Neighbours of New Zealand's biggest shooting range say they're victims of targeted harassment, including Nazi symbols scrawled on a resident's property. Police, they say, have not taken their concerns seriously. The Auckland Shooting Club, in response, says it's being 'victimised'. Don Rowe reports.
Update 4.20pm – The Auckland Shooting Club's Certificate of Compliance has been overturned by the Court of Appeal. The Court of Appeal concluded that the Council had insufficient information to allow it to properly assess the extent of earthworks involved in the proposed activity at the Auckland Shooting Club, and on that basis the Certificate of Compliance should not have been issued.
"Auckland Council has received the court's judgement to set aside the CoC (Certificate of Compliance) for an outdoor shooting range at 273 Tuhirangi Road," said Ian Dobson, manager resource consents north. "Council is currently reviewing the judgement, and considering the implications of the court's decision."
The Vipassana Foundation Charitable Trust Board has been awarded costs payable by Auckland Council, Raymond O'Brien, Victoria Pichler and Auckland Shooting Club Incorporated. A resource consent application for an expanded 33-range facility is currently being processed by Auckland Council but has stalled while the Certificate of Compliance was appealed.
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Around 9.30am on the 16th March, as New Zealand awoke to its first day as a nation in mourning, members of the Auckland Shooting Club in Kaukapakapa hit the firing range. The gunshots echoed around the Makarau Valley, over fields, streams, homes and the 30-year-old Vipassana meditation centre, where students sit for ten days in silent retreat. A neighbour of the ASC who has lived in the valley for two decades told The Spinoff it was one of the loudest days of shooting since the club opened in July 2017.
"It was just absolute shock. All that was on my mind was what had happened in Christchurch, and then to hear gunfire like that was just shocking. I just couldn't believe it. It was beyond comprehension. They're not like neighbours shooting at a possum or something. It's very different hearing semi-automatics, or really loud calibre guns."
Residents of the Makarau Valley and the Auckland Shooting Club have been in dispute since 2016, when the club was granted a consent to build a range on land over the hill from the meditation centre, which opened in the valley in 1987. Neighbours have erected signs on their properties protesting the noise from the club. Tensions have risen in the days since the terror attack on two mosques in Christchurch, in which 50 people were killed by a white supremacist shooter.
In January this year, the neighbour, who we have agreed not to name, woke to find a large swastika and the words, "If your reading this ur in range" spray-painted on their shed and a protest sign. Another sign had been torn out of the ground.
"The first thing we noticed was our sign that said 'Quiet please babies are sleeping' destroyed," said the neighbour. "And they were – I had four of them sleeping inside. Then we noticed the swastika, and the message that had been spray-painted.
"Before Christchurch I'd never given a lot of thought to the safety aspect of the club. Christchurch added another dimension to everything, especially when the facts came out about the shooter, and their far-right tendencies, and their training. I thought, hey, I had a swastika and a threatening message, and someone entered our private property at night to do this, and on a night when I had four grandchildren sleeping here. To know that someone possibly associated with the gun club was creeping around my property was horrifying."
Since then, residents said, vehicles have been seen parking for minutes at a time outside houses with protest signs, speeding off when someone approaches. John Raffaelli has lived in the Makarau Valley for 20 years, and the local Keep the Peace society is registered to his address. Since Christmas, Raffaelli said, cars have loitered on the verge outside his home in what he infers as an attempt to intimidate.
"I've noticed them at least four times, and my wife has seen them out there at night. They sped off when she turned on the lights, and when I go to talk to them they do the same thing. It makes me a little bit nervous, especially with the vandalism that happened – it was around that time they upped the ante on us, tooting and parking outside. And we know they have guns because they can't store them at the club. So there's a guy outside, who I know has a gun in his car… that makes me nervous."
Raffaelli said tensions have heightened in the days since the Christchurch massacre, with residents increasingly concerned about the semi-automatic weapons used at the club and the racist vandalism of a resident's property.
"The swastika was the last straw for a lot of people, then when you look at Christchurch, that guy never missed a shot – if he was shooting at targets, he would be up in the top quartile, he'd be a club champ. And he's learned that at a club with semi-automatic weapons. He never missed, he never wasted a bullet, and they're doing that same training there. Someone is putting swastikas on a shed, and you think … You wonder what they're doing up there."
