Last week, a white nationalist terrorist armed with a semi-automatic rifle and a shotgun entered two mosques and massacred more than 50 Muslim worshipers during the the weekly Jummah prayer. As Americans, we are used to these kind of horrifying attacks. It was just a few months ago that a domestic terrorists murdered 11 Jewish worshipers at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. We were ready for the same old tired script: one politician after another condemning the attack and offering thoughts and prayers to the victims and families.
But something different happened. Instead of offering thoughts and prayers, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern promised action -- “I can tell you right now our gun laws will change.” New Zealand has stricter gun laws than the US. For example, they require universal background checks but assault weapons are legal for purchase, as they are in the U.S. There, the majority of civilian owned firearms are not registered.
For many Americans who have been calling on lawmakers to enact gun control measures for decades, Ardern’s quick response is inspiring. It is refreshing to see a leader shaken by a mass shooting and immediately work to prevent such horrific violence from happening again. But Ardern’s response is the norm. It is the lack of response from American leaders that is the outlier.
In response to a 1996 mass shooting that left 35 people dead, Australia overhauled the country’s gun laws. Six months after the massacre, Australia had an automatic and semi-automatic rifles bans in place, required a 28-day period for gun purchases, created a national firearm registry, and bought back and destroyed about 650,000 civilian owned firearms. The overhaul achieved its goals. According to the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, in the 18 years before the 1996 massacre, there were 13 mass shootings in Australia. In the 11 years after the massacre -- and the gun control legislation -- there were none. The rates of both firearm related homicides and suicide in the years following the legislation were basically half what they were before.
The Australia example is the most dramatic one, but it is not the only one. After a 1989 mass shooting in Montreal, Canada enacted stricter gun control measures. The United Kingdom made their already strict gun laws even stricter after a 1996 mass shooting in a school. Gunshot deaths in those places are rare.
Some thought that the US was finally going to reckon with gun violence in 2012′s massacre of 20 children and six adult staffers in Newtown, Connecticut. Almost 2,000 mass shootings followed, and still, action on the federal level is nowhere in sight.
The last time major gun control legislation was signed into law was 1994. At the end of February, the House passed a sweeping gun control bill. It is unlikely to pass the Senate. Congress’ support for protecting the NRA and gun advocates who value an interpretation of the Constitution above human life is shameful.
Maybe New Zealand’s immediate response to this tragedy will remind our own representatives that change is possible, and we, too, can choose life over guns.