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An ex-gun lobbyist is revising New Zealand's gun laws, tightened after the 2019 mosque attack

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An ex-gun lobbyist is revising New Zealand's gun laws, tightened after the 2019 mosque attack
News

News

An ex-gun lobbyist is revising New Zealand's gun laws, tightened after the 2019 mosque attack

2024-06-21 18:27 Last Updated At:18:30

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — New Zealand’s government will overhaul the tighter gun laws introduced after a deadly mass shooting by a white supremacist five years ago, because they put excessive burdens on gun owners who feel vilified by law enforcement and the public, the lawmaker leading the changes said.

“What’s happened is a massive change with massive penalties and targets on people who didn’t do anything wrong,” Associate Justice Minister Nicole McKee — a lobbyist for gun owners before she entered Parliament in 2020 — told The Associated Press in an interview this week. Every part of the law will be scrutinized, including the restrictions that bar all but a few hundred New Zealanders from firing banned semiautomatic weapons, she said.

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FILE - An armed policeman patrols the grounds at the Al Noor mosque following the previous week's mass shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand, on March 23, 2019. New Zealand’s government will overhaul the tighter gun laws introduced after a deadly mass shooting by a white supremacist five years ago, because they put excessive burdens on gun owners who feel vilified by law enforcement and the public, the lawmaker leading the changes said. (AP Photo/Mark Baker, File)

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — New Zealand’s government will overhaul the tighter gun laws introduced after a deadly mass shooting by a white supremacist five years ago, because they put excessive burdens on gun owners who feel vilified by law enforcement and the public, the lawmaker leading the changes said.

FILE - A police officer stands guard with a rose at the service for a victim of the March 15 mosque shootings at the Memorial Park Cemetery in Christchurch, New Zealand, on March 21, 2019. New Zealand’s government will overhaul the tighter gun laws introduced after a deadly mass shooting by a white supremacist five years ago, because they put excessive burdens on gun owners who feel vilified by law enforcement and the public, the lawmaker leading the changes said. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu, File);;;

FILE - A police officer stands guard with a rose at the service for a victim of the March 15 mosque shootings at the Memorial Park Cemetery in Christchurch, New Zealand, on March 21, 2019. New Zealand’s government will overhaul the tighter gun laws introduced after a deadly mass shooting by a white supremacist five years ago, because they put excessive burdens on gun owners who feel vilified by law enforcement and the public, the lawmaker leading the changes said. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu, File);;;

FILE - Police acting superintendent Mike McIlraith shows New Zealand lawmakers in Wellington on April 2, 2019, an AR-15 style rifle similar to one of the weapons a gunman used to slaughter 50 people at two mosques. New Zealand’s government will overhaul the tighter gun laws introduced after a deadly mass shooting by a white supremacist five years ago, because they put excessive burdens on gun owners who feel vilified by law enforcement and the public, the lawmaker leading the changes said.(AP Photo/Nick Perry, File)

FILE - Police acting superintendent Mike McIlraith shows New Zealand lawmakers in Wellington on April 2, 2019, an AR-15 style rifle similar to one of the weapons a gunman used to slaughter 50 people at two mosques. New Zealand’s government will overhaul the tighter gun laws introduced after a deadly mass shooting by a white supremacist five years ago, because they put excessive burdens on gun owners who feel vilified by law enforcement and the public, the lawmaker leading the changes said.(AP Photo/Nick Perry, File)

FILE - Armed police officers guard the entrance as family and survivors from the March 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings line up to enter the Christchurch High Court for day two of the sentencing hearing of Australian Brenton Harrison Tarrant, in Christchurch, New Zealand, on Aug. 25, 2020. New Zealand’s government will overhaul the tighter gun laws introduced after a deadly mass shooting by a white supremacist five years ago, because they put excessive burdens on gun owners who feel vilified by law enforcement and the public, the lawmaker leading the changes said. (AP Photo/Mark Baker, File)

FILE - Armed police officers guard the entrance as family and survivors from the March 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings line up to enter the Christchurch High Court for day two of the sentencing hearing of Australian Brenton Harrison Tarrant, in Christchurch, New Zealand, on Aug. 25, 2020. New Zealand’s government will overhaul the tighter gun laws introduced after a deadly mass shooting by a white supremacist five years ago, because they put excessive burdens on gun owners who feel vilified by law enforcement and the public, the lawmaker leading the changes said. (AP Photo/Mark Baker, File)

