CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand — New Zealand has banned military-style semiautomatic weapons and assault rifles, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced Thursday, six days after attacks on two mosques in Christchurch that left 50 people dead.
A buyback program will be launched to take existing weapons out of circulation, and those who do not comply will be subject to fines, she said.
“On 15 March, our history changed forever. Now, our laws will, too,” Ardern said. “We are announcing action today on behalf of all New Zealanders to strengthen our gun laws and make our country a safer place.”
She also announced a buyback scheme to encourage people who own such weapons to surrender them.
The gunman who attacked the Al Noor and Linwood mosques here Friday used AR-15 rifles in the deadliest mass shooting New Zealand has ever seen. In addition to the 50 killed, 40 people were injured.
New Zealand has a tradition of hunting and shooting as sport, but there is no legal provision to own weapons for self-defense.
Ardern has said there is no reason for New Zealanders to own these kinds of weapons, and there is broad consensus on that argument.
The center-right opposition National Party supported the ban, with its leader, Simon Bridges, saying it was “imperative in the national interest to keep New Zealanders safe.”
The changes mean that the weapons will now be removed from circulation.
After the return period has passed, those who continue to own them will be liable for a $2,700 fine or up to three years of imprisonment.
“We’re looking to increase the penalty when the ban is in full force and the opportunities of buyback are over,” Ardern said.
Authorities warned Wednesday that the death toll could have been higher.
New Zealand Police Commissioner Mike Bush said Wednesday that the alleged gunman, a 28-year-old Australian who is in custody in Christchurch, was on his way to attack another target when he was apprehended. Bush did not disclose the location of the next target, but the man, who has said he conducted the killing, posted a manifesto online that referred to a mosque in Ashburton, about 55 miles south of Christchurch.
“We strongly believe we stopped him on the way to a further attack, so lives were saved,” Bush said. The suspect was intercepted within 21 minutes of the first calls coming in, he said.
The first funerals are now being held. On Wednesday, 16-year-old Hamza Mustafa and his father, Khaled Mustafa, who arrived in New Zealand a few months ago after escaping the war in Syria, were laid to rest Wednesday, becoming the first victims of the Christchurch mosque attacks to be buried.
Hamza’s 13-year-old brother, Zaid, watched from a wheelchair, his leg bandaged from where he had been shot, as the bodies wrapped in white shawls and in open caskets were lowered into the ground.
“I don’t want to be here alone,” Zaid said, according to one attendee at the funeral.
They were shot Friday at the Al Noor Mosque.
Hamza called his mother Salwa after the attacks began. He was running with his brother, who had already been shot, when his mother heard more shooting and screaming and then nothing.
After the attack was over, someone picked up the phone, the line still open, and told Salwa her son was dead.
Zaid, his mother and his 10-year-old sister are now left without the two oldest men of the family.
The family had been living in Jordan and had hoped to join members of the ethnic Circassian community in the United States but were thwarted by President Donald Trump’s restrictions on travel from Muslim-majority countries, according to local reports.
Hamza was a talented horse rider and loved to play soccer and go fishing, his classmates at Cashmere High School remembered.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Wednesday visited the school, which lost another student and a former student in the shootings.
“Yes, there will be some interest in the terrorist who did this. But if I can make one request: Don’t say his name,” Ardern said. “Don’t dwell on who he is. Dwell on your students and friends, on the Muslim community.”
Ardern said she shared families’ frustration at how long it was taking for the bodies to be returned to them, but she reiterated that the forensic and identification processes take time. Thirty of the 50 victims can now be returned to the families for burial, she said.
According to Muslim custom, the dead should be buried within 24 hours. Families have said the delay has added to their trauma.
Christchurch is continuing to come to terms with the attacks, the only terrorist attack of this kind to have struck the country.
There are 29 wounded people in Christchurch Hospital, eight of them in critical condition.
One of the surgeons who helped tend to the injured spoke about digesting the news of the tragedy once the initial emergency had passed.
“I’m of Lebanese origin, I’m a Muslim, I’m an Arab,” said Adib Khanafer, a vascular surgeon and a father of four, who choked back tears when he described the cases he dealt with Friday.
They included a 4-year-old girl who had to be transferred to a specialist children’s hospital in Auckland. “She’s critical, but I think she’s going to come out of it,” Khanafer told reporters at the hospital.
Separately, Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters, who was flying to Turkey, would “confront” officials there over inflammatory statements made by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan about the massacre in recent days, Ardern said.
Erdogan, whose party is facing local elections later this month, has been criticized for repeatedly airing video clips of the alleged shooter’s footage at campaign rallies around Turkey.
At a rally Tuesday, Erdogan said that if New Zealand did not hold the alleged shooter “to account,” Turkey would do so, without providing more details about what he meant.
During Peters’ trip to Turkey, the foreign affairs minister would be “setting the record straight, face to face,” Ardern said.
Separately, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison scolded Turkey’s president Wednesday for comments Erdogan made days earlier that seemed to chide Australia and New Zealand over their defeat during the World War I Gallipoli Campaign.
“Your grandfathers came, they saw that we were here, and they returned — some of them on foot, and some of them in coffins,” Erdogan said Monday, the anniversary of the Turkish battle victory. Morrison, who called the comments “highly offensive,” also summoned Ankara’s ambassador to Australia to complain.
Ardern said plans are still being formulated for a national memorial service to be held in Christchurch, but in the meantime, two minutes of silence will be observed Friday.
“I know from many there is a desire to show support to the Muslim community as they return to mosques, particularly on Friday,” Ardern said in Christchurch. “There is also a desire amongst New Zealanders to mark the week that has passed since the terrorist attack.”
National broadcasters Television New Zealand and Radio New Zealand will play the call to prayer.
Work has been underway to make sure the two mosques that were attacked can reopen Friday.
Police finished their investigation Tuesday night at the Al Noor Mosque, where 42 people were killed. Since then, builders, painters, glaziers and carpet layers have been seen working furiously to make sure the mosque is ready for worship this week.
Anwar Alsaleh, 65, said he would return to the mosque Friday.
“I’m not afraid,” Alsaleh, who hid in a bathroom during the shooting, told Stuff, a local website. “I’m lucky to be alive.”
Washington Post writer Kareem Fahim contributed to this report.