Fifty people are dead after a gunman opened fire on two mosques in Christchurch around 1:40pm on Friday 15th March. Forty-one victims were killed at Masjid Al Noor on Deans Avenue, and a further nine were killed in Linwood Masjid. The tragedy has left New Zealanders asking themselves a series of questions.
First and foremost – does New Zealand need stricter gun controls? Shortly after the shooting occurred, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern issued a series of press statements which affirmed her commitment to reforming current gun laws and to announcing proposed changes within ten days. The statements did not confirm exactly which laws would be reconsidered, but it is likely reforms will focus on the necessity of semi-automatic and military-style weapons, like the guns used in the attack. Ardern has indicated she will be asking Parliament to consider passing a blanket ban on all semi-automatic and military grade weapons, which would make it unlawful for people to carry weapons named in the bill. Alternatively, it has also been suggested that the government may begin a ‘buy-back’ scheme, which would see gun-owners trade in their weapons for cash. A similar programme was used in Australia in 1996 following an attack that involved a semi-automatic gun.
Another area Parliament may choose to focus on is the gun license application process. Under New Zealand law, only those with a gun license can purchase and own guns. On paper, the license application process is a stringent one: applicants have to provide referees, provide a number of identity-proving documents, visit a police station, answer questions about how will you store and handle your gun, and fill out a number of forms. But the data suggests the process is not as rigid as it appears. In 2017, 43,509 firearm license applications were filed. Of those applications, only 188 were denied. That’s a pass rate of around 99.6%. Perhaps this high pass rate needs to be scrutinised – and perhaps Parliament will pass laws to reduce this figure. Police Association president Chris Cahill says there are a number of changes he would like to see made to the current application process. Chiefly, he wants officers to begin questioning the reasons for a person applying for a gun license.
The police have also begun investigating how best to prevent others from exploiting a loophole within the gun license system, which was used to obtain the weapon used in Christchurch. Under New Zealand law, different guns require a different ‘level’ of gun license to own and use. Least dangerous guns require a Category A license (which is relatively easy to obtain), while assault and military-grade weapons typically require a Category E gun license.
A semi-automatic rifle was legally purchased with his Category A gun license. He then bought a specialised high-capacity magazine to go along with it. Technically, under New Zealand laws, guns carrying a high-capacity magazine require a Category E license to purchase and use. But since they bought the rifle and magazine separately, he was only required to show a Category A license for both purchases. The gun only became Category E (and therefore illegal for him to purchase or use) once the two items were combined.
Minister of Police Stuart Nash told RNZ “the failure [of New Zealand law] to provide for … the conversion of an ‘A Category’ semi-automatic firearm to a military style, semi-automatic … has opened up a risk of criminal harm”. Nash hinted the government would consider closing the loophole when they sat down to discuss gun reforms later in the month.
Another issue was raised by the attack: how would objectionable material being distributed through the internet be policed? In the first 24 hours after the shooting, Facebook was flooded with re-uploads of the killer’s original live-stream (which itself had been streamed through the site). More than one and a half million videos were reported to have been removed or blocked by moderators “out of respect for the people affected by this tragedy”. But it appears these efforts weren’t entirely successful – as late as Sunday morning, some users were still reporting the video appearing on their feed.
One man based in the United States made headlines for refusing to remove videos of the shooting from his site.* In an reply sent over email to the New Zealand Police Force (who had asked him to remove the video as it violated the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993), the man said he could not be compelled to comply with the law, and hurled slurs . Unfortunately for the police, there’s not much they can do. As the website and its owner are based off-shore, they’re unable to issue an arrest warrant. Moreover, it’s unclear whether they would even be able to prosecute him if he was arrested, as he sits within the jurisdiction of the United States, where laws around video publications are generally less stringent.
The continued proliferation of the video online has left many wondering whether reform also needs to be made to ways in which we police and prosecute the publication of objectionable materials. Traditionally, police have refrained from prosecuting these kinds of cases – it’s generally seen to be an unnecessary obstruction of the right to free speech. But there are signs this may be changing. On the 18th of March, a teenager (under name suppression) appeared before court to face charges for violating the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993. He was faced with two charges: one for re-publishing the shooter’s original live-stream; and another for publishing an image of one of the mosques with the caption ‘Target Acquired’. Beneath the caption, the teenager made a series of comments which police allege could have incited someone to violence.
* Craccum has chosen not to name the website or its owner.
Editor’s Note: Just before deadline Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced a ban on all military-style semi-automatic assault rifles. The firearms will now need an E-Class license endorsement which will require police approval. A buyback scheme will be established to remove these weapons from circulation.