When the news came in about the shootings in New Zealand on 15 March my first thought was: Taihape. Or Pahiatua. Or Bulls. One of those small, dark-shadowed towns that sit alone in the interior of the country, surrounded by hills dense with bush and acres of paddocky grass that gets scraped back to the bone of dry earth in the summer heat. It’s been a long summer, there, New Zealand friends have been telling me, high, high temperatures, and no break in the weather. And yes, I thought, straight away: I can see someone opening fire in one of those places. Having grown up in New Zealand, though a long time ago, and knowing a bit about those remote communities – with their corrugated-iron shopfronts and pub doors flung upon into the evening with the sounds of men’s voices like a raging tide inside in the darkness, the smell of DB and Tui beer and cigarettes, and the utes parked up waiting for them with farm gear baled on the back, a few dogs scrabbling on the trailer – well, I remember guns.
Everybody in the country, it seemed to me, had guns. Farmers. Contractors. Kids. They had guns for killing animals and guns for fun. Teenagers practised rifle shooting out the back of their parents’ properties. Men went into the bush in gangs on shooting parties, and took rifles with them when they drove across their farms to inspect stock. My uncle, who lived in the middle of the Wairarapa on a big sheep station he farmed with his three bothers, had rifles in the basement of his house. While my aunt baked six different kinds of yellow cake for the shearing gangs that would come in for tea, my little cousins, three boys under the age of six, went down to their father’s den and touched and held the guns and played with them. ‘There are no bullets in them, dummy,’ they told me. So they were perfectly safe.
I had to be a ‘dummy’ because I didn’t – my father didn’t – have guns. My brother got one though, when he turned, I think, 15. He needed it for his Duke of Edinburgh and Outward Bound courses, he said. Was it one of my uncles who taught him to shoot? Or something he did at his boarding school? All I can remember is his telling us how he was dropped off in the middle of the night somewhere, in the bush, with a tarp, a fishhook, something else, and a gun, and the test was to manage three days on his own before the guy organising the expedition came to pick him up. It was the 1970s and boys were to be men, and men, well, they had to behave like men or they would just be sissies. I saw for myself how once boys got guns they shot everything. Rabbits. Possums. Deer. All these animals were ‘pests’ I was told, New Zealand was ‘over-run’ with them, and if they didn’t shoot them, the boys said, someone else would, you dummy. Those animals were vermin.
Boys I knew had fathers who would go deep into the Tararua Ranges and the Kaimanawas – King Country it’s called – and come back laden with ‘kill’ or ‘beasts’. These were the terrifying words, straight out of my Grimms’ Fairy Tales, that were used. The Kaimanawas and the Tararuas are densely forested and near impenetrable in places, people said. There might be little townships, scattered, or a few people ‘living bush’, who’d gone in there and were staying on, or were on some sort of government contract with the forestry and lands people. How many guns were in there, I couldn’t imagine. My brother, returning from a shooting expedition, said the King Country was ‘unreal’. I think he meant the bush, the isolation, but he might also have meant what went on in there. New Zealand is a place of sunshine and beaches and tourist destinations – ‘Godzone’ they used to call it when I was growing up – but it is also a place of gothic stories and psychotropic drugs and madness. My brother knew a boy who, many years later, opened fire on his family one evening after supper. I think I may have said hello to that boy once, though he didn’t go to my brother’s school. I think my sister and I met him.
What happened in Christchurch is very different from the kind of killing I am talking about here, I know, and Christchurch is no Kaimanawa Ranges. But the guns lend to both locations a dark common denominator. Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister, announced that New Zealand would be reforming its gun laws 72 hours after the terror attack in Christchurch. Australia, she felt compelled to compare, after a similar event, had taken 12 days. But the bullets, dummy, have been in the guns for a long time.