FILE- Al Noor mosque shooting survivor Temel Ataçocuğu points to the scar of a bullet wound in his arm during an interview at his home in Christchurch, New Zealand, on Feb. 25, 2020. New Zealand’s government will overhaul the tighter gun laws introduced after a deadly mass shooting by a white supremacist five years ago, because they put excessive burdens on gun owners who feel vilified by law enforcement and the public, the lawmaker leading the changes said. (AP Photo/Mark Baker, File)

FILE- Al Noor mosque shooting survivor Temel Ataçocuğu points to the scar of a bullet wound in his arm during an interview at his home in Christchurch, New Zealand, on Feb. 25, 2020. New Zealand’s government will overhaul the tighter gun laws introduced after a deadly mass shooting by a white supremacist five years ago, because they put excessive burdens on gun owners who feel vilified by law enforcement and the public, the lawmaker leading the changes said. (AP Photo/Mark Baker, File)

New Zealand's Associate Justice Minister Nicole McKee addresses a press conference at Parliament in Wellington, New Zealand, on April 22, 2024. McKee says the government will review stricter gun controls introduced after a mass shooting five years ago as part of a wide-ranging overhaul of firearms laws. (Mark Mitchell/New Zealand Herald via AP)

New Zealand's Associate Justice Minister Nicole McKee addresses a press conference at Parliament in Wellington, New Zealand, on April 22, 2024. McKee says the government will review stricter gun controls introduced after a mass shooting five years ago as part of a wide-ranging overhaul of firearms laws. (Mark Mitchell/New Zealand Herald via AP)

McKee’s pledge of a wide-ranging review — following an earlier announcement that she would ease rules for gun clubs — was applauded by groups representing the country’s 250,000 license holders and decried by survivors of the 2019 attack at two Christchurch mosques where an Australian man opened fire on Muslim worshippers, killing 51 people.

“It makes me scared for our futures,” Temel Ataçocuğu — who was shot nine times in the attack and fears an erosion of the assault weapon ban — told the AP. “What have the past five years been for? How are they going to prevent this from happening again?”

New Zealand drew global admiration when its then-Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said six days after the massacre that her government would outlaw all semiautomatic weapons. The change was approved by 119 lawmakers with only one opposed, and sweeping reforms followed: bolstered licensing requirements, more rules for gun clubs, and the creation of a firearms registry.

The changes introduced “onerous regulatory compliance,” said McKee, whose political party, Act, campaigned for New Zealand’s 2023 election on a platform for reversing many of them. Now in government as part of a center-right coalition, McKee pledged to update the law before the next election in 2026.

Her bloc has enough lawmakers to easily pass any reforms in the face of any resistance from the parliamentary opposition.

“The changes we made off the back of March 15 took military-style semi-automatic weapons off the street and made our communities safer,” said Ginny Andersen, a lawmaker for Labour — the largest opposition party, previously led by Ardern. “Making those guns more accessible will take New Zealand backwards.”

McKee's consultation was a “box ticking exercise, with a select group and a very short time for responses,” Andersen said in her emailed statement.

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon, whose party is in government with McKee's, did not answer AP's requests for comment.

McKee said she would consult with the public before deciding specific measures and that her personal views would not direct the overhaul. Critics rejected that.

“She was elected as a gun lobbyist, that was her role,” said Chris Cahill, president of the Police Association, a group representing most New Zealand officers. “She’s got a loyalty to the gun lobby groups.”

The review was “without a doubt, a backdoor into giving people access to semiautomatic assault rifles again,” Cahill said.

At the time of the ban, McKee denounced it as “knee-jerk.” As a minister she is more guarded, but told the AP that New Zealand had not been entirely rid of such weapons; several hundred people have permits to use them for pest control in rural areas, while others can own but not fire them.

“If we extend the access, what are the possible controls around the use of the extension? And would society be happy with what those controls mean?” McKee said she would ask during the review.

“It’s about how do we find the balance with protecting people but not going over the top with a regulatory regime,” she said. Any concerns raised by opponents should be “realistic," McKee added. “It cannot be anecdotal.”

