By John HartJohn Hart is a farmer in Masterton, New Zealand.March 27 at 6:00 AM
After the mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, some 310 miles from my home, I decided to give up my semiautomatic rifle. When mass shootings occurred in other countries, they’d always seemed like terrible abstractions to us, so it was incredibly jarring to see them happen here. When Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the events had exposed the need to reform New Zealand’s gun laws, I agreed. I didn’t expect how controversial my plan would be — with Americans.
Like many farmers in New Zealand, I own guns for stock management and pest control. Many farms sit next to forests where wild goats and pigs breed. They’re not an existential threat to our animals — just pests. When semiautomatic rifles of a larger caliber started becoming more widely available here, around 15 years ago, I bought one. A semiautomatic just seemed useful to have around. If I spotted a mob of goats, I could drop two or three of them before they ran away.
Until that Friday, I had always considered my weapon nothing more than a tool. Everything changed once I saw how devastating it can be in the wrong hands. How could I argue that this efficient killer was the only way to take care of my land? When I weighed its potential for harm against its convenience, the choice was obvious. I didn’t need an assault weapon.
New Zealand police have a long-standing policy of firearm amnesty: You can walk in at any time with a gun, and they will take it, no questions asked. After letting my local station in Masterton know to expect me, I went in, toting my rifle and its magazine in a bag. The errand was easy. I had a quick chat with an administrator at the front desk, who filled out the form on my behalf. I confirmed the gun would be destroyed and then signed my name. Walking out with the empty bag, I felt relief come over me. I had been the gun’s sole owner since it was made, and I knew it had never hurt a human being. Now it never would. The process took all of five minutes. I shared my I experience online, where my fellow New Zealanders generally praised it as a principled stand.
Then Americans started seeing it, and they weren’t happy. Gun advocates in the United States bombarded my social media accounts, expressing shock and outrage that I had turned in my gun. They reacted as if I had surrendered some fundamental right or betrayed some important cause. “So you gave up the ability to defend your FAMILY and yourself because your thinking is all screwed up!” one commenter said. Another congratulated me on being “a future victim.”
Like many outside the United States, I’ve tracked the American cycle of mass shootings and the heated response from gun rights advocates. In New Zealand, the discussion wasn’t fraught at all: military-style weapons have proved incredibly dangerous in the wrong hands, and there are probably too many in circulation, so we need to restrict them severely. The response — including from farmers, hunters and even gun retailers — was, “Okay, that seems fair. Let’s do it.” Not: “You can pry that semiautomatic out of my cold, dead hands.” We can balance the need for public safety against the needs of legitimate gun owners. (We do have a gun rights lobby, which has quietly agitated for the lawmakers to slow down, but theirs is considered a fringe view, and their operation doesn’t have anywhere near the sophistication and political heft of the National Rifle Association.) Certainly, if the government ever attempted to ban all firearms outright, there would be protest. But no one thinks that is happening. We can have guns. We just won’t have this kind of gun.
While I love the rural way of life and raising my family with the values of hard work, self-sufficiency and connection to the environment, it just seems odd to think of guns as an important symbol of that lifestyle. Giving up some of our guns doesn’t mean giving up our liberty. The redcoats aren’t coming. The American idea — that it’s important to have the ability to kill someone on a whim — is just bizarre to us. In fact, when New Zealanders apply for gun licenses, we have to state our reasons for buying a firearm, and citing “home defense” is the fastest way to get denied — our laws explicitly state that self-defense is not sufficient reason to own a gun.
For New Zealanders, it’s not a big deal. I treat my guns practically: They’re useful tools for rabbits or birds or pests. I still have a bolt action rifle and shotgun. They’ll get the job done. A few New Zealanders do have an emotional attachment to their firearms, as they might with any piece of equipment that had served them well over a lifetime. But no one sees gun ownership — much less semiautomatic rifle ownership — as an essential component of their identity.
As told to Post editor Sophia Nguyen.
This article originally appeared on washingtonpost.com.