Image Credit: Governor General of New Zealand
On the 15th of March a lone gunman perpetrated the biggest mass shooting in the modern history of New Zealand. The response of authorities and the government to this terrorist attack of unprecedented scale was praised by many, and may show a stark contrast to the US. Therefore, both the immediate, and long term aftermath present an interesting story of how a small nation battles terrorism. A few days after the attack Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, in a speech to parliament, asked the public not to mention the attacker by name, this philosophy will be followed by this article.
Criticism of the New Zealand’s secret services have been abundant in the short aftermath of the attack. However, even if they might share responsibility for failing to prevent the massacre, the Christchurch police responded with incredible speed. The attack started at 1:40, the first emergency call came in at 1:41 and by 2:02 the suspect was in custody. Although the quick response was also attributed to some luck, experts have described the response time as exemplary. This is underlined by the fact that there were less active officers on duty at that time than victims, but the emergency services still managed to fulfil their duties and save lives.
On a larger scale, the government responded by raising the terrorism level to high,the first time in New Zealand history, and launched an official Royal Commission of Inquiry on the 25th of March with the aim of examining whether the secret services could have foreseen and stopped the attack. There was, however, a previously unseen challenge that the government had to face, namely the 17 minutes of footage streamed by the attacker, which was quickly picked up and started circulating the internet. First, officials asked internet users to delete or report any copies they came across. Second, the New Zealand Office of Film and Literature Classification quickly classified the video as “objectionable”, making it illegal to distribute copy, or exhibit the video. Social media platforms responded in a quick manner, nevertheless a controversy developed on the question of to what extent should these sites take responsibility for extremist content.
In contrast with the US, there were two major differences in New Zealand’s reaction to the attack. First was its classification of the incident as a “terrorist” act which in the US generally is attributed only to attackers of a specific religion or skin colour. Second, was the PM’s quick announcement that “Our gun laws will change, now is the time … People will be seeking change, and I am committed to that”, which came on the day of the attack. This was a recognition of a problem, and a promise for a solution. Not only was the availability of semi-automatic rifles criticised, but also the generally loose gun laws received significant scrutiny.
Although obtaining a firearms license in New Zealand involves Police background checks, and weapons safety training, statistics show that declining applications was uncommon. In 2017 out of 43,509 requests only 188 were declined. Furthermore, New Zealand is the only country except the United States which does not register 96% of its firearms. To make matters worse, a police report from two years ago warned of the potential dangers of such legislation underlining that such laws opened the way to “criminal harm”, especially since “purchase of high-capacity magazines is unregulated and does not require a firearms licence”. It was unfortunately with these magazines that the attacker was capable to cause such damage.
In light of these problems on the 4th of April a proposal passed the first reading in the parliament that attempts to address these deficiencies. On the official website the brief proposes “expanding the category of firearms that are prohibited to include most semi-automatic firearms and some shotguns”. Furthermore, “To allow prohibited items to be removed safely from the community, this bill will set up an amnesty for people to surrender them to licensed dealers and the Police”. The fact that it was put through parliament so quickly, with the final vote happening on the 10th of April, is a sign of the success of bipartisan cooperation, and it is a prominent example that other countries may want to follow.