Christchurch terror attack: Police Commissioner Andrew Coster apologises after Royal Commission finds gun licensing was 'lax, open to easy exploitation'

Police Commissioner Andrew Coster has apologised after the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Christchurch terror attack found gun licencing was "lax" and "open to easy exploitation".

The Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Terrorist Attack on Christchurch Mosques on March 15, 2019, released the findings on Tuesday of the extensive investigation into what could have prevented the loss of 51 lives.

Coster has apologised after the report found there was a lack of coherent and complete guidance for processing firearms applications where a near-relative referee could not be interviewed in person, and that training and review processes were not adequate.

"We accept that, in trying to assess whether the individual was fit and proper to hold a firearms licence, we could have done more to consider whether the two referees knew the individual well enough to serve as referees," Coster said.

The Australian-born terrorist - who has been convicted of terrorism, the murder of 51 people and attempted murder of 40 people - is now serving a sentence of life imprisonment without parole.

Despite having almost no history in New Zealand after arriving from Australia in August 2017, his application for a gun licence was approved within about three months, the Royal Commission findings say.

He had named his sister as a referee but, because she lived in Australia, firearms licencing staff asked for a replacement referee. In the end, two New Zealand-based referees - an adult and their parent who have not been named described as "friends" - vouched for him.

CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND - MARCH 23: Armed police guard Al Noor mosque after it was officially reopened following last weeks attack, on March 23, 2019 in Christchurch, New Zealand. 50 people were killed, and dozens were injured in Christchurch on Friday, March 15 when a gunman opened fire at the Al Noor and Linwood mosques. The attack is the worst mass shooting in New Zealand's history.  (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)
Photo credit: Getty

They had played online games with the terrorist over 10 years but had only been physically in his company for approximately 21 days in that entire decade.

"We conclude that during the firearms licence application process, insufficient attention was given to whether gaming friend and their parent knew the individual well enough to be appropriate referees," the report says.

"We find that New Zealand Police's administration of the firearms licensing system did not meet required standards. The reasons for this include a lack of guidance and training for licencing staff and incomplete guidance for dealing with applications where nominated referees cannot be interviewed."

The Royal Commission described the police gun licencing system as "lax, open to easy exploitation" and "gamed" by the terrorist.

"The risk that highly lethal weapons might be used in a terrorist attack in New Zealand had been recognised on a number of occasions. One warning followed a terrorist attack conducted in Oslo and Utoya in Norway in 2011, in which a semi-automatic was used."

The Government banned military-style semi-automatics and assault rifles in the wake of the Christchurch terrorist attack and the Royal Commission found that the move frustrated licenced gun owners who felt the licencing system should have been targeted instead.

"Increasingly firearms user groups, rather than being seen as allies in the safe use of firearms, were instead treated as nuisances and their input and advice not sought or listened to," a firearms organisation said in its submission to the Royal Commission.

From its more than 400 meetings and interviews, the Royal Commission found "strong public concern that the individual was granted a firearms licence".

"A large proportion of submissions we received came from firearms owners with suggestions to strengthen the firearms licencing process, introduce measures to better track large purchases of firearms and ammunition and obligations to report concerning behaviour.

"Many felt banning military-style semi-automatic firearms unnecessarily penalised responsible firearms owners, preferring improvements to the licencing system."

However, the Royal Commission notes that despite the risk that a terrorist could take advantage of the looseness of controls on semi-automatics, which had been "appreciated for decades", there was no significant tightening of the regime "largely because of strong opposition from the firearms community".

Christchurch terror attack: Police Commissioner Andrew Coster apologises after Royal Commission finds gun licensing was 'lax, open to easy exploitation'
Photo credit: Getty

The Royal Commission's report contains 44 recommendations covering five key areas relating to the counter-terrorism effort, including the firearms licencing system. Police have responded by making changes to the gun licencing system.

From December 24, legislative changes will clarify criteria to determine if a person is fit and proper to possess a firearm, including specifying criminal convictions that disqualify people from applying for a licence.

Health practitioners will have to notify police if they have medical concerns about a licence holder.

The police have welcomed the Government's commitment to introducing a firearms register by June 2023, as part of the second tranche of gun law reforms.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern acknowledged how the report discussed "a permissive firearms regime that persisted for decades for which we must take responsibility and which we have now changed". 

"There are some hard lessons for police in the report, but there are also opportunities to improve and do better," Coster said. "Our vision is for New Zealand to be the safest country in the world."

Government accepts findings

The Government announced that it has accepted all 44 suggestions by the Royal Commission, including improving the gun licencing system and responding to an increasingly diverse population.

The Government will create a Ministry for Ethnic Communities, provide wraparound services for the families of the 51 victims, and establish a National Centre of Excellence to focus on diversity, social cohesion, and preventing and countering violent extremism.

The new ministry will take the place of the Office for Ethnic Communities and will be led by Priyanca Radhakrishnan, Minister for Diversity, Inclusion, and Ethnic Communities.

Police Minister Poto Williams is welcoming the establishment of Te Raranga, The Weave, a new programme to respond to hate crimes and hate incidents.

"The programme will look to improve frontline practice to identify, record, and manage hate-motivated incidents and hate crimes."

The Government also plans to make changes to the incitement provisions in the Human Rights Act, including amending protections against discrimination to explicitly protect transgender, gender diverse and intersex people.