened before I was born.

The reality became clear soon enough. A white supremacist had opened fire on two mosques in Christchurch, killing 51 Muslim worshippers and wounding dozens of others. The terrorist had livestreamed his mass murder.

That afternoon’s coldblooded, racist massacre of men, women and children — the youngest aged 3 — shook New Zealand to its core. And the response of the country and its leaders was driven by one vehement, universally held belief.

“This is not who we are,” Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister, said at a news conference a few hours after the attack. “This act is not a reflection of who we are as a nation.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Ardern’s distress was matched by the public’s. Her words tapped into a conviction among New Zealanders that the attack was an aberration perpetrated by an outsider (the gunman was Australian) against a peaceful, friendly and tolerant place where extremist ideologies were unwelcome.

Over the next three years, that belief — that the attack was “not who we are as a nation” would be tested on occasion. The darkest corners of New Zealand’s society have suggested otherwise, and the country has at times avoided difficult conversations about radicalization, racism and security, deeming them unnecessary or dangerous. Avoiding those conversations has in turn frustrated attempts by survivors and families of the victims to seek transparency and accountability from authorities.

But in the days and weeks that followed March 15, 2019, the country’s shock, grief and shattered innocence would prove a powerful force for change. In a country with a culture of gun ownership and an active gun lobby, the massacre led to an immediate ban on most assault weapons and made it harder to acquire guns. What had been a plodding push for gun control became a rush for change.

Guns and gun laws in New Zealand

Guns have not been hard to obtain in New Zealand. About 250,000 people — 5 percent of New Zealand’s population of 5 million — have gun licenses, and collectively they own an estimated 1.5 million firearms. This is an agricultural, outdoorsy country — guns are popular for farming, hunting, pest control (“pests” here meaning possums or rabbits) and sport. All are legal and valid reasons to seek a license; arming for self-defense is not. That said, growing up in New Zealand’s urban centers, I’d never seen a gun in real life before I visited Australia as a teenager and saw police carrying them. Here, officers usually store their guns in their cars.

It’s not known precisely how many firearms are in circulation here because while gun owners must hold licenses, individual weapons aren’t registered except in some specific cases. Before Christchurch, gun ownership in New Zealand required an application to the police, a training session, written test, two references and a home interview — rules more stringent than in the U.S., to be sure, but once you’d passed, you could basically buy as many guns as you wanted.

ADVERTISEMENT

Later, it emerged that the Christchurch killer was an Australian who had been radicalized online and traveled widely before his 2017 arrival in New Zealand. Investigators learned he had come here precisely because he wanted to plan and commit a terrorist attack. He acquired a firearms license legally and amassed an arsenal of semi-automatic weapons and other equipment. No red flags appeared because he hadn’t broken any laws.

Successive New Zealand governments had ignored recommendations to tighten those laws, despite warnings about how lax they were. After 35 people were murdered in the 1996 Port Arthur massacre in Tasmania, Australia, our nearest neighbors banned the sale of semi-automatic weapons and bought back all such weapons already in circulation. Soon after the Port Arthur tragedy, a former New Zealand judge urged this country’s government to do the same, along with shortening license periods and limiting the number of weapons a person could own.

Between 1999 and 2012, successive governments led by both the center-left Labour Party (which Ardern now leads) and center-right National, the current opposition, failed repeatedly to pass gun law reforms. One former prime minister said it simply hadn’t been a priority. Other lawmakers said both Labour and National shied from reforms for fear of losing rural votes. Some said they came under pressure from New Zealand’s gun lobby.

Whatever the case, for all the attention paid to the Australia massacre, nothing changed in New Zealand.

After Christchurch

This time was different.

ADVERTISEMENT

“I can tell you one thing right now,” Ardern told reporters less than 24 hours after the Christchurch shooting, “our gun laws will change.” On March 21, 2019 — six days after the attack — Ardern announced that not only would her government ban all the weapons used by the gunman, it would outlaw most semi-automatic weapons and assault rifles altogether. The only exceptions were for police, soldiers and professional pest controllers. To avert the stockpiling of weapons before the law went into effect, an interim order limiting their acquisition was put in place minutes before her news release was distributed.

“On 15 March our history changed forever,” Ardern’s announcement said. “Now our laws will too.”

The measures did not go as far as Australia’s 1996 reforms. But it was sweeping change for New Zealand. Penalties for owning a banned weapon would be between two and 10 years in jail. And there would be a six-month amnesty period, Ardern said, during which the government would buy back — or pay to make legal — any prohibited guns.

