Is More Gun Control the Answer for New Zealand?

New Zealand had a rude awakening last week, transitioning from an idyllic paradise to full membership in the politically charged and violent western world. The 2018 Global Peace Index had rated NZ as the second safest country in the world, behind Iceland.

That will no doubt change after the horrific Christchurch mosque shooting that left 50 dead at latest count. For comparison, based on NZ’s population of 4.8 million, some simple arithmetic makes their casualty count of 50, comparable to 3400 deaths in the US, based on our population of 327 million. For perspective, just under 3000 people died during 9/11.

This truly is NZ’s 9/11 in terms of how it will change the country, attitudes, and feelings of safety and security. It will also likely lead the government to do something, anything, whether thoughtful or reflexive, as a response to this awful event.

In America, we saw the Patriot Act and onerous airport security, both with unintended consequences and questionable benefit. Much of the US effort was directed toward air travel security since in 9/11 the weapon of choice was an airplane. In NZ, efforts seem to be directed toward firearms as this was the weapon of choice in Christchurch.

From 2018 "March for Our Lives" rally in US (photo credit: Fibonacci Blue)

Would the reaction be different if the Australian shooter had flown a small plane into the mosque instead? Or used a bomb? It seems too much emphasis is being placed on the method of, rather than the motivation of, the killer, which is a shortsighted approach to preventing the next incident.

In America, air travel security has been beefed up and there have not been any 9/11 repeat occurrences. But that hasn’t stopped other mass casualty events using bombs, as in the Boston Marathon attack, or guns, as in San Bernardino, Orlando, Aurora, or Las Vegas.

Politicians, feeling impotent in the face of wanton slaughter of their people, are pressed to do something, anything, as a response, often choosing an easy target as the path of least resistance or thought, rather than doing the harder work of thinking and analyzing.

In my medical world, when something bad happens, what we call “never events” meaning that ideally, they should never happen, we do a “root cause analysis,” looking at all the factors contributing to this event. The easy path would be to fire someone and declare the problem solved. Yet the systemic causes remain and the “never event” will soon become a “sometimes event,” as we see in America with repeated mass shootings in cities with strict gun control laws and gun free zones.

Following the shooting, NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern declared, “Our gun laws will change.” This is the same response we hear from elected officials in America after a mass shooting. It sounds good and resonates with an emotionally wounded population, but will it be effective in preventing another such incident or is it simply virtue signaling?

How easy is it to obtain a gun in NZ? For criminals, like mass shooters, there are no applicable gun laws. Simply find a dealer, choose your gun, and pay in cash. These are the “laws of the jungle” making Chicago and Baltimore killing fields despite all the official laws on the books.

The NZ Police website outlines the process for law-abiding people. A 16-year-old can apply for a firearms license allowing ownership and use a rifle, shotgun or air rifle. For pistols or semi-automatic weapons, an additional application and endorsement is needed.

After applying, a police background check is needed to determine, “Whether you are a fit and proper person to possess firearms or airguns.” One must take a “firearms safety course” which included passing a written exam and passing a, “Practical session covering safe handling and use of firearms.”

That’s not all. “Police will arrange a visit to interview you and check your firearms security arrangements. We’ll also interview your referees and complete any remaining enquiries.”

The final step is, “Police will evaluate if you are a fit and proper person to possess or use firearms, before deciding whether to approve your firearms license application.”

All very reasonable and thorough. And if logistically possible, a process that would be acceptable to many US gun owners.

So, what happened with the Christchurch shooter? The Daily Mail explains. Originally from Australia, he moved to NZ and was living in Dunedin. He legally obtained a firearms license via the process noted above. He legally purchased a rifle, although not the one he used in his massacre. He joined a rifle club where he was a member in good standing, often helping out around the club. Fellow club members considered him, “as normal as anyone else.”

All the rules were followed, and the shooter raised no red flags. Yet he somehow obtained a semi-automatic rifle that he used in the shooting. He was obviously well-versed in the use of the weapon and appeared calm and collected during the shooting, suggesting a level of experience not revealed in any background checks.

NZ might enact gun control laws similar to their brethren across the pond  in Australia, but those have not worked as advertised. An outright ban on guns won’t go over well in NZ, where there is a firearm for every four people and no ban on semi-automatic weapons, which includes most pistols.

While NZ politicians decide how much gun control is needed, the root cause analysis is missing. CNN, readily available in NZ, as well as other media outlets will blame President Trump for the shooting. The shooter’s manifesto is a hodgepodge of ideologies, suggesting that he is a nihilist or that this is a trolling event, as Thomas Wictor described. He had an interesting travel history including North Korea, Pakistan, and Bulgaria.

Government officials will also chase red herrings. “New Zealand authorities have reminded citizens that they face up to 10 years in prison for ‘knowingly’ possessing a copy of the New Zealand mosque shooting video - and up to 14 years in prison for sharing it.” Milo Yiannopoulos was banned from Australia after he commented on the shootings in a way that officials disapproved.

A root cause analysis should be inclusive in looking at all contributory factors and opinions, not just the ones deemed politically correct.

Perhaps this is just an act of evil that has finally reached The Shire, as in the Lord of the Rings, which was filmed in NZ. I hope that thoughtful consideration replaces knee-jerk reflexive action as NZ decides how to respond to this horrific event.

Brian C Joondeph, MD, MPS, a Denver based physician and writer. Follow him on Facebook,  LinkedIn and Twitter.