New Zealand’s gun laws were safer before the 2019 reforms, the minister said, citing the dozens of pages of information now required for a gun license as an example of changes that could deter gun owners’ compliance.

“That’s absolute rubbish,” said Cahill. Gun laws were “loose” before the attack, he added, and the scrutiny reported by owners in the years since reflected the proper administration of the law after an injection of government funds.

McKee will begin by examining the gun registry created after the attacks; some gun owners want it shrunk to only the highest-powered weapons, rather than all guns. She will also explore removing from police oversight the new agency that administers gun licenses and registrations.

Gun crime has increased in New Zealand since 2019, according to analysis of official crime figures by New Zealand news outlets. Supporters of the tighter restrictions say they will take time to have an impact, and that a burgeoning problem with violent gang crime is fueling the rise. McKee, and groups representing gun owners, say scrutiny since the attack has fallen on law-abiding license holders at the expense of criminals, who are not captured by the stricter rules.

The Council of Licensed Firearms Owners said members had lost or couldn't obtain licenses because of malicious reports from past partners — who must be interviewed as part of a person’s application — or because they had divulged depression to their doctors. Areas of flexibility should be introduced to applications, spokesperson Hugh Devereux-Mack said.

“Every single New Zealander who is not convicted of a serious criminal offense and has no sort of problematic behaviors or serious mental health conditions is eligible to own a firearm,” Devereux-Mack said.

The gunman serving a life sentence for the Christchurch attack, Brenton Tarrant, moved to New Zealand from Australia, acquired a gun license and amassed a cache of assault weapons, all legally, without drawing the attention of law enforcement until he committed the massacre.

The police were censured by an inquiry that found Tarrant was incorrectly allowed to nominate a character reference who barely knew him because he did not have relatives in New Zealand who could be interviewed.

McKee said the rules that followed have made the system rigid and unwieldy. She would prefer a licensing regime “that looked at the individual," she said — without prompting the same disregard of rules that had allowed Tarrant to receive a license.

Devereux-Mack said his group might support an additional practical testing component to gun licensing, and a tiered system with more freedoms for longtime license holders.

“New Zealand won’t be safer if it becomes easier to get a gun,” Ataçocuğu said. “I have to have an eye test every time I renew my drivers’ license. Gun owners should have similar background and mental health checks every few years to make sure they’re still safe to have guns.”

FILE - An armed policeman patrols the grounds at the Al Noor mosque following the previous week's mass shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand, on March 23, 2019. New Zealand’s government will overhaul the tighter gun laws introduced after a deadly mass shooting by a white supremacist five years ago, because they put excessive burdens on gun owners who feel vilified by law enforcement and the public, the lawmaker leading the changes said. (AP Photo/Mark Baker, File)

FILE - An armed policeman patrols the grounds at the Al Noor mosque following the previous week's mass shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand, on March 23, 2019. New Zealand’s government will overhaul the tighter gun laws introduced after a deadly mass shooting by a white supremacist five years ago, because they put excessive burdens on gun owners who feel vilified by law enforcement and the public, the lawmaker leading the changes said. (AP Photo/Mark Baker, File)

FILE - A police officer stands guard with a rose at the service for a victim of the March 15 mosque shootings at the Memorial Park Cemetery in Christchurch, New Zealand, on March 21, 2019. New Zealand’s government will overhaul the tighter gun laws introduced after a deadly mass shooting by a white supremacist five years ago, because they put excessive burdens on gun owners who feel vilified by law enforcement and the public, the lawmaker leading the changes said. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu, File);;;

FILE - A police officer stands guard with a rose at the service for a victim of the March 15 mosque shootings at the Memorial Park Cemetery in Christchurch, New Zealand, on March 21, 2019. New Zealand’s government will overhaul the tighter gun laws introduced after a deadly mass shooting by a white supremacist five years ago, because they put excessive burdens on gun owners who feel vilified by law enforcement and the public, the lawmaker leading the changes said. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu, File);;;

FILE - Police acting superintendent Mike McIlraith shows New Zealand lawmakers in Wellington on April 2, 2019, an AR-15 style rifle similar to one of the weapons a gunman used to slaughter 50 people at two mosques. New Zealand’s government will overhaul the tighter gun laws introduced after a deadly mass shooting by a white supremacist five years ago, because they put excessive burdens on gun owners who feel vilified by law enforcement and the public, the lawmaker leading the changes said.(AP Photo/Nick Perry, File)

