The world stood in shock this week at the coolly planned white nationalist terror attack on two mosques in New Zealand—of all places, one of the most peaceful in the world. And we all stood in awe as the prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, showed herself to be a leader who could pull the country together in its grief. She was simultaneously mourner-in-chief and commander-in-chief.
As mourner, Jacinda Ardern made the gesture of wearing a head covering to show respect and solidarity toward the Muslim victims, and led the whole nation in an outpouring of grief and solidarity.
As mourner, she made the gesture of wearing a head covering to show respect and solidarity toward the Muslim victims, and led the whole nation in an outpouring of grief and solidarity. As commander, she announced an immediate ban on the types of assault weapons used in the attack, with a buy-back program for those who already have such weapons. This in a country whose gun laws heretofore have been minimal, in which there is a powerful association of gun owners that has blocked previous efforts to regulate or control firearms. Yet in the face of this atrocity, defenders of gun rights have been largely silent. The parliamentary opposition announced its support for the ban.
Gun control advocates in the US are predictably calling for similar decisive action here, given our many mass murders in recent years. Such action is eminently justified, but here are a few reasons why, unlike in New Zealand, serious national action on gun control remains unlikely:
- With under 5 million people, New Zealand is the size of a middling US state.
- New Zealand has such a low crime rate that an attack like this can shock people to a degree that seems impossible, anymore, for the US. The US is the most violent advanced industrial country; New Zealand is among the least violent.
- New Zealand is considerably less polarized politically than the US, as evidenced by the Opposition’s support for the gun ban.
- New Zealand has a British-style parliamentary system which works (unlike the present fiasco over Brexit in the Mother Country). That means the Prime Minister heads a coalition that commands (narrowly) a majority in Parliament. Thus when she says there will be a ban on assault weapons, she has the votes in Parliament to make it so. The US, as we know, has a presidential system in which the president may or may not win votes in Congress. And each chamber of Congress is an independent actor. New Zealand has parliamentary supremacy; the US has checks and balances.
- The US has a federal system in which the states have substantial autonomy to adopt policies contrary to those enacted in Washington. New Zealand has no federal system: local governments work under national authority.The US has the Second Amendment to the Constitution, which the Supreme Court a few years ago ruled provides an individual right to keep and bear arms (subject to regulation). New Zealand has a robust tradition of rural gun ownership, but nothing like the Second Amendment.
- The US has the National Rifle Association, which has built a mass movement in defense of gun rights and still credibly threatens to bring down politicians who defy them. New Zealand has a gun owners association, but it’s very polite and lobbies discreetly.
None of this is to say that we shouldn’t keep trying for common sense gun laws. But we should not imagine that we will ever be able to do as New Zealand has done.