CHRISTCHURCH (THE WASHINGTON POST) - The man accused of mass shootings at mosques in New Zealand has fired his lawyer and plans to represent himself in court, leading to speculation that he might try to use his trial as a platform for extremist views.
Brenton Tarrant, 28, of Australia, who has been charged with one count of murder, appeared to be lucid and not mentally unstable, said Mr Richard Peters, his former attorney. He is expected to face more charges when he next appears in court on April 5.
Fifty people were killed and 40 were injured in the shootings at two mosques in Christchurch last Friday (March 15), an act that has shocked this country of 4.5 million people. There are still 34 people in hospitals, including a four-year-old girl who is in a critical condition.
New Zealand has long been considered safe from terrorism and from the outside world in general. American tycoons flocked to buy property here in the wake of the attacks of Sept 11, 2001, and other terrorist attacks on the United States.
The death toll from last Friday's attacks exceeds New Zealand's annual homicide rate; 35 people were killed in 2017, the latest year for which figures are available.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has called for changes to the nation's gun laws.
"We cannot be deterred from the work we need to do on our gun laws in New Zealand. They need to change," she said on Sunday.
Presently, people must obtain licences to own guns, and 99.6 per cent of the 43,509 licence applications filed in 2017 were approved.
Ms Ardern has talked about requiring licences for individual guns, rather than for users, and about banning semi-automatic weapons.
Tarrant had a gun licence and used a variant of the AR-15, a semi-automatic weapon that has been used in many mass shootings in the US, including at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in 2018; on the Las Vegas Strip in 2017; and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012.
New Zealand's Cabinet was meeting on Monday to consider changes to the laws.
Gun stores reported "panic buying" of semi-automatic weapons in anticipation of law changes - similar to what occurs in the US after massacres and calls for gun control.
Separately, Trade Me, an online marketplace similar to eBay, said it would remove all listings for semi-automatic guns and parts.
As tributes to the victims came in from around the world, Ms Ardern and Governor-General Patsy Reddy, Queen Elizabeth's representative in this Commonwealth country, opened two condolence books in Parliament's Grand Hall on Monday morning.
"On behalf of all New Zealanders we grieve, together we are one, they are us," the Prime Minister wrote. Dame Reddy wrote: "All of the communities in Christchurch and around New Zealand who are suffering, our thoughts and hearts are with you."
Graves have been dug at a cemetery in Christchurch, and police say that although they are collecting evidence, they are conscious of the need to return the victims' bodies to their families so they can be buried in line with Muslim customs. The first funerals are expected to begin on Monday night.
With many mosques nationwide closed since the attacks, some churches welcomed Muslims into their buildings over the weekend to allow them to pray in sacred spaces.
The investigation of the attacks, which Ms Ardern called an act of terrorism, is continuing.
Australian counter-terrorism police raided two houses in New South Wales on Monday. One was that of Tarrant's sister in Sandy Beach, halfway between Sydney and Brisbane, and the other was farther north.
The counter-terrorism officials then stormed a second house in Lawrence, a bit farther north and close to Grafton, where Tarrant grew up.
"The primary aim of the activity is to formally obtain material that may assist New Zealand Police in their ongoing investigation," Australian authorities said in a statement. Tarrant's family was helping the police with their investigation, they said.
Tarrant was born and raised in Australia but had been travelling for the past nine or so years, including to Turkey and Pakistan. He had been living sporadically in Dunedin, at the south of New Zealand's South Island, since the end of 2017 and had practised at a gun club there.
The club, the Bruce Rifle Club, closed on Monday, and its vice-president said it may never reopen.
Mr Peters said he had been fired as Tarrant's court-appointed lawyer.
"What did seem apparent to me is he seemed quite clear and lucid, whereas this may seem like very irrational behaviour," said Mr Peters, who represented Tarrant during his first court appearance last Saturday.
"He didn't appear to me to be facing any challenges or mental impairment, other than holding fairly extreme views," Mr Peters told The New Zealand Herald, adding that the alleged gunman did not display regret.
The lawyer suggested that Tarrant might want to use his trial to espouse his extreme views.
The suspect left behind a 74-page hate-filled manifesto in which he said he wanted to "directly reduce immigration rates to European lands". He also praised US President Donald Trump as "a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose".