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After Deadly 1996 Massacre, Australia Overhauled Its Gun Laws. New Zealand Now Plans to Do the Same

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New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has vowed to change the country’s gun laws following the deadly Christchurch massacre Friday that left 50 people dead and millions around the globe mourning following the massacre. The terrorist attack unfolded at two mosques during Friday prayer, when a lone gunman and avid white supremacist opened fire on worshipers while live-streaming the attack on Facebook. It was the deadliest shooting in the country’s modern history. The shooter reportedly used five guns to carry out the attack, including two semiautomatic assault weapons. We speak with Rebecca Peters, an international arms control advocate and member of the International Action Network on Small Arms. She led the campaign to reform Australia’s gun laws after the 1996 Port Arthur massacre, when a gunman shot dead 35 people at a cafe. After the attack, Australia cracked down on gun violence, outlawing automatic and semiautomatic rifles. More than 640,000 weapons were turned in to authorities in a nationwide buyback.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Fifty people are dead, and millions around the globe are mourning, following the massacre at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, Friday. The terrorist attack unfolded during Friday prayer, when a lone gunman and avid white supremacist opened fire on worshipers while live-streaming the attack on Facebook. It was the deadliest shooting in the country’s modern history. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern described Friday as one of New Zealand’s darkest days and vowed to change the country’s gun laws.

PRIME MINISTER JACINDA ARDERN: The terror attack in Christchurch on Friday was the worst act of terrorism on our shores. It was in fact one of the worst globally in recent times. It has exposed a range of weaknesses in New Zealand’s gun laws. The clear lesson from history around the world is that to make our communities safer, the time to act is now.

AMY GOODMAN: Police have arrested and charged a 28-year-old Australian man named Brenton Tarrant, an anti-immigrant white supremacist who published a manifesto in which he praised President Donald Trump as a “symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose,” unquote. But Trump has refused to acknowledge the global rise of white nationalism in the wake of the attack, saying, “I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems, I guess,” he said.

In New Zealand, the Muslim community is mourning the dead, the youngest among them 3 years old. Mucad Ibrahim was murdered after being separated from his brother and father in the chaos at the Al Noor Mosque.

The terror began in the early afternoon Friday in central Christchurch, when the gunman entered the Al Noor Mosque and opened fire on worshipers gathered for Friday prayer. The shooter live-streamed the massacre, shooting dead one man who attempted to tackle him and killing 41 more in a 6-minute rampage. At one point, the gunman went to his car to get another weapon and returned to the mosque to kill more people. A paramedic said, quote, “There was a river of blood coming out of the mosque.”

The shooter drove away before police arrived on the scene, and headed four miles east to a second mosque, the Linwood Mosque, where he once again opened fire on worshipers, this time through a window. That’s when Abdul Aziz, who was praying at the Linwood Mosque with his sons, ran towards the attacker, flinging a credit card machine at him and causing him to drop his shotgun. The gunman then ran to his car, and Aziz threw the shotgun, shattering the car window. The shooter drove away, leaving seven dead at the Linwood Mosque. This is Abdul Aziz describing his encounter with the attacker.

ABDUL AZIZ: He dropped his gun and ran, and I chased him. And I chased him. He set on his car. And what I did, I had that shotgun in my hand, and I threw on him like an arrow. I threw the shotgun, and that shotgun actually smashed his window. And I could see him as frightened. Then he swore at me, and he just took off.

AMY GOODMAN: Minutes later, New Zealand police apprehended the shooter. The first call to police from Al Noor Mosque came at 1:41 p.m. The gunman was arrested at 2:17 p.m. Forty-nine people were dead; one more would later die in the hospital. The shooter reportedly used five guns to carry out the attack, including two semiautomatic assault weapons. New Zealand’s attorney general, David Parker, told Radio New Zealand, quote, “We need to ban some semiautomatics, perhaps all of them,” unquote.