FILE - Police acting superintendent Mike McIlraith shows New Zealand lawmakers in Wellington on April 2, 2019, an AR-15 style rifle similar to one of the weapons a gunman used to slaughter 50 people at two mosques. New Zealand’s government will overhaul the tighter gun laws introduced after a deadly mass shooting by a white supremacist five years ago, because they put excessive burdens on gun owners who feel vilified by law enforcement and the public, the lawmaker leading the changes said.(AP Photo/Nick Perry, File)

FILE - Armed police officers guard the entrance as family and survivors from the March 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings line up to enter the Christchurch High Court for day two of the sentencing hearing of Australian Brenton Harrison Tarrant, in Christchurch, New Zealand, on Aug. 25, 2020. New Zealand’s government will overhaul the tighter gun laws introduced after a deadly mass shooting by a white supremacist five years ago, because they put excessive burdens on gun owners who feel vilified by law enforcement and the public, the lawmaker leading the changes said. (AP Photo/Mark Baker, File)

FILE - Armed police officers guard the entrance as family and survivors from the March 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings line up to enter the Christchurch High Court for day two of the sentencing hearing of Australian Brenton Harrison Tarrant, in Christchurch, New Zealand, on Aug. 25, 2020. New Zealand’s government will overhaul the tighter gun laws introduced after a deadly mass shooting by a white supremacist five years ago, because they put excessive burdens on gun owners who feel vilified by law enforcement and the public, the lawmaker leading the changes said. (AP Photo/Mark Baker, File)

FILE- Al Noor mosque shooting survivor Temel Ataçocuğu points to the scar of a bullet wound in his arm during an interview at his home in Christchurch, New Zealand, on Feb. 25, 2020. New Zealand’s government will overhaul the tighter gun laws introduced after a deadly mass shooting by a white supremacist five years ago, because they put excessive burdens on gun owners who feel vilified by law enforcement and the public, the lawmaker leading the changes said. (AP Photo/Mark Baker, File)

FILE- Al Noor mosque shooting survivor Temel Ataçocuğu points to the scar of a bullet wound in his arm during an interview at his home in Christchurch, New Zealand, on Feb. 25, 2020. New Zealand’s government will overhaul the tighter gun laws introduced after a deadly mass shooting by a white supremacist five years ago, because they put excessive burdens on gun owners who feel vilified by law enforcement and the public, the lawmaker leading the changes said. (AP Photo/Mark Baker, File)

New Zealand's Associate Justice Minister Nicole McKee addresses a press conference at Parliament in Wellington, New Zealand, on April 22, 2024. McKee says the government will review stricter gun controls introduced after a mass shooting five years ago as part of a wide-ranging overhaul of firearms laws. (Mark Mitchell/New Zealand Herald via AP)

New Zealand's Associate Justice Minister Nicole McKee addresses a press conference at Parliament in Wellington, New Zealand, on April 22, 2024. McKee says the government will review stricter gun controls introduced after a mass shooting five years ago as part of a wide-ranging overhaul of firearms laws. (Mark Mitchell/New Zealand Herald via AP)

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — The top U.N. court says Israel's presence in the Palestinian occupied territories is “unlawful” and called on it to end.

The International Court of Justice said in its non-binding opinion issued Friday that Israel has abused its status as the occupying power in the West Bank and east Jerusalem by carrying out policies of annexing territory, imposing permanent control and building settlements.

It said such acts render "Israel’s presence in the occupied Palestinian territory unlawful.” It says its continued presence was ”illegal" and should be ended as “rapidly as possible.”

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s earlier story follows below.

The top United Nations court said Israel's settlement policy in the West Bank and east Jerusalem violates international law, as it delivered a non-binding advisory opinion on the legality of Israel’s 57-year occupation of lands sought for a Palestinian state, a ruling that could have more effect on international opinion than it will on Israeli policies.

International Court of Justice President Nawaf Salam was expected to take about an hour to read out the full opinion of the panel, which is made up of 15 judges from around the world.

In part of the opinion, he said the panel had found that "the transfer by Israel of settlers to the West Bank and Jerusalem as well as Israel’s maintenance of their presence, is contrary to article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.” The court also noted with “grave concern” that Israel’s settlement policy has been expanding.

