Christchurch, New Zealand • New Zealand’s coalition government plans to announce gun law changes within the next week in response to Friday’s deadly shooting rampage at two mosques in Christchurch, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Monday.
The measures could include restricting the military-style semiautomatic weapons that were used in the attacks, which killed 50 Muslim worshipers and injured more than 40. Similar weapons have been used in recent mass shootings in the United States.
The death toll exceeds New Zealand's annual homicide rate; 35 people were killed in 2017, the latest year for which figures are available.
"As a cabinet, we were absolutely unified and very clear. The terrorist attack in Christchurch on Friday was the worst act of terrorism on our shores," Ardern said. "It has exposed a range of weaknesses in New Zealand's gun laws. The clear lesson from history around the world is that, to make our community safe, the time to act is now."
The cabinet is dominated by the center-left Labour Party but includes four members of the right-wing New Zealand First party. It is supported by the progressive Green Party, which attended Monday's meeting.
It made a decision "in principle" about changing gun laws, Ardern said, adding that she will provide further details before the cabinet meets again next Monday.
"Within 10 days of this horrific act of terrorism, we will have announced reforms which will, I believe, make our community safer," she said.
The politicians' broad agreement highlights the consensus in New Zealand that making certain types of guns less accessible could have prevented or limited Friday's massacre.
The attacks have sent shock waves through this country of 4.5 million people at the bottom of the South Pacific.
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.
Vigils continued nationwide on Monday, from Auckland in the north to Queenstown in the south.
Hundreds of high school students gathered for a candlelight vigil in Hagley Park, directly opposite the Al Noor Mosque where the first and deadliest attack occurred. Students from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds sang songs and performed a ceremonial haka dance of the indigenous Maori culture, joined by crowds of people who had come to the park to pay their respects to the victims.
Jitters remain high. One student told her friends she thought a journalist's camera was a gun at first glance. There were bomb alerts in Auckland, Christchurch and Dunedin, but they turned out to be false alarms.
Brenton Tarrant, 28, of Australia was arrested after the attacks and has been charged with one count of murder. He is expected to face more charges when he next appears in court on April 5. He did not enter a plea during his initial court appearance Saturday and was remanded in custody.
His court-appointed lawyer, Richard Peters, said Tarrant has fired him. He said Tarrant plans to represent himself in court.
Tarrant appeared to be "quite clear and lucid" on Saturday and did not show any regret, Peters said.
"He didn't appear to me to be facing any challenges or mental impairment, other than holding fairly extreme views," Peters told the New Zealand Herald.
The lawyer suggested that Tarrant might want to use his trial to espouse his extremist white nationalist beliefs. 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 President Donald Trump as "a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose."
In response to criticism that he has implicitly encouraged white nationalism, Trump tweeted Monday: "The Fake News Media is working overtime to blame me for the horrible attack in New Zealand. They will have to work very hard to prove that one. So Ridiculous!"
Tarrant sent a copy of the manifesto to government offices, including the prime minister's office, which received it nine minutes before the attack. Ardern said there were no details about the timing or location of the impending attack.
Ardern announced an inquiry into what the immigration and intelligence agencies knew about the alleged attacker.
Investigators will also look into Tarrant's social media usage. The gunman live-streamed the attack on the Al Noor Mosque, where 42 people were killed, on Facebook. The video was deleted but not before it had been widely shared.
Facebook and other social media companies "have to step up" and do more to fight hate speech, the prime minister said.
In Wellington, the capital, Ardern was the first person to sign a national condolence book Monday. "On behalf of all New Zealanders, we grieve together,"she wrote. "We are one. They are us."
Most of the victims of the attacks were immigrants or visitors from countries with Muslim majorities or large Muslim populations. Among the dead were worshipers from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Turkey, Malaysia, Indonesia, Somalia and Afghanistan, officials said. The youngest was a 3-year-old boy born in New Zealand to refugee parents from Somalia.
In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan played clips from the video of the mosque attacks and highlighted excerpts of the manifesto as he sought to rally Islamist supporters ahead of local elections. Referring to threats in the manifesto against Muslims in Istanbul, Erdogan also warned that anyone who tried to reclaim the city for Christianity would be sent home "in caskets." His use of the Christchurch massacre for domestic political purposes drew a stiff rebuke from New Zealand.
Tarrant had been living sporadically in Dunedin, at the south of New Zealand's South Island, since the end of 2017 and had practiced at a gun club there. The club closed Monday, and the vice president said it might never open again.
Presently, people in New Zealand must obtain licenses to own guns. But they are almost always approved: 99.6 percent of the 43,509 license applications filed in 2017 were successful.
Tarrant had a gun license and allegedly used a variant of the AR-15, a semiautomatic weapon that has been used in many mass shootings in the United States, including at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in 2018; and on the Las Vegas strip in 2017. A similar weapon was used at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012.
Since the shooting, Ardern has talked about requiring licenses for individual guns, rather than for users, and banning semiautomatic weapons.
A separate police investigation is continuing.
Australian counterterrorism 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.
The counterterrorism officials then stormed a second house at Lawrence, a bit farther north and close to Grafton, where Tarrant grew up. This house reportedly belongs to the boyfriend of his mother, who is a schoolteacher. Tarrant's father, a garbage collector, died in 2010.
"The primary aim of the activity is to formally obtain material that may assist New Zealand Police in their ongoing investigation," Australian police said in a statement. Tarrant's family was helping the police with their investigation, they said.
More than 250 police officers are already working on the investigation of the attacks, the largest number ever deployed to a case in New Zealand. FBI officers are also helping police with "a number of specialist areas," Police Commissioner Mike Bush said Monday.
That investigation has led to delays in returning victims' bodies to their families. Police said that although they are gathering 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.
Multiple graves have been dug at a cemetery in Christchurch, and mosques are expected to reopen for Friday prayers.
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.
Thirty-four people wounded in the attacks remain hospitalized, 12 of them in critical condition.
Mahtani reported from Wellington, New Zealand. The Washington Post’s Brett Cole in Grafton, Australia, and William Branigin in Washington contributed to this report.