Ardern: Shooter had five guns legally

Brenton Tarrant, the gunman at the centre of the Christchurch terror attack used weapons that appear to have been modified, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has said.

The ability to modify firearms has long been a weak point in New Zealand’s firearm laws, allowing licence-holders to legally hold weapons akin to those used in the military on relatively low-low-level gun licenses.

Ardern promised this morning that gun laws would change in New Zealand, with a ban on semi-automatic weapons mooted. This afternoon she also singled out the modification of weapons.

“We need to look at the modification of guns that can lead them to become essentially the kind of weapons that were used in this terrorist attack,” she said.

She said there were a “raft” of issues she would look at.

Parliament has one more scheduled week of sitting before going on recess for another week. Although years of attempts at gun reform mean potential legislation exists, it is unlikely to be readied in time for introduction next week.

Parliament’s next three week sitting block begins on April 2.

This afternoon Ardern confirmed the death toll remained at 49 overall, with 39 people in hospital, 11 of whom are in intensive care.

She said victims were from a range of ages and included both men and women.

Ardern also sketched out the next few days. She said the threat level would remain at high, saying noting that it enabled a multi-agency response.

Tarrant has been charged with one count of murder, although more will follow. Two people connected to the attack remain in custody. Police Commissioner Mike Bush will give an update to media tomorrow which is likely to give further details of their connection to the attack.

On Monday, Ardern will chair her regular Cabinet meeting. She said the only focus of that meeting will be a briefing on what has taken place since Friday, including briefings on security and intelligence, watch lists, and gun laws.

Ardern said police were currently working to clear identifying and removing bodies from Al Noor mosque at Hagley Park. She said all the bodies should be removed from the mosque by the end of the day.

Earlier the accused attacker appeared in the Christchurch District Court.

In white prison garb, his hands handcuffed in front, 28-year-old Brenton Harrison Tarrant, of Dunedin, was charged with one count of murder.

Armed police were present in court. Judge Paul Kellar said it was fair to assume more charges would be forthcoming. After a two-minute, 50-second appearance, he was remanded in custody until April 5.

Judge Kellar ordered images of Tarrant to be pixellated but there was no application for name suppression. After entering the court room, Tarrant looked at the public gallery. He looked at the third floor courtroom’s ceiling while the judge ordered the name of the murdered man be suppressed. He appeared calm and relaxed.

The public were barred from the court on safety grounds. Judge Kellar said the main reason for his orders were to ensure Tarrant had a fair trial. He stressed to assembled media, from Australasia, Europe and North America, that they were there as the eyes and ears of the public and that their reporting from the court appearance must be accurate, fair and balanced – if it wasn’t, it risked imperiling a potential trial.

Police Commissioner Mike Bush travelled to Christchurch on Saturday morning and said the top priority was ensuring national public safety, and supporting the victims.

Police expected to be able to provide further information about victims later today. Bush confirmed the fatalities included a child.

As well as Tarrant, the other two people still in custody were arrested at a cordon, and police were working to clarify their connection to the attacks.

Bush and District Commander John Price praised the heroic efforts of police who apprehended Tarrant.

A total of 36 minutes passed between when police got the call at the Hagley mosque and when the man was apprehended by police. There were seven minutes between the two attacks by Tarrant at the two mosques.

When police arrested Tarrant, he was in a car with one explosive device and other weapons, including firearms. Bush said the live audio being sent back to police command showed the man was very resistant to arrest.

The “wide-ranging” police investigation included searches at Tarrant’s home in Dunedin, and investigating posts and chatter on social media. Following the attack, a Christchurch teen has been charged under human rights legislation for “exciting hostility or ill-will” against people on the basis or race or ethnicity.

Bush said Tarrant would not have been able to purchase the gun, in the form it was used, with his Category A licence, but he did not give further information on how the weapons had been acquired, or the exact process followed by police when Tarrant was issued a gun licence in 2017. Bush said these details were still under investigation.

He also said he was “happy to hear” the Prime Minister’s pledge earlier in the day to tighten gun laws, but refused to elaborate further.

It was at her morning briefing Jacinda Ardern promised changse to gun laws with the ban on semi-automatic weapons being considered.

Briefing media,she said the main gunman used five weapons, including two semi-automatic weapons, two shotguns, and a lever action firearm. 

Outside Christchurch District Court this morning. Photo: David Williams 

She said he held a category A firearms license and appeared to have acquired his weapons legally. The licence was obtained in November 2017 and the gunman began purchasing the weapons in December of that year. 

But the laws that allowed the gunman to acquire and use these weapons look set to change, with Ardern asking for advice on Friday at how gun laws might be changed. 

“While work is being done as to the chain of events that led to both the holding of this gun licence and the possession of these weapons, I can tell you one thing right now: our gun laws will change,” she said. 

Pointing to past attempts at changing gun laws in New Zealand, she suggested that the tragic events in Christchurch pointed to a need for change. She said the fact that the gunman appeared to possess the weapons legally demonstrated why gun laws needed reform. 

“There have been efforts to change our gun laws in 2005, 2012, and after an inquiry in 2017: now is the time to change,” she said. 

Ardern pointed towards a ban on semi-automatic weapons as one possible avenue for reform, saying such a ban was one of the issues she was looking at “with immediate effect”. 

She said it was too early to comment on other ideas, like a possible buyback of dangerous weapons, as occurred in Australia in the mid-1990s. 

Evolving situation 

One five-year-old child was transferred in critical condition to Auckland’s Starship hospital. 

Further details have emerged about the main gunman. An Australian citizen, he had travelled the world and visited New Zealand for only “sporadic periods of time,” according to Ardern. At the time of the attack, he was resident in Dunedin. 

The other two attackers have not had identifying details released. The other person arrested on Friday was a member of the public, who was in possession of a firearm with the intention to assisting police. They have since been released. 

She said that none of those arrested had a criminal history either in New Zealand or in Australia, and were not on any watch lists. 

Responding to criticism that intelligence agencies may have been focused on Islamic extremism at the expense of white nationalist threats, Ardern said they were focused on threats “of any kind”. She said global rise of far-right extremism had seen our intelligence agencies “stepping up investigations”. 

International condolences 

Ardern said she had received condolences from world leaders, including those of Australia, Spain, the UK and the US. 

US President Donald Trump called Ardern on Saturday morning New Zealand time, offering assistance. 

Ardern asked for “sympathy and love for all Muslim communities”.

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