Dawn Phillips

83-year-old retired nurse and Talladega resident Dawn Phillips never saw a gun until she moved to the United States. She believes that New Zealand will bounce back after two mass shootings left 49 dead in Christchurch Friday. 

TALLADEGA — Dawn Phillips never saw a gun until she moved to the United States.

The 83-year-old retired nurse was born in New Zealand in 1935, not long before World War II began, and she never saw or held a gun — or treated bullet wounds — until she joined her husband, Navy man and Clay County native Harold Phillips, in the U.S. in the 1970s. Harold died in 1988, she said, and she moved to Talladega in the late 1990s.

She remembers her country rationing food until 1948 and she remembers men aged 18 to 45 going off to war, but she doesn’t remember any firearms from her childhood, though her stepfather, a policeman, occasionally encountered them. She asked once what he’d do if a criminal shot at him.  

“He said, ‘We’ve got the batons, maybe we’ll use them as a baseball bat,’” Phillips recalled, laughing.

She said police stations started keeping a single revolver under lock and key sometime in the 1960s, but were otherwise without firearms. Such lax armament is a striking contrast to the semi-automatic rifles and ballistic vests worn by modern New Zealand police, visible in news photos from the aftermath of shootings at two mosques Friday in Christchurch, New Zealand. News outlets reported that 49 people were killed in the attacks, carried out by an apparent single shooter, though three others were found in the area with weapons.

Phillips recalled two incidents of firearm violence. One happened when she was 5 years old: A man used a shotgun to kill a taxi driver in Ashburton and the police were issued batons to bring him in. That effort was successful, she said, and none of the officers were injured.

She called the second incident a “murder mystery,” one solved by taking advantage of the country’s firearm registration laws.

“In New Zealand, every gun was registered,” she said. “They called in all .22 rifles and tested them and found the one that made the mark on the bullet.”

She said the shooting Friday wasn’t characteristic of a New Zealander mindset. She said no one locked their doors when she still lived there, and people were polite. She recalled rebuking her husband for yelling across the street to someone he knew.

“We don’t do that in New Zealand,” she said. “We don’t yell at people. We go over there or they come over here.”

She shared a few photos from back home that seemed to exemplify the casual oddity of New Zealand life. One was of a road in the shadow of Mount Tasman, with a truck coming toward the camera and a car heading away from it. Beside the car stood an exasperated man, trying to suss out a solution for two hundred-odd sheep crowding the roadway.

“We call that a New Zealand traffic jam,” Phillips said.

Her coffee table doubles as a shadow box with artifacts from her home country, like silver coins taken out of circulation long ago, and a greenstone rock partway through the process of becoming an axe head. There’s a board game called “Cathedral” by her couch that’s like a competitive puzzle, invented by a New Zealand game business in the 1970s.

She’s surrounded by mainstays of New Zealand life, and they may be what reminds her that in spite of Friday’s violence, the country will carry on.

“New Zealanders will bounce back,” she said. “They’re very good at getting together and getting the job done. And they’ll do it without help if they have to.”

Assistant Metro Editor Ben Nunnally: 256-235-3560. 

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