Women across New Zealand are wearing headscarves in a show of support for the Muslim community
WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND – Every New Zealander will remember where they were and what they were doing when they first learned about the Christchurch terror attack.
Brooke Metekingi works part-time at a security company in Porirua and got a phone call from a friend concerned about her well-being.
Isadore Campbell was watching the news while working from home and saw the breaking news alert about police activity in Christchurch’s Hagley Park neighborhood – a foreboding report that contained little hint of the horrors to come.
Imam Mustenser Qamar had just finished his own Friday prayers in his Lower Hutt community when he got a text message from a Christian friend who he had met through his “Meet a Muslim” initiative. “Are you ok?” the text read. “Hearing about this shooting and it’s terrible praying for all of you.”
The shootings at two mosques in Christchurch last Friday that left 50 dead and dozens more injured have forever changed the face of New Zealand.
Government officials have promised swift action on gun control with the backing of every major party in Parliament – the center-right opposition National Party even says the proposed new legislation doesn’t go far enough.
Meanwhile, major private and public corporations are lashing out at tech companies like Facebook and Google for not doing enough to stop people from sharing footage of the shootings.
Rallying around the nation’s Muslims
Domestically, Kiwis have rallied around the Muslim community, offering to provide escorts so Muslims feel safer and depositing thousands of flowers at mosques around the country.
These responses, although quick and sweeping, were not immediate.
First, there was shock.
“I was absolutely horrified when I realized the extent of what was actually happening,” Campbell told USA TODAY. Campbell, a mixed-race immigrant from South Africa whose family were incarcerated for fighting against apartheid, found herself experiencing flashbacks to the racism she had experienced in Cape Town.
Qamar had similar thoughts.
“I could have been there that day. It could have been any of us,” the imam found himself thinking. “That’s the shocking thing about it. I’d been to one of the mosques a couple of months ago and I even prayed there. It has indirectly affected all Muslims across New Zealand.”
In the evening, the nation tuned in to the radio and television to watch Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern address the nation.
“We, New Zealand, we were not a target because we are a safe harbor for those who hate. We were not chosen for this act of violence because we condone racism, because we are an enclave for extremism. We were chosen for the very fact that we are none of those things,” she said. “Because we represent diversity, kindness, compassion. A home for those who share our values. Refuge for those who needs it. And those values will not and cannot be shaken by this attack.”
Her words struck a chord.
“I was completely grief-stricken. I once again had the television on and I found myself weeping unconsolably for hours,” Campbell said of her reaction.
As the day progressed, however, that mourning transformed into a desire to take action and embrace the Muslim community in its grief.
‘We love our Muslim communities’
On Facebook, hundreds of people offered to walk with local Muslims to school, to work, or even just to the grocery store. Metekingi, 27, was one of those.
“Any Muslim women in Porirua who feels unsafe pls PM me. As tangata whenua [an indigenous New Zealander], I do not want you to feel unsafe!” she wrote online.
Around the country, graffiti, posters and stickers appeared championing New Zealand’s Muslims. “We love our Muslim communities,” one spray-painted message read in Lyall Bay.
Others took action in unorthodox manners. In Australia, 17-year-old Will Connolly cracked an egg on the head of Australian Senator Fraser Anning. As news of the shooting was still filtering out last Friday, Anning had tweeted, in a since-deleted post: “Does anyone still dispute the link between Muslim immigration and violence?”
Connolly’s actions went viral and provided a bit of much-needed levity in New Zealand. “Scrolling through the Egg Boy trending stream brought one of the only smiles of the day to the face of the immigrant Muslim in my house,” Kiwi commentator Tze Ming Mok wrote of her husband’s reaction to the footage.
By Sunday, the country was united and resolved to address the shootings head on. At a vigil in Wellington’s Basin Reserve, refugee rights campaigner Gayaal Iddamalgoda took issue with New Zealand security services’ response to the attack. “Why was our secret service busy surveilling our Muslim neighbors and not the extremists who sought to victimize them?” he asked during his speech.
“When will politicians left and right own up to the fact that they have for years scapegoated and blamed migrants and refugees for social and economic problems that they are not responsible for?” Iddamalgoda continued.
The crowd roared in agreement.
Social media companies slammed
In a news conference, Ardern began to raise questions about the way major tech companies responded to the attack. The shooter livestreamed his actions on Facebook and the footage was left up for an hour. Since then, it has been distributed across the internet.
