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New Zealand Gun Owners React To Possible New Restrictions From Government

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There are an estimated 1.2 million guns registered in New Zealand. That's the equivalent of one gun for every four people. And now it looks like the government there is prepared to take swift action to restrict or possibly ban semi-automatic weapons. In the wake of the worst shooting in the country's history, NPR's Rob Schmitz reports that gun owners are doing some soul-searching.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Owning a gun in New Zealand is a privilege not a right. That's the last thing Thomas Jones tells me after he and a few friends jump in their truck after buying an AR-15 assault rifle from Gun City in Christchurch - the shop that sold Friday's alleged attacker some of his guns. Jones and his friends, all dressed in camouflage, are eager to go hunting with their new rifle. So they agree to an interview on the phone while they drive to the mountains.

Jones says gun ownership isn't enshrined into New Zealand's constitution like it is in the U.S. And gun enthusiasts like him don't have an organization like the NRA to represent them. That's left him and his friends feeling vulnerable after Friday's attack.

THOMAS JONES: And it's really disappointing to have the government throw on us what one person did and punish 250,000 gun owners at least just because of what one man's done.

SCHMITZ: A quarter-million new Zealanders would have to give up their semi-automatic guns if the government bans them. For Jones, that would mean giving up four of his 12 guns. He says he uses these semi-automatic guns as part of his livelihood. He owns a hunting business. And the government sometimes hires him to cull feral goats - an invasive species that have run rampant in rural New Zealand - by shooting scores of them with an AR-15 from a helicopter. A gun ban, Jones says, would also mean giving up a way of life in New Zealand.

JONES: We're not pro-gun. We're just Kiwis. It's just part of our heritage. We've shot since we were kids. If you don't shoot, at least somebody in your family does. You know, you go into the hunting store, and it's all built around hunting and outdoors and get your kids outside and stuff like that.

SCHMITZ: But in the wake of Friday's shooting that left 50 people dead, many gun owners say something needs to be done to prevent this from happening again. Robert Miller is one of them.

ROBERT MILLER: Well, to be honest, I think the more military-style semi-automatic should be banned. There's no need for them - probably the same with pistols, to be honest. Gun registration - I think we need it because there's just no - there's no way of tracking a gun here if it's sold. You know, someone could sell one to a guy without a license. And there's no record of it being sold.

SCHMITZ: Miller says the current gun laws in New Zealand are too lax. Kevin Clements, a professor at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Otago, says not only are the laws in New Zealand lax, they're ineffective at tracking down who even owns a gun.

KEVIN CLEMENTS: We don't have any real knowledge of, you know, where the 1.5 million guns are in New Zealand. We know that we've got 250,000 licensed gun owners. But we don't know how many of them have got just one gun and how many have got mini arsenals.

SCHMITZ: What's clear is that many in New Zealand's gun industry have taken preventative action in the wake of the Christchurch terrorist attack because they felt it was the right thing to do. A gun shop owner in Christchurch told NPR that Friday's attack prompted him to remove all the AR-15 assault rifles from his shelves. He's refusing to sell high-capacity magazines to those without a specialized license.

And Scott Williams, the vice president of the Bruce Rifle Club, where the alleged attacker honed his shooting skills and was a member, told NPR that out of respect for the victims of this tragedy, he's closing the rifle range. But Thomas Jones, who owns a new AR-15, is hesitant to turn his gun in if a law is passed.

JONES: Well, under the law, we will have to hand in our semi-autos. And I will sure [expletive] be making sure I get the money back for them. And I'll be buying more guns with that.

SCHMITZ: Jones says Friday's massacre was a tragedy, but he thinks it shouldn't mean he has to get rid of his guns. Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Christchurch. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.