The response

There wasn’t a lot of public debate about guns in those first days. It didn’t feel like people needed convincing. When crowds showed up for vigils or displays of solidarity, they weren’t talking about guns; it was a collective outpouring of grief and horror at what had happened.

Ardern’s announcement came before most of the victims of the attack had been buried. The next day — the first Friday after the shooting — thousands of people traveled across Christchurch to the park opposite Al Noor, the first mosque the gunman had struck.


The Islamic call to prayer rang out, and Friday prayers that afternoon were broadcast live on New Zealand’s public television and radio stations. In the park, facing the mosque and surrounded by thousands of onlookers, rows of hundreds of Muslims began Jumu’ah — the regular prayers that had been interrupted by gunfire a week earlier.

“This terrorist sought to tear our nation apart with an evil ideology that has torn the world apart,” Imam Gamal Fouda, a survivor of the attack, told the crowd that day. “But instead, we have shown that New Zealand is unbreakable, and that the world can see in us an example of love and unity.”

It was a heartbreaking afternoon. A burial for 25 of the victims went long into the evening.

But Fouda’s words of peace, and the solidarity of New Zealanders, were broadcast across the world, and many here were proud of what this country had stood for. Afterward, there was a surge in applications to the country’s immigration agency from people wanting to move here.

New Zealand lawmaker to America’s NRA: “Bugger off”

The passage of Ardern’s first gun reforms was a reminder of something bigger than party politics: the dim view taken by the New Zealand public — and its leaders — toward what it sees as “imported” trouble. Small and remote, this island nation is an odd blend of seeming desperate for the world’s attention and anxious to be left alone.

ADVERTISEMENT

Before Christchurch, mass shootings were long seen as the tragic and baffling provenance of the United States. For an Australian to come here and commit what many saw as an American crime was almost unfathomable.

During that first week, New Zealanders heard a lot of dire warnings from the U.S. about the dangers of restricting access to guns. The backlash was such that the National Rifle Association of New Zealand (no relation to the U.S. group) considered changing its name. A local NRA spokesman explained to American news outlets that gun ownership in New Zealand was considered a privilege, not a right.

Judith Collins, a center-right opposition lawmaker and former police minister whose government had resisted gun law reforms before, now said her party backed Ardern’s efforts and that the American NRA could “bugger off.”

After a single day of hearings by a parliamentary committee — including submissions from gun owners’ groups and Muslim organizations — the law banning all the weapons the Christchurch terrorist had used was passed on April 10, 2019. It was supported by 119 lawmakers from the left and right; only one voted against it.

The passing of momentous laws in New Zealand’s Parliament are sometimes emotional and widely attended affairs. But when the first gun reforms were approved, the outcome was so widely accepted that the debating chamber was not full; it was late at night, and many reporters had pre-filed their copy and left. A small group of police officers sat alone in the public gallery.

ADVERTISEMENT

“New Zealand stands apart in its widespread availability of weapons of such destructive nature and force,” Ardern said in a speech. “Today, that anomaly ends.” Without fanfare, it did.

Gun reforms — round two

Ardern said at the time that this was only the first tranche of gun reforms; plans for a firearms register and stricter criteria to get a license were also on the agenda. But this second suite of measures did not pass as smoothly.

The new bill was approved more narrowly than the first reforms — it was opposed by the center-right opposition parties — and Labour had to make changes so its governing partners would support it.

Still, this second round of reforms reduced the length of firearm licenses for first-time applicants to five years instead of 10, extended the ban on semi-automatics to include pistol-length guns, and bolstered penalties — fines and jail time — for possession of guns without a license. Other changes included gun-buying restrictions on visitors to New Zealand and tighter criteria for eligibility for gun licenses.

The government also introduced and completed two rounds of its gun buyback project; gun owners turned in more than 60,000 newly banned weapons in exchange for cash. Tens of thousands of gun parts were also bought from the public. The police and government both called the initiative a success; its true effectiveness is difficult to assess because it is not known exactly how many of the banned firearms had been in circulation in New Zealand.

ADVERTISEMENT

The changes also bolstered a loose vetting process that the gunman had exploited to obtain a license. When asked to provide a partner or close family member as one of his two references, he had listed his sister, who was rejected by a vetting officer because she lived in Australia. He then nominated the father of his other reference, which the police accepted.

That reference was a friend the shooter had played online games with for a decade but had spent only 21 days with in person. The reference knew of the gunman’s extremist views but never told the vetting officer about them. Without a close relative as a reference, his application should have been refused.

