Counterterrorism officers raided at least two houses in eastern Australia Monday as investigations were stepped up into the March 15 massacre of Muslims by a lone gunman at mosques in the New Zealand city of Christchurch.
The death toll from the mass shootings, blamed on 28-year-old Australian Brenton Tarrant, has risen to 50. Another 39 people remain in hospital, including children of two and four; 11 of the casualties are in intensive care.
Tarrant appeared briefly in Christchurch District Court on March 16 to face one charge of murder, with others expected to follow. Smirking at onlookers, he did not speak but flashed a symbol used by white supremacist groups that the judge ordered to be blurred.
Police in the Australian state of New South Wales confirmed that officers from the Joint Counter Terrorism Team had searched homes at Lawrence and Sandy Beach on the central north coast. Lawrence is just north of Tarrant’s home town of Grafton on the Clarence River, while Sandy Beach is near Coffs Harbour to the south.
“The primary aim of the activity is to formally obtain material that may assist New Zealand Police in their ongoing investigation,” the police said, adding that members of the Tarrant family were assisting their enquiries.
Apart from state police, the joint team also comprises officers from the Australian Federal Police — Australia’s equivalent to the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the US — domestic spying agency the Australian Security Intelligence Organization and the government’s NSW Crime Commission.
Police said the raids were to secure information, not suspects. “The community can be assured that there is no information to suggest a current or impending threat related to these search warrants,” they said.
Tarrant is believed to have lived at both homes before heading overseas in 2016. One is occupied by his mother and the other by a sister. His movements are somewhat unclear, but it is known he visited Pakistan, Turkey, North Korea and European countries in recent years.
According to a manifesto that Tarrant released shortly before the killing rampage, his views changed dramatically between April and May 2017, and he began to plan for the attacks. He then moved to New Zealand, living at Dunedin on the South Island and joining a gun club in Milburn.
Club president Scott Williams said Tarrant trained with various firearms.
“He was always there helping out with any work that was needed around the club, or when it came to set up or pack down the range. I think we’re feeling a bit stunned and shocked and a bit betrayed, perhaps, that we’ve had this person in our club …,” Williams told The Otago Times newspaper.
Christchurch police seized five firearms that Tarrant used in the shootings – two semiautomatic rifles, a lever-action firearm and two shotguns – and said all were legally obtained when he was granted a license in 2017.
New Zealand has very lenient gun laws by the standards of most Western nations, but Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said they would be tightened in the wake of the attacks.
“The mere fact that this individual had acquired a gun license and acquired weapons of that range, then obviously I think people will be seeking change, and I’m committing to that,” Ardern said.
She declined to say why this hadn’t happened earlier, despite a series of warnings from police and senior legal figures stretching back decades.
A 1997 review into gun controls chaired by retired judge Sir Thomas Thorp recommended that semi-automatic rifles be banned and a buyback scheme be launched, similar to Australia after the 1996 Port Arthur massacre. He also called for a gun registry and more restrictive gun licensing laws.
The gun lobby blocked these reforms and others in 1999, 2005, 2012 and 2017. Assistant police commissioner Nick Perry told a parliamentary committee in 2017 it was too easy for foreigners to buy a gun license.
“They pay their $25, they get a license,” Perry said. “So I could paint a scenario where ISIS, for example, being stymied in Europe, are looking for softer targets. If they did a little bit of spadework, they’d find out how easy it is to get into New Zealand, how easy it is to get a firearms license, how easy it is to purchase high-capacity assault rifles,” he added.
Anyone over the age of 16 can apply for a firearms license, and it is valid for 10 years. As most guns do not need to be registered, no one knows how many are in circulation, but police believe that 1.5 million have been legally acquired, or one for every four people who is living in New Zealand.
Most New Zealanders appear to support stricter controls, but there has still been a rush to buy guns for self-defense before the crackdown begins – partly because most police will continue to be armed only with batons.
Tarrant was not on any watch-list for his white supremacist activities, and had no criminal record in Australia other than traffic fines. Due to appear in the High Court on April 5, he is expected to face additional charges of murder.
Ardern said he would be tried in New Zealand but she was seeking advice on his possible deportation to Australia. Criminals are routinely sent home from the respective countries once they have completed their sentences.
Australians have reached out to help New Zealand following the killings, with even Tarrant’s home town organizing memorial services for victims.
More than one million have signed a petition seeking the expulsion from parliament of outspoken senator Fraser Anning, who has blamed the shootings on New Zealand’s immigration policies. Now a member of the far right One Nation party, Anning is known for his extreme views on race.
Senators cannot be expelled unless they are convicted of a crime with a jail term of at least two years, but there will be a censure motion against him when parliament reconvenes in April. He is already facing public condemnation.
On Sunday a 17-year-old boy cracked an egg on the back of the senator’s head, prompting Anning to punch the teenager, an exchange that has gone viral on mainstream and social media. Police are investigating.
Donations are being sought for the boy’s defense and “to buy more eggs,” reports said.