NZ pledges gun control; suspected Christchurch shooter sacks lawyer

CHRISTCHURCH • New Zealand will tighten gun laws in the wake of its worst modern-day massacre, the government said yesterday, as it emerged that the white supremacist accused of carrying out the killings at two mosques will represent himself in court.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said her coalition was unified on the need to reduce the availability of the kind of weapons used by Brenton Tarrant as he went room to room shooting Muslims gathered for Friday prayers last week.

"We have made a decision as a Cabinet, we are unified," she said, flanked by her coalition partner and Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters.

Mr Peters, whose New Zealand First party previously opposed changes, said he backed the Prime Minister fully. "The reality is that after 1pm on Friday, our world changed forever, and so will our laws," he said.

Ms Ardern, the youthful Prime Minister who has become the face of the country's tragedy, said there would be an inquiry into the horrifying attack, as questions swirl over whether intelligence agencies should have spotted warning signs.

The role of social media has also come under the spotlight, after the gunman live-streamed his rampage on Facebook. A teenager, whose name cannot be published, appeared in court yesterday charged with distributing that footage.

Grief continued to wash across the country yesterday, with New Zealanders of all stripes gathering to express revulsion over the killings - and a unified front against racial hatred.

Family and friends outside Al Noor Mosque - the scene of the largest massacre - held a sunset prayer session, with their mournful cries echoing through a park as locals looked on.

Earlier, a Maori cleansing ceremony was performed at the mosque, bringing together indigenous Kiwis, Muslim leaders and local officials.

Dozens of students then paid their respects, with many coming together for a haka - a traditional Maori ceremonial dance that has been performed by groups across New Zealand in the wake of killings.

The organisers of New Zealand's largest gun show - the Kumeu Militaria Show, near Auckland - announced yesterday that they had cancelled the event in the wake of the massacre and because of "elevated security risks".

Despite having tightened the rules in the 1990s after the last mass shooting, New Zealand has relatively permissive gun laws, with licences granted to nearly every applicant.

Tarrant, who appeared in court last Saturday charged with murder, yesterday sacked his state-appointed lawyer.

Mr Richard Peters, who represented the alleged killer during the hearing, said the 28-year-old "wants to be self-represented in this case".

"The way he presented was rational and someone who was not suffering any mental disability. He seemed to understand what was going on," Mr Peters said.

Under New Zealand law, if Tarrant pleads not guilty, his case would normally go to trial, rai-sing the possibility that he could face survivors and victims' families in court.

Meanwhile, frustrated families of the 50 victims were still waiting yesterday for the release of the bodies of their loved ones, as officials worked their way through a painstaking investigation.

Dozens of graves were being dug in readiness for that release, which Police Deputy Commissioner Wally Haumaha said would hopefully happen soon.

The authorities said 31 people remained in hospital, nine in critical condition.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 19, 2019, with the headline 'NZ pledges gun control; suspected shooter sacks lawyer'. Print Edition | Subscribe