Now, in addition to the two required references, applicants must provide contact details for a former spouse or partner from the past five years.

Another round of gun reforms requires applicants to list any country where they have spent more than two weeks in the past five years; in the shooter’s case, it was a long and unusual list and would likely have caught an investigator’s attention.

The latter change was approved unanimously by Parliament.

ADVERTISEMENT

The reform process continues. The next proposal before lawmakers would introduce rules prohibiting people with certain criminal convictions or violent backgrounds from obtaining gun licenses or weapons.

Despite the changes, gun crime has risen in New Zealand since 2019. Ardern and other government lawmakers attribute that to increasing gang activity — including from Australia’s policy of deporting violent criminals with New Zealand ancestry to this country, which has long been a point of friction — and the trade of illegal drugs.

Beyond guns

Gun law reform remains the best-known of New Zealand’s responses to the shooting, but another strategy — perhaps just as significant — has drawn less attention abroad: one of attempting to erase the Christchurch terrorist from the country’s history.

“He sought many things from his act of terror, but one was notoriety,” Ardern told lawmakers four days after the attack. “That is why you will never hear me mention his name.”

It wasn’t only his name. A few days after the attack, New Zealand’s chief censor — an independent but government-appointed position — classified his livestream footage as objectionable; possessing or sharing it is now a crime. Days later, the terrorist’s self-styled diatribe — a rambling document steeped in white supremacy, internet memes and trolling, and the patois of the message boards 4chan and 8chan — was also banned.

For David Shanks, the chief censor at the time, it was the shooter’s intention to radicalize others through the materials that sealed his decision. The Christchurch gunman had closely studied the heinous actions of a Norwegian terrorist before that 2011 attack, and Shanks wanted to prevent this recent terrorist’s crimes and ideologies from having the same effect on others as the Norwegian’s had on him.

Shanks later banned the Norwegian’s diatribe in New Zealand, too. Earlier this month, the writings of the Buffalo terrorist — which cited the New Zealand attack — joined them on the list.

The families of the Christchurch victims and survivors of the attack support the bans. But the broader squeamishness among New Zealanders about the specifics of what happened that day and why — after all, the attacker is in prison, and this isn’t the kind of country where these things happen — has sometimes limited the victims’ opportunities to tell their stories and have their questions answered.

So deep do sensitivity concerns run that at times victims have been told by officials that they are unable to access details of the case because it might upset them.

The gunman pleaded guilty to all charges a year after the attacks. Without a high-profile trial, many people — even in New Zealand — don’t know that in August 2020, he was sentenced to life in prison without the hope of ever walking free, the first time anyone had been sentenced to life without parole in New Zealand under current laws. He did not speak in court, despite fears that he would use the hearing as a platform for his views.

It was a triumphant moment for the victims — who left the courthouse to find hundreds of New Zealanders cheering and singing outside — and a point in favor of muting the voices of extremists. On message boards like 4chan that night, he was barely mentioned. That week, Kyle Rittenhouse had shot three people in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and in the absence of any new words from the New Zealand shooter, the attention of some of those who had once idolized him had moved on.

But his materials remain online, there to be found by those at greatest risk of their radicalizing effects. A corresponding national conversation about how far-right radicalization happens — and answers about how the Christchurch terrorist was radicalized in particular — has never taken place.

Like the gun law reforms, limiting speech or information feels to some like the right thing to do because it is the opposite of how America would react. But the independent inquiry said a public discussion about security and extremism was overdue in New Zealand and all but begged the government to start one.

Meanwhile, there are these sad footnotes to the crime: The perpetrators of mass shootings in Poway, California; El Paso, Texas; and Buffalo, New York, all made reference to Christchurch. That fact shows that ignoring an ideology is not enough to quell it, if it does not also come with action. Some of the Christchurch victims tell me the ongoing churn of these shootings is traumatic not only because the United States refuses to limit access to weapons, but because nobody — not here, and not in the U.S. — seems to know what to do about the people committing them.

The prospect of a national conversation about racist extremism is not one lawmakers relish. It is less clear-cut than limiting access to guns and is unlikely to draw so much international praise or pride at home. But it might go a long way for New Zealanders to put aside the protest that this is “not who we are” and instead face the reality of our exposure to insidious, borderless hate.

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • Charlotte Graham-McLay
    Charlotte Graham-McLay

    Freelance Reporter

    Charlotte Graham-McLay reports on Aotearoa, New Zealand, for publications including the New York Times and the Guardian. She is writing a book about the Christchurch terrorist attack, to be published in New Zealand by Te Herenga Waka University Press.