NEW ZEALAND’S prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, announced on March 21st that her government would ban “military-style” semi-automatic weapons, such as those used by a white supremacist to kill 50 people in Christchurch last week. The parliament must still rubber-stamp the changes when it reconvenes next month, but both Ms Ardern’s coalition partners and the main opposition party have pledged their support. She called the country’s laws until now “a blueprint for what not to do” on gun control. The killer appears to have easily obtained five guns legally, including a pair of semi-automatic weapons. Four of those were purchased online from the country’s biggest gun store.
The government estimates that there are 13,500 military-style semi-automatic weapons in the country. Their owners will have to surrender them after legislation comes into effect. The Christchurch assailant avoided police attention by purchasing two lower-grade semi-automatic guns, which he fitted out with larger magazines. Ms Ardern said any gun that can be changed in such a way will be outlawed, along with such murderous accessories.
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Under a proposed buy-back scheme, owners will receive “fair” compensation for handing in their weapons. Ms Ardern thinks the scheme might cost the state up to NZ$200m ($137m). That will be a worthwhile investment, judging by the experience of Australia. There, similar measures were enacted after a gunman murdered 35 people in the Tasmanian town of Port Arthur in 1996. Philip Alpers, of the University of Sydney, estimates that more than one million guns have since been disposed of, reducing the national stock by about a third. For America to disarm at such a rate, 130m firearms would have to be destroyed.
Since Australia enacted its gun-control laws, the risk of dying from gunshot wounds has fallen by more than half. Ms Ardern took a cue from her neighbour: John Howard, the conservative prime minister of Australia responsible for the laws in 1996, pushed them through within 12 days of the massacre. With no states to brow-beat, New Zealand did so in half that time. It could have gone farther, by creating a register of weapons—most other Western countries have one. Ms Ardern says she will return to the matter later.
Her achievement, Professor Alpers says, is “remarkable”. Since 1999, four attempts to reform New Zealand’s weak gun laws have failed. Ms Ardern’s Labour Party governs in a coalition with the populists of New Zealand First, who are cosy with the national gun lobby. She convinced their leader, Winston Peters, that a change was now essential. “I strongly believe that the vast majority of legitimate gun owners in New Zealand will understand that these moves are in the national interest,” she asserted. And they seem to. “These guns are for killing men,” says Simon Lusk, a hunter and political consultant from New Zealand who has advised the gun lobby. “Most of us aren’t keen on seeing idiots in the bush with AKs.”
In America, advocates of gun control look on in awe. Semi-automatic weapons and guns with high-capacity magazines are used to carry out mass killings there with cold regularity, yet “we can’t even get the Senate to hold a vote on universal background checks,” tweeted Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democratic congresswoman. “Christchurch happened, and within days New Zealand acted to get weapons of war out of the consumer market.” This, she said, is “what leadership looks like”.