Promotional videos on ASC-affiliated Facebook pages show men with semi-automatic rifles shooting around corners, manoeuvring around barricades and firing through makeshift windows. There is nothing illegal about that: the events are a legitimate sport with international recognition. In the aftermath of the mosque shootings National MP Chris Bishop said he was disappointed sporting competitors wouldn't get an exemption from the planned gun reforms. Neighbours of the club, however, say the activity is ill-judged in the shadow of Christchurch.
ASC co-founder Victoria Pichler told a parliamentary select committee last week that the club had a diverse membership with more than 25 nationalities, offering new immigrants a sense of belonging in New Zealand. The expedited gun law reforms were based on a "sham of a consultation", she toldthe committee, and left her feeling betrayed and alienated.
"This has destroyed my sense of identity as a New Zealander."
Vipassana Meditation Centre trustee Kirsty McKay said the local community was left feeling shaken and unsafe. She said she was unsatisfied with police response to complaints.
Residents say ASC visitors have shouted insults as they drive past homes on Tuhirangi Road, and beep their horns incessantly. In August last year, a sign was erected inside the ASC's front gate reading "Honk if Shooting Makes You Happy".
Locals on Tuhirangi road have displayed protest signs since before the club opened two years ago, originally addressing the means by which ASC secured consent, which is contested. Those signs had been stolen, smashed and vandalised repeatedly, said McKay.
McKay said that men which locals believed to be linked to the club had been seen removing protest signs at the end of December 2017. Police, she said, had not yet contacted those who witnessed it.
On the night of 28 December, 2018, valley residents witnessed three vehicles, including a VW SUV owned by club president Chris Gee, entering the ASC after-hours with a trailer in tow. Gunshots were heard until around 11.30pm, and three police vehicles later arrived to speak with the shooters. That night, some time after midnight, residents said, almost every protest sign on Tuhirangi Road disappeared. Photos seen by The Spinoff show an SUV heading back the other way just before 1am, with the trailer loaded. Police, McKay said, showed little interest in pursuing complaints.
Gee strongly denied any suggestion they had been removing signs. They had been possum shooting, he told The Spinoff. The trailer was filled with rubbish from the club. The club rejected all involvement with theft and vandalism on Tuhirangi Road.
"It is not condoned by the club, those actions are condemned by the club, any member found doing that would be gone," said Gee.
"It's not our culture. When I drive down the road I give people a friendly wave. It's easy for people to assume the gun club are the aggressor but we're just not. It's like a plot to discredit the club. It's another one where I feel as a firearms owner we're being victimised for my sport and interests. They're unjust accusations. The neighbours should not feel threatened or intimidated. Going to the media doesn't help, it just adds fuel to the fire."
He also told The Spinoff that 6percent of the club's membership are police officers.
The sentiment among many in the community, however, remains uneasy.
Ahead of a public meeting for resident concerned about the ASC 18 months ago, club co-founder Raymond O'Brien had "encouraged his followers on Facebook to swamp the meeting, stating that he'd come down with as many members as he could muster," said McKay. "His followers responded with 'bring your guns' and similar comments."
Concerned community members said their attempts to get a police officer to attend were unfruitful. The then-community constable for Rodney did, however, phone Raymond O'Brien and the call to club members was withdrawn, McKay said. Some locals, however, were still too scared to attend the meeting.
A police spokesperson said they were unable to discuss the matter without a privacy waiver. The Spinoff has sought a waiver from the residents involved.
McKay said complaints against residents, which she believed to be malicious in their intent, had also been made to council and police. They included everything from the installation of an outside toilet and false claims of a septic tank leakage, to an entire report commissioned against the Vipassana meditation centre, accusing it of violating the terms of its resource consent, she said.
"The report was investigated twice by council and found to be baseless," said McKay. "O'Brien [also] tried and failed to secure criminal convictions against me, personally, for trespass and firearms violations, despite the fact I've never set foot on his property nor fired a gun."
Residents said the complaints were yet another front in a battle which has dragged for more than three years, and which residents fear is escalating yet again. ASC club president Chris Gee has said he "wished everyone could just get along.
"What is being done is perfectly legal. If you can't shoot a gun in an area zoned for it, where can you?"
But as the place of firearms in New Zealand is debated on the national stage, the residents of the Makarau Valley say the place of the ASC in their community must be too. At what point, they ask, does the right to bear arms supplant the right to security and peace of mind?
For the neighbour who found a swastika on their shed, the last three years have felt like an ordeal.
"It all intermingles to the point where I wonder what's next. I can't understand it. I suspect it's going to keep going for as long as the legal process takes.
"That's what gets to me – I don't know when there's going to be an end to this."