The court also found that Israel's use of natural resources was “inconsistent” with its obligations under international law as an occupying power.

Friday’s hearing comes against the backdrop of Israel’s devastating 10-month military assault on Gaza, which was triggered by the Hamas-led attacks in southern Israel. In a separate case, the International Court of Justice is considering a South African claim that Israel’s campaign in Gaza amounts to genocide, a claim that Israel vehemently denies.

Israel captured the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians seek all three areas for an independent state.

Israel considers the West Bank to be disputed territory, whose future should be decided in negotiations, while it has moved population there in settlements to solidify its hold. It has annexed east Jerusalem in a move that is not internationally recognized, while it withdrew from Gaza in 2005 but maintained a blockade of the territory after Hamas took power in 2007. The international community generally considers all three areas to be occupied territory.

At hearings in February, then-Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki accused Israel of apartheid and urged the United Nations’ top court to declare that Israel’s occupation of lands sought by the Palestinians is illegal and must end immediately and unconditionally for any hope for a two-state future to survive.

Israel, which normally considers the United Nations and international tribunals as unfair and biased, did not send a legal team to the hearings. But it submitted written comments, saying that the questions put to the court are prejudiced and “fail to recognize Israel’s right and duty to protect its citizens,” address Israeli security concerns or acknowledge Israel-Palestinian agreements to negotiate issues, including “the permanent status of the territory, security arrangements, settlements, and borders.”

The Palestinians presented arguments in February along with 49 other nations and three international organizations.

Erwin van Veen, a senior research fellow at the Clingendael think tank in The Hague, said that if the court rules that Israel’s policies in the West Bank and east Jerusalem breach international law, that is unlikely to change Israeli policies but it would “isolate Israel further internationally, at least from a legal point of view.”

He said such a ruling would “worsen the case for occupation. It removes any kind of legal, political, philosophical underpinning of the Israeli expansion project.”

It would also strengthen the hand of “those who seek to advocate against it” — such as the grassroots Palestinian-led movement advocating boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel.

He said it also could increase the number of countries that recognize the state of Palestine, in particular in the Western world, following the recent example of Spain and Norway and Ireland.”

It is not the first time the ICJ has been asked to give its legal opinion on Israeli policies. Two decades ago, the court ruled that Israel’s West Bank separation barrier was “contrary to international law.” Israel boycotted those proceedings, saying they were politically motivated.

Israel says the barrier is a security measure. Palestinians say the structure amounts to a massive land grab because it frequently dips into the West Bank.

The U.N. General Assembly voted by a wide margin in December 2022 to ask the world court for the advisory opinion. Israel vehemently opposed the request that was promoted by the Palestinians. Fifty countries abstained from voting.

Israel has built well over 100 settlements, according to the anti-settlement monitoring group Peace Now. The West Bank settler population has grown by more than 15% in the past five years to more than 500,000 Israelis, according to a pro-settler group.

Israel also has annexed east Jerusalem and considers the entire city to be its capital. An additional 200,000 Israelis live in settlements built in east Jerusalem that Israel considers to be neighborhoods of its capital. Palestinian residents of the city face systematic discrimination, making it difficult for them to build new homes or expand existing ones.

The international community considers all settlements to be illegal or obstacles to peace since they are built on lands sought by the Palestinians for their state.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-line government is dominated by settlers and their political supporters. Netanyahu has given his finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, a former settler leader, unprecedented authority over settlement policy. Smotrich has used this position to cement Israel’s control over the West Bank by pushing forward plans to build more settlement homes and to legalize outposts.

Authorities recently approved the appropriation of 12.7 square kilometers (nearly 5 square miles) of land in the Jordan Valley, a strategic piece of land deep inside the West Bank, according to a copy of the order obtained by The Associated Press. Data from Peace Now, the tracking group, indicate it was the largest single appropriation approved since the 1993 Oslo accords at the start of the peace process.

FILE - A view of the Peace Palace, which houses the International Court of Justice, or World Court, in The Hague, Netherlands, on Jan. 26, 2024. (AP Photo/Patrick Post, File)

FILE - A view of the Peace Palace, which houses the International Court of Justice, or World Court, in The Hague, Netherlands, on Jan. 26, 2024. (AP Photo/Patrick Post, File)

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