New Zealand PM vows tighter gun laws after death toll in Christchurch terror attack rises to 50

Jane Onyanga-Omara

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern reiterated her promise for changes to the country’s gun laws Sunday, two days after a gunman killed 50 people in a terrorist attack on two mosques in the city of Christchurch.

Ardern said at a news conference that laws need to change and “they will change.” She said her Cabinet will discuss the policy details Monday.

New Zealand has fewer restrictions on rifles or shotguns than many countries. Handguns are more tightly controlled. 

The death toll in the attack at the Al Noor and Linwood mosques rose to 50 people Saturday; victims range in age from 2 to over 60, the New Zealand Herald reported. 

Services for the victims were held at churches across the country Sunday, and people laid flowers at memorial sites. A group of bikers performed the haka – a traditional ceremonial dance of New Zealand's Maori people – at the memorial in Christchurch.

Thirty-nine people remained in the hospital, and 11 were in intensive care in critical condition, the Herald said. It said a 4-year-old child was transferred to Starship children's hospital in Auckland on New Zealand’s North Island.

Relatives  waited Sunday for authorities to release the remains of their loved ones. Islamic law calls for bodies to be buried as soon as possible, usually within 24 hours. Many of the victims were immigrants from countries including Pakistan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia.

Ardern said a small number of bodies would start being released to families Sunday evening. Authorities hoped to release all them by Wednesday.

Members of the Muslim community lay flowers at the memorial wall at the Botanic Gardens on March 17, 2019 in Christchurch, New Zealand. 50 people are confirmed dead, with dozens injured still in hospital following shooting attacks on two mosques in Christchurch on Friday, March 15th.

Police Commissioner Mike Bush said police worked with pathologists and coroners to release the bodies as soon as possible. 

“We have to be absolutely clear on the cause of death and confirm their identity before that can happen,” he said. “But we are so aware of the cultural and religious needs. So we are doing that as quickly and as sensitively as possible.”

Police said they released a preliminary list of the victims to families.

More: Death toll rises to 50 in New Zealand mosque shootings

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Brenton Harrison Tarrant, 28, an Australian man, appeared in court Saturday and was charged with one count of murder. The judge said “it was reasonable to assume” more such charges would follow. The suspect was ordered to return to court April 5. Two other people, a man and a woman, who were arrested soon after the shootings were not linked to the alleged shooter. 

The suspected gunman, who described himself as a white supremacist, emailed a copy of a more-than-70-page anti-immigrant manifesto to Ardern's office and more than 60 other recipients shortly before the attack, according to media reports.

"I was one of more than 30 recipients of the manifesto that was mailed out nine minutes before the attack took place," Ardern said Sunday, Agence France Presse reported.

"It did not include a location, it did not include specific details," she said. Ardern said the document was sent to security services within two minutes of receiving it.  

Sayyad Milne, 14, was killed at Al Noor Mosque. His father, John Milne, described him as a "brave little soldier," the New Zealand Herald reported. The newspaper said Sayyad attended the mosque with his mother and friends every Friday.

"I've lost my little boy," his father said. "I remember him as my baby who I nearly lost when he was born. Such a struggle he's had throughout all his life. A brave little soldier. It's so hard ... to see him just gunned down by someone who didn't care about anyone or anything."