Canterbury riverbed ‘like a war zone’

11:27 am on 17 April 2019

By David Williams for Newsroom

Shooters fired semi-automatic rifles in a Canterbury riverbed during two minutes of silence to mark the Christchurch terror attacks.

Used shotgun shells on the Okuku River bed.

Used shotgun shells on the Okuku River bed. Photo: Supplied to Newsroom

A North Canterbury riverbed has been turned into a "war zone" by shooters using high-powered, semi-automatic rifles and shotguns, a nearby resident says.

The shooters - a group of caucasian men, many of them from Christchurch, and mainly aged in their 20s and 30s - haven't stopped their target practice on the Okuku River bed, near Rangiora, despite multiple complaints to police over a period of months. They even insensitively had a shoot on the afternoon of 22 March - at the same time as a national two minutes of silence observed a week after last month's terrorist attack in Christchurch.

Newsroom spoke to two Okuku residents - who don't want to be named for fear of retaliation - whose properties adjoin the river.

"Sometimes it's like a war zone," one says, adding: "Something needs to be done - someone will be killed." The other, a resident of more than 10 years, says that after the Christchurch attack the incredibly loud sound of fast, repetitive gunfire - "that doong-doong-doong" - had sent their fearful daughter under her bed, to hide. "I certainly wouldn't let the kids go down there."

Newsroom's questions to police about the incidents are being treated as an Official Information Act request. That's because, we're told, key police contacts weren't immediately aware of the complaints and a quick search of their systems by communications staff drew a blank.

We asked if police are re-opening historic inquiries into the illegal use of firearms, as a result of the Christchurch terror attack. Police spokeswoman Rachel Purdom says she was not aware of any plans to do so. "Certainly if new information was received about a particular matter we would re-look at it, however."

The Okuku shooters are accused of spraying bullets and shotgun pellets into piles of gravel on the riverbed, and makeshift targets, during the day at weekends and sometimes after dark, using spotlights from utility vehicles. Some bullets are slamming into banks on the other side of the river, at the edge of people's properties.

"It's basically just that cowboy mentality," a resident says. "People don't care."

The frequency of the target practice has increased over the past two years, as more people have moved to the area. It has intensified since the 15 March terrorist attacks, in which 50 people were killed and dozens were wounded after a gunman stormed two Christchurch mosques during Friday prayers.

An Okuku resident says they were thrown from their horse when the shooting started on the afternoon of 22 March, during what was meant to be a national two minutes' silence. "For them to shoot at that time ... it was obvious - it was get stuffed, the whole lot of you."

The other nearby resident had gone outside for a moment of quiet reflection and heard the "defiant" gunfire, in the face of more restrictive gun ownership laws. "It could be a coincidence, but it didn't sit so well with me to suddenly hear that."

Multiple complaints have been made to various authorities - to police, the district and regional councils, to the Department of Conservation. The police have told the complainant that cars have been sent to the area. But the shooters keep coming back. "Everyone keeps passing the buck," the resident says.

After a complaint, police are able to check if shooters have the relevant licence, that their firearm is legal, and if they have permission to shoot on the land. Under the Arms Act people can be charged with various offences, including discharging a firearm near a house or in a public place, or carelessly using a firearm. Circumstances dictate whether police move people on or lay charges.

The Okuku residents say that, living rurally, they expect to hear the odd gunshot. But the riverbed is a public area, they say, and the shooters continue firing despite being near people, animals, and properties. "There's a real cavalier attitude," one resident says.

The status of the land they're using is unclear.

Land Information New Zealand's deputy chief executive of Crown property Jerome Sheppard confirms it is responsible for parts of the Okuku River. But he says other sections of the river "may well be the responsibility of the adjoining land owner". (Newsroom has viewed property documents identifying the owner of the adjoining land, but we won't name them before we've managed to make contact and given them the chance to comment.)

Sheppard says: "We have checked our records and contacted our contractor Colliers but neither of us have any records of complaints regarding an illegal shooting range."

An executive member of a nearby gun club says he hasn't heard of the Okuku being used for target practice, but told Newsroom he couldn't be quoted. Council of Licensed Firearms Owners vice chairman Michael Dowling says he's not aware of the specific area or the individuals involved.

Environment Canterbury zone lead of North Canterbury Marco Cataloni confirms it received a complaint on Saturday, 23 March, about people shooting guns on the Okuku River. A response sent two days later acknowledged their concerns, he says. The response also explained where its jurisdiction over the Okuku ends, and, if beyond its remit, referred the person to the Waimakariri District Council and/or the Department of Conservation.

Waimakariri District Council's communications manager Alistair Gray says its customer service team isn't aware of any complaints relating to shooting near the Okuku riverbed.

'Someone will be killed'

An Okuku resident says the Christchurch terror attack changed the way they viewed the regular riverbed shoot-'em-ups near their property. A man they confronted six months ago was Australian. "I googled him but it wasn't the same guy," they say, relieved.

But they still wonder why the group of men are shooting high-powered rifles in an area well-used by the public. "What are they practising for?"

Something needs to be done, they say - whether the group's intentions are nefarious or not.

"This is an area where families go and swim in river holes," one Okuku resident says, before adding: "Well, we used to."

The other resident warns: "Because of the motorbikes that are coming up the river, and the kids coming up on their ponies, and things like that, someone will be killed."

- This article was originally published on the Newroom website.