New Zealand premier orders inquiry as portrait of shooting suspect emerges
DUNEDIN, New Zealand – The gun enthusiast with light brown hair and an Australian accent did not stand out among the 100 or so members of the Bruce Rifle Club, who practiced shooting at a range in a forest in southern New Zealand.
He favored a bolt-action hunting rifle and an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle and would participate in shooting competitions. No one saw any warning signs.
“He was polite,” said Scott Williams, the club’s vice president. “He would help put things away. He would help set up. He worked like a Trojan.”
But now New Zealand officials are wondering if anyone might have missed something about Brenton Harrison Tarrant, the 28-year-old suspect in the shootings at two mosques in Christchurch on Friday that left at least 50 people dead.
On Monday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she had ordered an inquiry into whether government agencies could have prevented the attack.
“The purpose of this inquiry is to look at what all relevant agencies knew – or could or should have known – about the individual and his activities, including his access to weapons,” she said at a news conference in Wellington, the capital.
She also said her Cabinet had agreed “in principle” to an overhaul of the country’s gun laws and was working out the details.
“Within 10 days of this horrific act of terrorism, we will have announced reforms that I believe will have made our community safer,” Ardern said.
Earlier, Wally Haumaha, deputy New Zealand police commissioner, said identification specialists had worked through the night to identify the people killed at the Al Noor and Linwood mosques so that their bodies could be returned to their families. Islamic leaders and victims’ relatives have been discussing whether to hold a burial for all 50 victims at once, possibly Wednesday. As of Monday night, 31 people were hospitalized in Christchurch, nine of them in critical condition. A 4-year-old was in critical condition at a hospital in Auckland, where she was flown after the attack.
Police investigations continued, as counterterrorism officers in Australia searched the homes of Tarrant’s mother and sister in the northeastern coastal towns of Lawrence and Sandy Beach.
And in New Zealand, more than half a dozen police officers searched Tarrant’s residence near the center of Dunedin, about 220 miles south of Christchurch. The blue-gray house had air-conditioning units, wide, rectangular windows with open curtains, an overgrown yard and a mailbox with a sticker reading: “NO JUNK MAIL. Thank you!”
Two weeks before the attack, Tarrant’s one-bedroom, one-bathroom home was listed online as available for rent starting April 2, according to a cached version of the post that has since expired.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey said Monday that Tarrant made two trips to the country in 2016, one for three days and the other for 43 days. Turkish officials said they were investigating what he did there.
Few details have emerged about Tarrant’s life. It is unclear whether he had a job. Several neighbors said they did not know many of their neighbors and had not met Tarrant.
Williams said that the Bruce Rifle Club was cooperating with the police investigation and that it was closed until further notice.
By the time Tarrant joined the club, he had already started buying firearms from Gun City, one of New Zealand’s largest gun retailers. David Tipple, the managing director, said his company had sold Tarrant four firearms along with ammunition between December 2017 – a month after Tarrant received his gun license – and March 2018.
Tipple said Tarrant’s online purchases had not raised any red flags.
“He was a brand-new purchaser, with a brand-new license,” he said.
Darren Jacobs, chief executive of Hunting & Fishing New Zealand, confirmed Monday that the retailer’s Dunedin branch had sold Tarrant a bolt-action hunting rifle in 2017.
Still a mystery is the source of a semi-automatic rifle that can be seen in a video of the attack on Al Noor Mosque. Tipple said it did not come from Gun City.
The details of Tarrant’s arsenal emerged as New Zealand considers tightening its gun regulations. Among the legislative changes the prime minister is likely to consider are a ban on semi-automatic weapons and laws requiring that all firearms be registered and all gun sales recorded.
Trade Me, New Zealand’s biggest online marketplace, said Monday that it had removed all semi-automatic firearms and related parts from its site in response to customer concerns.
Also Monday, a teenager charged with creating and distributing objectionable materials made his first appearance in a Christchurch court. Prosecutors say the 18-year-old, whose name and identifying details have been suppressed, published a photo of Al Noor Mosque with the message “Target acquired” a week before the shootings. He did not enter a plea and was remanded into custody until his next court appearance in April.
The police said that they did not believe he was involved in the attack.