Well, for more, we’re going to Rebecca Peters in Sydney, Australia, an international arms control advocate, member of the International Network on Small Arms. She led the campaign to reform Australia’s gun laws after the 1996 Port Arthur massacre, when a gunman shot dead 35 people. After the attack, Australia cracked down on gun violence, outlawing automatic and semiautomatic rifles. More than 640,000 weapons were turned in to authorities in a nationwide buyback.

Rebecca Peters, welcome back to Democracy Now! First, your response to what happened in neighboring New Zealand? You’re in Australia now, where the gunman is from. And then talk about the immediate call of the New Zealand prime minister to deal with gun control immediately, even faster than you did after the Tasmanian massacre.

REBECCA PETERS: Well, Amy, of course, it was just so devastating and heartbreaking to hear that yet another atrocity of this sort had taken place. We’re accustomed to hearing about these things happening in the United States, but we’ve got out of the habit in Australia, since we don’t have them anymore. And it was just shocking to realize that it had occurred in New Zealand and that it was an Australian who had carried out this horrific attack.

And, I suppose, for those of us who have worked on the issue of trying to prevent gun violence, in addition to being heartbreaking, it was heart-sinking, because we had—there had been plenty of warnings and of advice over the years that New Zealand should strengthen its gun laws, but those warnings and advice had never been heeded.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go back to New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

PRIME MINISTER JACINDA ARDERN: I want to also acknowledge, you know, when Australia found itself tragically in a similar position to what we find ourselves now, they took 12 days to make the decision. We have taken 72 hours. There are still some detail that needs to be worked through. I want to do that but still move as quickly as we can.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s the New Zealand prime minister. Rebecca Peters, explain what happened in Australia—I mean, a country, it’s believed, of Crocodile Dundees, or gun lovers—how quickly this turned and what you’re seeing as being demanded right now in New Zealand.

REBECCA PETERS: Well, in Australia, you’re right. We are an outdoor country. We’re a frontier country. We have a lot of people who like to use guns. And in that sense, we’re similar to New Zealand. We’re culturally very similar, as well. But the laws had been—it was a patchwork of laws across the country. Each state had different laws, and many of them were not very strong. So, for example, semiautomatic weapons were available in some states but banned in other states. Some states had registrationable guns, and some did not. And what that meant was that it was possible to take advantage of the loopholes provided by the weaker-law states to commit gun violence.

And in 1996, we had a mass shooting at Port Arthur in Tasmania. Thirty-five people were killed. And at the time, it was the largest tragedy of that type ever in the world. Unfortunately, it’s been surpassed since then. And although there had been many attempts to reform the laws, the politicians had always been intimidated by the gun lobby and had been reluctant to do anything. But in '96, we had a brand-new prime minister, and he said, “I'm going to fix this.” And so he called all the states together and said, “We’re going to, once and for all, fix this problem.”

And they came up with a scheme of—a list of points that all the states agreed to put into their laws as a minimum standard. And that included a ban on semiautomatic rifles and shotguns; a buyback, as you mentioned, to get rid of them; registration of all guns in every state; a much higher standard of licensing, including the need to prove that you have a legitimate reason; and a lot of other—a 28-day waiting period; and various other measures, which basically closed the loopholes and raised the standard. And we’ve been much safer ever since.

The first thing that obviously comes to mind when an atrocity like this happens is the question of semiautomatic weapons. And the prime minister of New Zealand, correctly, mentioned that as a priority. And in Australia, as Jacinda Ardern mentioned, it took 12 days for this agreement to be nutted out. It had to be negotiated between eight states. But that was obviously pretty quick. In New Zealand, she has announced pretty well immediately that they plan to make reforms. My slight concern is that they should take the time to consider not just piecemeal changes, like not just banning military assault weapons, but looking at all the reforms that need to be made, because the New Zealand gun law is full of loopholes. It’s basically the same as Australia’s worst laws were about 20 years ago.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what kind of gun lobby does New Zealand have? Is it similar to Australia? And why didn’t New Zealand pass the same kind of legislation when you did, back in 19—back in the time of the Tasmania massacre?

