When neighbours of the Kaitaia Gun Club woke to find its sole building was destroyed by fire overnight, many immediately thought of Christchurch.

In the distant Far North, the atrocity which left 50 people dead was first on the minds of many when they heard of the fire.

The gun club's humble shed "lit up the sky" at 4am on Tuesday. Was it arson? Was it linked?

Firefighters attempting to save the Kaitaia Gun Club shed. Photo / Supplied
Firefighters attempting to save the Kaitaia Gun Club shed. Photo / Supplied

Neighbours are so distant on this quiet country road many didn't wake amid the furore. A day later, they weren't keen to be named but were happy to share their suspicions.

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"I immediately wondered if it was connected," said one. "Christchurch was the first thing I thought of," said another.

It was the same around the neighbourhood - even if they didn't believe it, the thought was immediately there.

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It made sense, didn't it? Certainly, it had media calling. Sentiment over gun ownership was strong. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had promised law changes. Assault rifles and military-style semi-automatic firearms are now banned.

Making these connections is perfectly normal after an incident such as that in Christchurch, says Dr Ian de Terte, a senior lecturer in clinical psychology at Massey University's School of Psychology.

"It will settle down. Trust me, it will," he says.

There's been plenty of it, these last six days. The small business owner raising concerns over the courier van carrying boxes marked "firearms", just sitting in the back while the driver ran inside. An upset social media community calling out those they consider to be Islamophobic.

Fire Service and police the morning after fire claimed the Kaitaia Gun Club shed. Photo / Denise Piper
Fire Service and police the morning after fire claimed the Kaitaia Gun Club shed. Photo / Denise Piper

The older woman who rang the Herald, concerned she had not passed on comments heard over coffee last year about military-style training on a West Coast beach near Waiuku. Or Whatipu. She couldn't quite remember, wished she could and was passing it on now.

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Or the father who collected his children from school unwisely taking a firearm in the car.

The aftermath of significant, affecting events ripple through communities.

They trigger a range of psychological effects which are so common they are documented and studied.

Among them, says de Terte, is a state called "hyper vigilance". "People notice more things because of the hyper vigilance."

It is a condition which has our senses enter an enhanced state of sensitivity. People become more highly attuned to their surroundings, find they constantly scan the environment and absorb and process information for anything which signals danger.

De Terte, who studies psychological resilience, post-traumatic stress disorder and the impact of trauma, said people can also feed compelled to be more attuned because they feel it is their responsibility to do so.

Police guard the scene of one of the mosque shootings in Christchurch. Photo / Michael Craig
Police guard the scene of one of the mosque shootings in Christchurch. Photo / Michael Craig

"They need to be helping in some way."

While he works primarily with first responders - he was a police officer for 16 years before switching to psychology - there are lessons which are comparable.

"There is that heightened awareness of what's happening. The connection between cues."

De Terte said the motivation could be "fight or flight" but he also believes it is driven by a desire to help - to somehow make a contribution.

It's not a rational choice to respond in this way. It's instinct.

"People don't make rational choices. They go back to what they think is going to make them survive."

He points to the man in Christchurch handcuffed by police when he turned up at his children's school to collect them on the day of the massacre with a firearm in his car. "I'm going to save my kids," says de Terte, imagining the man's thought process.

The ruined remains of the Kaitaia Gun Club shed. Photo / David Fisher
The ruined remains of the Kaitaia Gun Club shed. Photo / David Fisher

"If you could step outside your body (and ask) is this a really good choice to make, you would probably say 'probably not'."

For most, the state of hyper vigilance will recede in months. His research on first responders finds only a few carry long-term impact beyond the first months.

It's hard to pick who will carry the burden. "You don't know what's gone on in people's lives. Some people will not cope and ask 'why me?'

"At the three-month mark, if people are not coping so well then they need to see somebody."

It's not just terrorism. A study into the impact of the Christchurch earthquakes found hyper vigilance was a commonly reported consequence.

One interview subject told researchers: "My mind is subconsciously waiting for movement to happen all the time, no matter how trivial and then analysing it, finding likely causes."

Another: "Every bang or drumming noise … now sounds like an earthquake coming so you're constantly on edge."

And that's what we are at the moment - a nation on edge.

Bessell van der Kolk, Professor of Psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine and President of the Trauma Research Foundation, wrote that "the critical difference between a stressful but normal event and trauma is a feeling of helplessness to change the outcome".

Last year, fire claimed one of two Kaitaia Gun Club sheds. Photo / Supplied
Last year, fire claimed one of two Kaitaia Gun Club sheds. Photo / Supplied

Van der Kolk's paper, written reflecting on the September 11 terror attacks, says "control" is key to maintaining balance. The inability to avoid catastrophe - that feeling of helplessness - leads to withdrawal, confusion, shock and terror.

"Staying focused on problem-solving, on doing something, however small, about the situation - rather than concentrating on one's distress - reduces the chances of developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)."

And so Facebook fills with images promoting love over hate, sending photographs of Ardern's stoic calm, donating to the growing fund for victims of the mosque attacks or simply visiting a mosque - these are healing, helping actions.

Doing something, when we need to be doing something.

In Kaitaia, a morning spent knocking on doors will have told police what the Herald learned. Someone burned down the club's other shed last year. The remaining shed had been burgled a number of times since - irritating petty crime in a town plagued with it.

And a few nights before, there was another deliberately lit fire less than 10 minutes drive away, on the road to Ahipara.

The gun club itself? It doesn't have a rifle range - it's not that sort of "gun" club. It is a clay pigeon shooting club.

The Kaitaia Gun Club, posing for a club photograph after an annual shoot. Photo / Supplied
The Kaitaia Gun Club, posing for a club photograph after an annual shoot. Photo / Supplied

There's no range and not really any room for a range, just a big grassy square over which targets would be flung and blasted to bits with regulation small shot fired from underpowered cartridges.

If it was connected to Christchurch and retaliation over firearms, then an arsonist was well off target.

"The big loss was the honours' board," says club president Mark Shaw. True, it had just six years of shoots on it but when your clubhouse is a shed, you take your heritage where you can.

And it was their honours' board. It was there on Monday. On Tuesday it was charcoal.

Shaw is a gentleman for coming but doesn't want to say much. He's well aware of the speculation over a link to Christchurch and doesn't want to add to it.

"Who knows?" he says.

Police won't say. The sensitivity over Christchurch and any links is such that questions at the local station lead to the media team in Auckland being called.

In an emailed statement, a spokesman said: "This arson incident is an active investigation and while inquiries are ongoing police is not in a position to comment further or speculate on the motivation of the individuals involved."

So, more than one person then.

The shed, damaged beyond repair, contained the makings for the cups of tea which people would sit and drink while they talked away afternoons and evenings.

Firefighters attempting to save the Kaitaia Gun Club shed. Photo / Supplied
Firefighters attempting to save the Kaitaia Gun Club shed. Photo / Supplied

It was as much a social club as it was a gun club. Chatting to Shaw, you get the sense this is what he and other members will miss.

There's been plenty of associations and clubs which have vanished out of rural New Zealand in recent decades. Those are ties that bind. They fray and break, and sometimes they burn.

In the shade of a humble tin shed, they would sit and shoot their mouths off.

And occasionally, a shotgun.