An ex-gun lobbyist is revising New Zealand's gun laws, tightened after the 2019 mosque attack

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — New Zealand’s government will overhaul the tighter gun laws introduced after a deadly mass shooting by a white supremacist five years ago, because they put excessive burdens on gun owners who feel vilified by law enforcement and the public, the lawmaker leading the changes said.

“What’s happened is a massive change with massive penalties and targets on people who didn’t do anything wrong,” Associate Justice Minister Nicole McKee — a lobbyist for gun owners before she entered Parliament in 2020 — told The Associated Press in an interview this week. Every part of the law will be scrutinized, including the restrictions that bar all but a few hundred New Zealanders from firing banned semiautomatic weapons, she said.

McKee’s pledge of a wide-ranging review — following an earlier announcement that she would ease rules for gun clubs — was applauded by groups representing the country’s 250,000 license holders and decried by survivors of the 2019 attack at two Christchurch mosques where an Australian man opened fire on Muslim worshippers, killing 51 people.

“It makes me scared for our futures,” Temel Ataçocuğu — who was shot nine times in the attack and fears an erosion of the assault weapon ban — told the AP. “What have the past five years been for? How are they going to prevent this from happening again?”

New Zealand drew global admiration when its then-Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said six days after the massacre that her government would outlaw all semiautomatic weapons. The change was approved by 119 lawmakers with only one opposed, and sweeping reforms followed: bolstered licensing requirements, more rules for gun clubs, and the creation of a firearms registry.

The changes introduced “onerous regulatory compliance,” said McKee, whose political party, Act, campaigned for New Zealand’s 2023 election on a platform for reversing many of them. Now in government as part of a center-right coalition, McKee pledged to update the law before the next election in 2026.

Her bloc has enough lawmakers to easily pass any reforms in the face of any resistance from the parliamentary opposition.

“The changes we made off the back of March 15 took military-style semi-automatic weapons off the street and made our communities safer,” said Ginny Andersen, a lawmaker for Labour — the largest opposition party, previously led by Ardern. “Making those guns more accessible will take New Zealand backwards.”

McKee's consultation was a “box ticking exercise, with a select group and a very short time for responses,” Andersen said in her emailed statement.

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon, whose party is in government with McKee's, did not answer AP's requests for comment.

McKee said she would consult with the public before deciding specific measures and that her personal views would not direct the overhaul. Critics rejected that.

“She was elected as a gun lobbyist, that was her role,” said Chris Cahill, president of the Police Association, a group representing most New Zealand officers. “She’s got a loyalty to the gun lobby groups.”

The review was “without a doubt, a backdoor into giving people access to semiautomatic assault rifles again,” Cahill said.

At the time of the ban, McKee denounced it as “knee-jerk.” As a minister she is more guarded, but told the AP that New Zealand had not been entirely rid of such weapons; several hundred people have permits to use them for pest control in rural areas, while others can own but not fire them.

“If we extend the access, what are the possible controls around the use of the extension? And would society be happy with what those controls mean?” McKee said she would ask during the review.

“It’s about how do we find the balance with protecting people but not going over the top with a regulatory regime,” she said. Any concerns raised by opponents should be “realistic," McKee added. “It cannot be anecdotal.”

New Zealand’s gun laws were safer before the 2019 reforms, the minister said, citing the dozens of pages of information now required for a gun license as an example of changes that could deter gun owners’ compliance.

“That’s absolute rubbish,” said Cahill. Gun laws were “loose” before the attack, he added, and the scrutiny reported by owners in the years since reflected the proper administration of the law after an injection of government funds.

McKee will begin by examining the gun registry created after the attacks; some gun owners want it shrunk to only the highest-powered weapons, rather than all guns. She will also explore removing from police oversight the new agency that administers gun licenses and registrations.

Gun crime has increased in New Zealand since 2019, according to analysis of official crime figures by New Zealand news outlets. Supporters of the tighter restrictions say they will take time to have an impact, and that a burgeoning problem with violent gang crime is fueling the rise. McKee, and groups representing gun owners, say scrutiny since the attack has fallen on law-abiding license holders at the expense of criminals, who are not captured by the stricter rules.

The Council of Licensed Firearms Owners said members had lost or couldn't obtain licenses because of malicious reports from past partners — who must be interviewed as part of a person’s application — or because they had divulged depression to their doctors. Areas of flexibility should be introduced to applications, spokesperson Hugh Devereux-Mack said.

“Every single New Zealander who is not convicted of a serious criminal offense and has no sort of problematic behaviors or serious mental health conditions is eligible to own a firearm,” Devereux-Mack said.

The gunman serving a life sentence for the Christchurch attack, Brenton Tarrant, moved to New Zealand from Australia, acquired a gun license and amassed a cache of assault weapons, all legally, without drawing the attention of law enforcement until he committed the massacre.

The police were censured by an inquiry that found Tarrant was incorrectly allowed to nominate a character reference who barely knew him because he did not have relatives in New Zealand who could be interviewed.

McKee said the rules that followed have made the system rigid and unwieldy. She would prefer a licensing regime “that looked at the individual," she said — without prompting the same disregard of rules that had allowed Tarrant to receive a license.

Devereux-Mack said his group might support an additional practical testing component to gun licensing, and a tiered system with more freedoms for longtime license holders.

“New Zealand won’t be safer if it becomes easier to get a gun,” Ataçocuğu said. “I have to have an eye test every time I renew my drivers’ license. Gun owners should have similar background and mental health checks every few years to make sure they’re still safe to have guns.”

Charlotte Graham-mclay, The Associated Press