The world’s interconnectedness was clearly evident at a meeting held at the Gwinnett County Justice and Administration Building Thursday to address safety concerns raised by the killing of 50 Muslims in New Zealand.
Organized by the Gwinnett County Solicitor’s Office, the meeting brought together Ian Latham, New Zealand’s honorary consul based in Atlanta, Gwinnett County Solicitor General Brian Whiteside, Imam Furqan A. Muhammad, the imam of the Masjid Al-Mu’minun mosque, and other local officials and county residents to show solidarity with victims of the tragedy in New Zealand and to address local safety concerns.
According to the most recent counts, at least 50 people were killed and an additional 50 wounded at two mosques in Christchurch, the largest city in New Zealand’s South Island, in the mass shooting perpetrated by the suspected killer who left behind a manifesto expounding his hatred of Muslims and immigrants.
Mr. Latham read from the March 19 speech New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, presented in the parliament in which she declared her solidarity with Muslims, saying,“They are us,” and promised never to mention the perpetrator’s name. “He is a terrorist. He is a criminal. But he will when I speak, be nameless.”
She also placed her government’s responsibility for providing its citizens with safety and placed the incident in the context of mass murders that have occurred around the world.
“Unfortunately,” she said, “we have seen in countries that know the horrors of terrorism more than us, there is a pattern of increased tension and actions over the weeks that follow that means we do need to ensure that vigilance is maintained.”
Shortly following the Gwinnett meeting, she announced in New Zealand new gun laws to make the country “a safer place.” New Zealand’s cabinet agreed to ban military-style semi-automatics and assault rifles and set in place a buyback policy for the country’s estimated 1.2 million guns in circulation.
With a population of less than 5 million, the proliferation of weapons is widespread. Mr. Latham indicated that much of the population lives in rural areas where support for gun ownership is deeply rooted in local culture.
Nevertheless, the government plans to enforce the new laws aggressively and intends to set up a buyback scheme that would cost between $100 million to $200 million.
During her speech to the parliament, the prime minister detailed other actions that would be taken, but the speakers at the Gwinnett meeting focused on the need to improve the resources to deal with the mentally ill who, they said, are responsible for much of the crime perpetuated in the country.
Mr. Whiteside, the solicitor general, was adamant about the need to verify someone’s mental fitness to own a gun. He expressed his concern about mental illness among the homeless and added that 30 percent of the cases with which his office has to deal are related to someone who has some sort of mental illness.
He also expressed his concern about regulations permitting adjustments to the AR-15 rifle that make them legal, but no less dangerous.
While gun ownership has never been questioned so adamantly in New Zealand’s past, Prime Minister Ardern said that New Zealand had been changed by the mass murder. In her speech the prime minister focused on social media as an avenue for promoting racial hatred and violence.
Mr. Whiteside echoed these sentiments as if he had been in New Zealand’s parliament when she delivered the speech. He said that individuals who are detected to use social media to provoke violence should be punished severely. Concerning social media, the prime minister said the following:
“…we will also look at the role social media played and what steps we can take, including on the international stage, and in unison with our partners.
There is no question that ideas and language of division and hate have existed for decades, but their form of distribution, the tools of organization, they are new.
We cannot simply sit back and accept that these platforms just exist and that what is said on them is not the responsibility of the place where they are published. They are the publisher. Not just the postman. There cannot be a case of all profit no responsibility. This of course doesn’t take away the responsibility we too must show as a nation, to confront racism, violence and extremism. I don’t have all of the answers now, but we must collectively find them. And we must act.”
Ms. Ardern further sketched out policies the government would adopt in the wake of the tragedy including providing visas for family members of the dead from overseas so they could attend funerals, covering the costs of the funerals, as well as launching an in-depth inquiry into whether the suspect could have been apprehended before committing the crime.
Two minutes of silence in honor of the dead are to take place across New Zealand on Friday following the Muslim Call to Prayer at 1:30 p.m. Christchurch time.
A follow-up meeting to Thursday’s at the Gwinnett County Justice and Administration is to be held at the Bosnian Community Center in Lawrenceville at 7 p.m. on Saturday, April 6.
The City of Atlanta is hosting a Day of Religious Pluralism celebration at City Hall on April 4.