Gun violence is an unfortunate and irrefutable part of American culture.
An American my age can almost mark years of their life by instances of extreme violence committed by armed nutcases, from Waco, to Columbine High School, to the DC Sniper, to Virginia Tech, to Tucson, to last month in Aurora, Colorado, and the shootings just yesterday at a Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.
And of course, gun violence has taken its toll on Seattle, my former home, with the shootings at Café Racer in May.
I say my former home because, after growing up in the Northwest and living in Seattle for over 10 years, my partner and I immigrated to New Zealand two years ago.
And we are currently going through the process of legally obtaining firearms in New Zealand.
The reasons we left the United States are varied, but partly a reaction to the political swing to the right during the Bush administration.
Our reasons for owning firearms are also varied but have to do partially with our upbringing.
Both of us grew up with fathers who shot guns and taught us basic firearm safety. The desire also stems the recent life-changing experiences of emergency survival situations during the Christchurch earthquakes (a whole other story) and partially out of curiosity about New Zealand gun culture.
You might be surprised to find out that New Zealand is not unfamiliar with gun violence. In 1990, a 33 year old mentally unstable man in Aramoana, NZ shot and killed thirteen people including a police officer using a semi-automatic rifle. (The events have been dramatized in the New Zealand film Out of the Blue)
But unlike shootings in the US, the incident directly resulted in changes to New Zealand firearms laws. A special category of “Military Style Semi-Automatic” weapons was created; the sales and ownership of which are now severely restricted. Purchase or import of military style semi-automatics and all handguns must be individually approved by, and registered with, the New Zealand police.
Without a valid and current firearms license, you cannot legally purchase any firearm other than a pellet gun anywhere in New Zealand. There is probably a black market or some other means of acquiring a firearm illegally, but firearms recovered from drug busts or other organised criminal activities typically amount to hunting rifles or pump action shot guns. Handguns and military style semi-automatics are rare, difficult to obtain, and very expensive.
So how do Kiwis go about getting their hands on guns?
The process for obtaining a basic firearms license is long, complicated and expensive. In other words, designed to weed out a broad portion of the population that the law deems unsuitable to possess a firearm.
After submitting your application to the NZ Police, you are signed up for a mandatory firearm safety course put on by the New Zealand Mountain Safety Council. The course runs about three hours. Experienced instructors offer advice covering the handling, operation and storage of firearms. It ends with a written exam. If you fail the exam, you must go back to the police station to register for the next available class, with no exceptions.
If you pass, your results are reported back to the NZ Police Arms Officer in preparation for the next step, the interview.
About a week following the safety class, the Arms Officer rang us to set up a personal interview. He came to our house in the evening with a huge booklet filled with questions. He interviewed each of us alone; me, my partner, and our personal reference (which must be a non-relative who has known you for at least two years and can attest to your ‘good character’).
The interview was intense and personal. I observed the Arms Officer taking notice of the general state of our home as well as our demeanor. He confirmed we had a lockable cabinet for firearm storage, and separate lockable storage for ammunition. He asked pointed questions about alcohol and drug consumption, our domestic situation and our general mental health.
He also asked what we intended to use firearms for. Hint: personal or home protection is not an accepted rationale and would likely get you rejected – acceptable reasons are limited to hunting and/or target shooting.
Several weeks later, our New Zealand Firearms Licenses arrived in the mail.
While negotiating the license process, we had also started membership with the Christchurch Pistol Club. In order to legally obtain a handgun, your firearms license requires a special endorsement. Getting the pistol endorsement requires you to be a current full member of an accredited pistol club and be sponsored by the club after a 6 month probationary period. Once the endorsement has been received, you must attend at least 12 club activities every year to keep it. We are currently in month 4 of our probation, and making almost weekly trips to the range to shoot the club guns.
Violation of any gun laws, including those relating to storage, transport or sales can easily result in a loss of your endorsement, your full license or even criminal conviction. Handguns may only be transported to and from the range, gunsmith or police station, and must be in a locked container. If your handgun is stolen from your car or home, you will probably lose at least your endorsement if not your full license. Random home visits from the Arms Officer are not unheard of.
It’s hard to say if the hurdles for potential gun owners have a direct effect on the lack of gun violence in New Zealand. But something is working.
NZ has a firearm-related death rate of 2.66 per 100,000 people, per year. The rate in the US is almost 5 times that.
And unlike in the States, gun legislation rarely becomes mired in the political fog, despite the fact that the country has a similar frontier mentality and outdoorsy culture to the US.
The two main political parties, Labour and National (there are 8 active parties in NZ parliament) both treat gun control as a bi-partisan issue.
Some could argue that the sheer number of firearms available in the US (almost one for every person) render effective control of those firearms impossible. By comparison, New Zealand is estimated to have just over 1 million firearms in a country of 4.4 million. By and large, the level of scrutiny and control on possession and transfer of firearms, especially the types of weapons capable of mass killings, seems like an alternate universe when compared to the United States.
Between the application fees, membership dues, club activities and special safes required, the financial obligations alone could be a barrier to anyone looking to obtain a firearm for frivolous or reactionary reasons. To get a gun in New Zealand you have to plan ahead, have a clean record, and have the money to spend on it.
In other words, it’s a tremendous pain in the ass. But it’s a pain in the ass that appears to be saving lives.