Christchurch Terrorist Attack Initiates Widespread Political Discussion, In New Zealand and Abroad

By Ciara Chow (PO ’22)

On Friday, March 15, fifty people were killed in a mass shooting (now designated as a terrorist attack) in Christchurch, New Zealand. The gunman opened fire in two mosques. The Christchurch attack is the largest in New Zealand history with a death toll almost four times higher than the country’s previous largest shooting thirty years ago, which killed thirteen. Although New Zealand is known for its unusually lax gun laws as compared to Australia and other Western countries, it is also a nation that prides itself on its peace and tolerance. Thus, New Zealand is committing to reforms. Moreover, citizens of many nations are reconsidering a number of their firearm and hate speech policies and norms as the world reflects on Christchurch.

Six days after the attack, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced bans on semi-automatic weapons and assault rifles to be enacted by April 11. High capacity magazines and other related firearm parts will be included in this ban. This recent change comes despite multiple reform efforts in recent years; New Zealand’s gun policies have remained mostly intact since 1992. Though many activist groups have advocated for reform measures to be implemented, University of Sydney professor and founder of GunPolicy.org Phillip Alpers reported, “Not one of these measures has been addressed by legislation. Government has since considered a range of similar recommendations, but special interest groups prevent meaningful change.” Now, the Prime Minister’s gun reforms are backed by a swell of public support as well as the support of former Prime Minister Judith Collins, who is condemning gun lobbyists for their history of blocking gun control. Some gun owners have already begun voluntarily turning their semi-automatic firearms over to police to be destroyed, even though the government announced a weapons buyback program and an amnesty period for those who own guns which will soon be deemed illegal.

Australians are also coming to terms with the policies and political trends that have emerged since the shooting. Though Gun Control Australia reports that their nation’s gun policies are still stricter than the expected New Zealand reforms, the organization asserted that the Australian government should update their laws and close existing loopholes following the Christchurch attack, as well. However, Australians are more concerned with hate speech and discrimination, especially since the alleged Christchurch shooter is Australian. Senator Fraser Anning is suffering criticism after his Islamophobic anti-immigrant rhetoric. Soon after the shooting, he stated, “The real cause of bloodshed on New Zealand streets today is the immigration program that allowed Muslim fanatics to migrate to New Zealand in the first place.” A day later, seventeen-year-old Will Connolly went viral for cracking an egg on Anning’s head during a press conference. Connolly, now known as Egg Boy, received $50,000 in donations for his act, and he later announced he will donate all the money to Christchurch victims. The Egg Boy phenomenon is not an isolated incident; 1.4 million people signed a petition to remove Anning from the legislature. Hate speech, particularly anti-immigrant and Islamophobic rhetoric, is potent in many aspects of Australian politics, and the Christchurch attack—perpetrated by an Australian citizen—has called attention to needs for reform.

Across the globe in Ireland, the Green Party is calling for urgent gun law changes as well. Green Party Senator Grace O’Sullivan criticized her nation’s gun policies for several reasons, like the country’s ongoing firearm permits for those as young as 14 years old. Ireland has some of the strongest gun control in the world and lowest possession rates, but O’Sullivan demanded the government close gaps to “prevent a tragedy on our own shores.”

Of course, the attack has also brought heightened attention to gun policies in the United States, where the acrimonious political issue has regularly taken center stage in recent years. Six years following the Sandy Hook massacre at an American elementary school, little has changed about gun laws, with some states even loosening policies. By contrast, New Zealand announced a ban on semiautomatic assault rifles after Christchurch within a mere six days. Although New Zealand had stricter firearm policies than the United States to begin with, both nations have relatively high gun possession rates per capita and lax standards compared to their international counterparts. Much of the difficulty in passing American gun reform derives from the political power of the National Rifle Association (NRA). In addition to NRA lobbying and campaign funding power, the United States’ Second Amendment makes gun control legislation harder to pass than in New Zealand, which has no right to bear arms explicitly stated in their constitution. Even in the United States, politicians, legal scholars and citizens interpret the Second Amendment in a multitude of ways with differing implications for the constitutionality of gun control. However, the NRA and the difficult process of amending the Constitution complicates the situation for advocates despite the fact that 70% of Americans support increased gun control.

Additionally, the Christchurch shooting has aroused concern regarding the alleged shooter’s use of the internet. The accused attacker Facebook live streamed the shooting for seventeen minutes and posted his 65,000 word manifesto online beforehand,  describing himself as a white supremacist. The man was also a member of the 8chan community, known for its hate speech and inflammatory language. There are calls for moderation of sites like this, but the sheer quantity of posts and issues with maintaining free speech pose significant obstacles to moderation policies. Furthermore, advocates for moderation must grapple with challenges resulting from the absence of a governing body to enforce Internet policy and ethical questions regarding moderator employment. In response to criticism, Facebook reported they would be reassessing the flagging process for live streamed videos and removed 1.5 million videos of the attack that had been reposted. Further, the New Zealand government banned the possession and distribution of the manifesto.

Nations all over the world are reassessing their laws and politics in the aftermath of Christchurch, especially in regard to gun control and discrimination. Christchurch provoked many countries—other than just the more-immediate New Zealand—to reflect on their policies. New Zealand’s rapid response in the wake of this tragedy reminded other nations of their own weaknesses, ensuring the response reverberates well beyond the small island country to as far as the halls of Washington D.C. 

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