New Zealand shows America the way


It is only a little over a week since 50 worshippers were gunned down by a lone assailant in two mosques in Christchurch, but much has changed in New Zealand. Friday’s Muslim call to prayer was broadcast across the nation and a two-minute moment of silence was observed. Non-Muslim women were encouraged to wear hijabs to work, school or play on Friday in a show of support for New Zealand’s Muslims. Worshippers have returned to the Al-Noor Mosque, the dead have all been identified and have started to be buried, and some 3,000 people walked through Christchurch in a “march for love” intended to honor the victims.

However, just six days after the mosque attacks, the most consequential development was the announcement by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of a complete ban on military-style semi-automatic rifles and high-capacity magazines. Ardern said the government would be working on a large-scale buy-back plan to encourage owners of these now-banned weapons to surrender them during a limited amnesty period. The buy-back could cost the government up to $138 million but that would be a small price to pay to ensure the country’s safety and that such weapons never enter the New Zealand market again.

Not surprisingly, on the other side of the world, the US, which suffers mass killings at a ferocious clip, could only look on with a combination of envy and awe, fawning over New Zealand’s new gun ban that has widespread, bipartisan support, very little opposition and which begged the question: Why can’t the US adopt similar measures?

Part of the reason New Zealand was able to move quickly, if at all, was that it’s a parliamentary democracy, ensuring that the government is controlled entirely by one party or a politically compatible coalition. By contrast, the continuous tug of war between the US Republican Party which supports gun ownership and the Democratic Party which backs gun control, ensures that never the twain shall meet.

Another big obstacle in the way of US firearms reform is the National Rifle Association, one of the most influential interest groups in US politics, primarily because of the money it spends on lobbying politicians.

Then there is the US Constitution’s second amendment which in one line basically says Americans have the right to keep and bear arms. This right to own personal weapons such as handguns, which gun owners say is essential to their own sense of freedom, is etched in the minds and hearts of Americans as strongly as it is enshrined in the Constitution.

So, no matter the mass shootings in recent years in a college, high school, kindergarten, cinema, nightclub and concert, and despite a majority of Americans favoring stricter gun laws, there has been little in the way of sweeping gun control reforms. Proposals have stalled repeatedly in Congress in marked contrast to New Zealand and some other countries that have acted swiftly after a mass shooting. Australia enacted sweeping gun bans within two weeks of the 1996 Port Arthur massacre in which 35 people were killed by one gunman. Following that reform, mass shootings in Australia dropped to zero.

Despite numerous polls showing widespread US public support for measures like strengthened background checks and banning certain types of high-capacity gun magazines and military-style assault rifles, there has been almost no new legislation in decades.

Perhaps the single biggest obstacle to new gun control laws in the US is that opponents tend to hold fiercely to their beliefs while support for new regulation tends to ebb and flow around each new incidence of violence. The NRA’s strategy, and that of all pro-gun politicians, is to wait out the storm, to delay legislative efforts until attention turns elsewhere and the outcry fades.

Pro-gun politicians offer their thoughts and prayers, observe moments of silence and order flags flown half-staff. Then, they wait for the next mass killing.