New Zealand returned to work on Monday, with questions unanswered, issues unresolved. In Wellington, the buses kept running, ferrying commuters past bus stops whose electronic advertisements had been replaced with the image of New Zealand’s flag in a heart.
At the Parliament buildings, police armed with assault rifles stood guard – an unusual sight in a country where most law enforcement carry no firearms at all. That day, Ardern promised to announce new gun control legislation within 10 days of the shooting.
New Zealand Prime Minister said the country’s gun laws will change after the mosque shootings that left 49 dead.
In New Zealand, handguns and many military-style semi-automatic weapons are already strictly regulated. However, an AR-15 can be purchased with the most basic gun license and Radio New Zealand reported on Sunday that 99.6 percent of license applications were approved in 2017.
The AR-15 – the gun of choice for mass killers – can be combined with a high-capacity magazine to become a potent weapon. Gun owners with basic licenses are allowed to have only low-capacity magazines in their rifles, but high-capacity ones are not regulated.
However, New Zealanders own guns for very different reasons than Americans. While American gun owners list protection as their top motivation, that isn’t even a valid option on New Zealand’s license application. Instead, the application focuses on recreational ownership.
Owning a handgun in New Zealand requires joining a gun club, waiting out a six-month probationary period, providing two references and undergoing a police interview . Even then, handguns can only legally be fired at target ranges.
Halting the sale of some firearms
Already, major firearms retailers had pulled semi-automatic weapons from the shelves. TradeMe, New Zealand’s $1.7 billion version of eBay, announced it would stop selling all semi-automatic guns.
Hunting & Fishing, an outdoor and sporting goods retailer with 37 outlets throughout the country, pulled military-style semi-automatic weapons March 15 and ended online sales of the guns the next day.
Meanwhile, Gun City, which claims to be New Zealand’s largest firearm retailer, took advantage of a wave of panic buyers ahead of the anticipated reforms. Chief executive David Tipple refused to bow to online criticism and has continued to sell semi-automatic weapons online and in stores, despite the fact that Gun City sold the Christchurch shooter four weapons and ammunition.
Tipple did not respond to a request for comment from USA TODAY.
Gun owners voiced their frustration with the coming gun legislation, announced Thursday by Ardern. The ban will be on all assault rifles, high-capacity magazines and military-style semi-automatic rifles.
Mike Loder, a 48-year-old gun rights enthusiast, told USA TODAY he thought the government was moving too quickly with its plans for gun reform. “If gun laws will keep me safe, I support them. But right now we’re coming up with a solution when we don’t even know what the problem is. We haven’t had time to launch an investigation and we aren’t waiting for the results of it before taking action,” he said.
Other gun owners reacted differently. John Hart, a farmer and Green Party politician, said he had owned a gun for years. After the shooting, however, he went to his local police station and turned the weapon in.
Campbell agrees with the government’s quick action on guns. “Often I have sat in horror watching the news unfold from the United States and I’ve wondered when on earth they would change their gun laws.”
The shooting and its aftermath have had a unifying effect on New Zealand. When Ardern announced the details of the gun law changes on Thursday, all but one Parliamentarian came out in support.
Displays of national unity are common
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says the terror suspect sought notoriety, “but we in New Zealand will give him nothing.”
This is just the first round of legislative changes. Details about a plan for the government to buy back the guns from firearms owners have yet to be released. A national firearm registry has the support of the center-right National Party.
Such displays of national unity are not common in New Zealand. The Federated Farmers organization, which represents a major bloc of gun owners, came out in support of the new laws as well.
“Christchurch, March 15 has changed everything,” the group’s security spokesman, Miles Anderson, said in a statement.
Gun laws aren’t the only focus. A coalition of major New Zealand companies, including telecommunications firm Spark NZ, locally-owned Kiwibank, and Burger King all pledged to pull advertising from Facebook and Google after the video was distributed.
Public organizations also are protesting the tech companies. KiwiSaver, the country’s public savings program made up of private investment funds, has begun dumping millions of dollars of Facebook stock. Police have also arrested and charged individuals in the country for sharing the footage of the shooting.
Metekingi said she thinks “social media needs to be held accountable.” She said that Facebook should do a better job of moderating its livestreaming feature or else should it down.
The livestream video made the whole event that much more horrific, Metekingi believes. “I haven’t seen it and I hope to never see it,” she said of the footage. “It just makes what he did a lot worse.”
At 1:32 pm on Friday, the Muslim call to prayer was broadcast nationwide and followed by two minutes of silence. New Zealand was a totally different country than it had been a week before.
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