The shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, left 49 people dead and others seriously injured on Friday, in what the country’s prime minister called a terrorist attack and one of the nation’s “darkest days.”
One man in his late 20s was charged with murder in connection with the incidents, police said, and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the country’s national security threat level was lifted from low to high.
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While details around the attack are still unfolding, the mass shooting is prompting a conversation around the country’s gun laws, and if they need to change.
What are New Zealand’s gun laws?
Before Friday’s attack, the deadliest shooting in New Zealand’s modern history occurred in the small town of Aramoana in 1990, when gunman David Gray shot and killed 13 people following a dispute with a neighbour.
This incident ignited a tightening of the country’s 1983 gun laws, which were amended in 1992.
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Philip Alpers, the founding director of GunPolicy.org and an adjunct associate professor at the University of Sydney’s School of Public Health, said in a statement sent to Global News that “New Zealand firearm legislation has remained substantially unaltered since 1992.”
The current laws state that “every civilian in possession of a firearm must hold a current firearm licence, renewable every 10 years,” Alpers said. Obtaining a gun licence requires passing a background check and safety training.
The minimum age for gun ownership in New Zealand is 16 years old, and 18 years for old for military-style semi-automatic firearms, GunPolicy.Org says. An unlicensed person, however, may be “in possession of a firearm or ammunition if they are under the immediate supervision of a license holder,” the U.S. Library of Congress points out.
This means that citizens are not allowed to possess “handguns, military-style semi-automatic weapons or fully automatic firearms” without a permit to purchase and a relevant firearm licence.
Do guns need to be registered in New Zealand?
While gun owners do need permits to possess the weapons, Alpers said that New Zealand does not track ownership of long guns, like shotguns and rifles, which make up 96 per cent of the country’s firearms.
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This lack of formal registry means that it’s hard to keep track of how many guns a person may have. There is also no limit on how many shotguns or rifles a person can possess.
“Police have no authority to monitor the size and content of most private gun collections, and so cannot detect or prevent the build-up of private arsenals,” Alpers said.
“Officers responding to call-outs have no idea what guns they might encounter, nor how many they must find and remove to make families safe in cases of domestic violence.”
New Zealand does keep record of military-style semi-automatic rifles, handguns and restricted weapons, which need to be individually registered and are “more carefully monitored.”
“Police report that most firearms used in crime came from the collection of a licensed gun owner, either by sale, theft or neglect,” Alpers said.
How many people in New Zealand have guns?
According to data from GunPolicy.org, the estimated total number of firearms — both licit and illicit — held by civilians in New Zealand is 1.5 million.
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Alpers said, “Of the 3.9-million New Zealanders of gun-licensing age… six per cent hold a firearm licence.”
Private gun sales are permitted in New Zealand if both parties have firearm licences. The law states the seller must see the buyer’s licence before the sale takes place.
Do New Zealand’s gun laws need to change?
Gun-policy experts have criticized the country’s laws for being too lax.
Speaking to radio station Newstalk ZB in 2015, gun-control expert Professor Kevin Clements said that New Zealand’s gun laws needed to be tougher, the New Zealand Herald reported.
“Our laws are certainly loose, they are much, much looser than Australia for example, which does register guns, as well as gun owners,” Clements said to the outlet.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the man who appeared in court was “not on any watch lists here or in Australia” and vowed to strengthen the country’s gun laws following the terror attack.
Ardern said the alleged gunman was able to obtain a gun licence in November 2017 and the purchasing of weapons began in December 2017.
“There were five guns used by the primary perpetrator. There were two semi-automatic weapons and two shotguns. The offender was in possession of a gun license. I’m advised this was acquired in November of 2017. A lever action firearm was also found,” Ardern said during news conference in Wellington early Saturday morning local time.
“While work is being done as to the chain of events that lead to both the holding of this gun license and the possession of these weapons, I can tell you one thing right now. Our gun laws will change.”
During a review of the country’s laws in 1997, retired High Court judge Sir Thomas Thorp recommended that all firearms in New Zealand should “be individually registered to their owners, in addition to owner licensing.”
Thorp also recommended that all restricted weapons be permanently disabled and suggested a government “buy-back of military-style semi-automatic weapons.”
— With a file from Jesse Ferreras, Jessica Vomiero, and the Associated Press