REBECCA PETERS: In '96, yes, it was. So, originally, New Zealand should have joined that scheme, because the scheme was developed under the auspices of something called the Australasian Police Ministers' Council. We have a police minister in every state, and New Zealand also has a police minister. And the word “Australasian” means Australia and New Zealand. And our two countries work together on policing questions a lot, on crime prevention and investigation. And it made sense for New Zealand also to pass the same sort of gun laws that were being passed in Australia.

But the gun lobby is very powerful in New Zealand. And basically—and at the time, it was the National Party government, which is more susceptible to the gun lobby, because it has its—it sees its strength as being in the rural areas. And basically, the idea of joining the Australian scheme was vetoed by the gun lobby, which was a huge shame, because they didn’t make the progress that they should have made.

AMY GOODMAN: New York Times reported Friday, New Zealand is almost alone with the United States in not registering 96 percent of its firearms. Those are its most common firearms, the ones most used in crimes. Rebecca?

REBECCA PETERS: Yeah, yeah. And that was the case in at least three Australian states 20 years ago. The only firearms that were registered were handguns. But most guns are not handguns. And so, yes, it means that for the vast majority of guns in New Zealand, there’s no record of who has them or where they are. There’s no ability to know when a person becomes ineligible to have a gun. There’s no way of knowing if they have it, and therefore there’s no way of taking it away from them. Like, in Australia, the most common reason for losing your license is domestic violence. And we have registration of guns, so if a person loses their license, the police also know how many guns they actually have.

The other thing about registration, which is just so crucial, is, if you have a licensing system—New Zealand does have a licensing system, although it’s very easy to get a license. The idea of a licensing system is, only a person with a license is allowed to have a gun. But if you don’t have a registration system, then there’s nothing to keep a licensed gun owner accountable. Like, if I have a license and I buy a gun, since there’s no registration, I can easily sell it or give it to you, even though you don’t have a license, and there’s no chance that I’ll be caught. And so, registration is absolutely crucial to make sure that your licensing system works.

And those are the kinds of things that the New Zealand government should look at. Those are the sorts of loopholes they should look at closing, rather than just focusing on banning assault weapons. And they mention assault weapons a lot. And obviously they should be banned, but the tricky thing with semiautomatic rifles is that there are semiautomatic rifles that are not considered to be assault weapons but that can be modified so that they become assault weapons. And that’s why, in Australia, all semiautomatic rifles were banned, to avoid the problem of people buying non-assault weapons and modifying them to become assault weapons. So, New Zealand should take that same step.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Rebecca Peters, I want to thank you for being with us, international arms control advocate, member of the International Network on Small Arms, led the campaign to reform Australia’s gun laws after the Port Arthur massacre. One last question: The laws were changed in 1996 in Australia after 35 people were killed in Tasmania. How many massacres have there been since?

REBECCA PETERS: Well, since then, we’ve never had another one of these public mass shootings of the type that we used to have a lot of. What we have had is a couple of family killings, where a father has killed his family while they were asleep, for example. But that’s a different type of phenomenon, and it doesn’t require a semiautomatic. But when you think about these kinds of events, that are so—that the U.S., for example, is so plagued by, and the type of event we had in '96, the one that's just occurred in New Zealand, we’ve never had another event like that.

AMY GOODMAN: Rebecca Peters, thanks so much for being with us. We can’t count the number of times in the United States. It has been hundreds and hundreds and hundreds in this last 23 years. This is Democracy Now! We’ll link to your piece in The Sydney Morning Herald headlined “'It didn't have to be this way’: how the gun lobby made [New Zealand] less safe.”

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’ll look at Islamophobia and white supremacy. Stay with us.

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