Until this month, neither the United States nor New Zealand had updated its national gun laws in more than two decades.
On March 15, a gunman opened fire on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, during Friday prayers, killing 50 people and injuring many more. It was the country’s first mass shooting in more than a decade. Three days later, cabinet members agreed to develop a massive overhaul of the nation’s gun laws, including a ban on military-style assault weapons.
That show of unified political will, leading to swift action, stands in contrast to the U.S., where there has been more push-and-pull after innumerable high-profile mass shootings in recent years: at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut and a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in 2012, Emanuel AME Church in Charleston in 2015, Orlando’s Pulse nightclub in 2016, at a Las Vegas country music festival and a Texas church in 2017, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida and a Pittsburgh synagogue last year (and the list goes on).
There have been many calls for gun reform, including a movement led by student survivors. In February, the Democratic-controlled House passed the first major gun bills in a generation to face unclear prospects in the Senate. Yet the only significant change to tighten U.S. gun regulations since 1994 — when former President Bill Clinton signed an assault weapon ban that lasted 10 years but applied only to guns manufactured after the bill became law — came Tuesday, when the Trump administration’s ban on bump stocks went into effect.
While nearly 40,000 people die from firearms in America each year, New Zealand’s response to this month’s terrorist attack has some people asking how that country moved so quickly to change its laws.
What New Zealand did
Seventy-two hours after the mosque attacks, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said her cabinet had agreed to reform the country’s gun laws, which had largely been unchanged since 1992.
Only a few days later, Ardern announced a ban on military-style semi-automatic weapons, along with high-capacity magazines. She also vowed to reduce the number of guns in the country by encouraging owners to get rid of their firearms. New Zealand lawmakers are expected to approve legislation soon after Parliament takes up the changes in the first week of April, and the government is developing a buyback program for owners of military-style semi-automatic guns.
The law is likely to provide some exemptions to the new restrictions, including gun use for professional pest control and international sporting competitions.
What has the U.S. done?
To summarize recent gun control developments in the U.S. is a more complicated story.
The most recent changes to federal firearm laws came in response to the shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas, where 58 people were killed in October 2017 in the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. The gunman’s use of bump stocks — attachments added to guns that allow rifles to fire multiple rounds like machine guns — raised fresh concerns about whether the device should be legal.
In response, President Donald Trump directed the Justice Department to issue a ban on bump stocks. That ban went into effect Tuesday. Congress debated legislative fixes after the Las Vegas shooting as well, including creating a universal background check system for purchasing firearms, but did not pass major gun legislation.
Years earlier, Congress also considered a bill after the Newtown elementary school shooting where 26 people were killed. In April 2013, a bipartisan amendment failed in the Senate by six votes that would have required background checks on gun sales.
Last year, after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, some states passed so-called red flag laws, which allow police and family members to petition state authorities to take guns away from someone believed to be experiencing high levels of stress or who is mentally ill and could pose a threat to themselves or others.
In 2018, Florida’s then-Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, signed into law gun restrictions that were supported by survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting.
Some states have also loosened gun regulations since then. Florida lawmakers are currently considering a bill to join other states in allowing teachers to carry guns in the classroom, despite opposition from educators and students. This month, Kentucky became the 16th state in the U.S. to allow concealed carry without a permit. With Republican Gov. Matt Bevin’s signature on the bill, the state law goes into effect this July. On March 21, Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., and Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., introduced the Freedom Financing Act, a bill to ensure that financial institutions can’t deny pro-Second Amendment industry transactions.
“Big banks should not be the arbiters of constitutionality,” Cramer said in a statement. “A small number of banks controlling most of the financial sector could effectively illegalize legal commerce by refusing to finance certain industries or process certain transactions.”
In the fall, the Supreme Court, now more conservative than in recent years, will hear its first gun rights case in almost a decade. The court will review whether a New York City gun law that restricts owners from carrying a firearm outside their home is constitutional.
Meanwhile, more than six years after the Sandy Hook shooting, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled earlier this month that victims and their families can sue Remington over how the gun-maker marketed the rifle used in the attack.
How do U.S. and New Zealand gun laws differ?
The major difference between American and New Zealand gun laws is that New Zealand’s constitution does not provide a “right to bear arms.”
In New Zealand, gun ownership is thought of as privilege, not a right, as the former police minister noted last week.
To buy a firearm, New Zealanders must have a firearm permit that is granted on a case-by-case basis after a background check by authorities. Firearms permits last up to 10 years. After that time, they have to be re-vetted before they can be renewed.
Americans, on the other hand, are not required to have a permit to buy a firearm. In some places, including at many gun shows, they are not even required to undergo a background check.
Some states do require permits to carry a concealed weapon, such as a handgun, that are valid for a set number of years as determined by the state.
A handful of states have bans on assault-style weapons, but their definitions and rules vary.
In the U.S., “a large share of the guns used in crime are trafficked from states with minimal regulations,” said Daniel Webster, the director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins University. “Our federal laws are quite lax. No background checks for private transfers. No licensing of gun purchasers or owners. No ban of assault weapons or large capacity ammunition feeding devices.”
Age restrictions for gun ownership are also largely left up to the states. It is a felony in Colorado for anyone under the age of 18 to possess a handgun, with few exceptions, including hunting sports. But Montana does not have a law penalizing children of any age from obtaining firearms, according to the Giffords Law Center, an advocacy group founded by former congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who survived a shooting in 2011.
In contrast, the minimum age for unsupervised use and possession of a shotgun or a rifle in New Zealand is 16.
In the U.S., the divide can be stark between Republicans and Democrats, men and women, gun owners and non-gun owners. In a country with a population 70 times larger than New Zealand’s, the political divisions on gun policy have been difficult to overcome.
Yet Americans have found common ground on some issues. Polling from last October from the Pew Research Center shows 89 percent of Republicans, independents and Democrats say “mentally ill people should be barred from buying guns.”
Approximately 79 percent of Republicans also support background checks at public gun shows and other events where private sales of firearms occur.
Other changes, such as banning semi-automatic weapons, are not as popular. What’s more, support for banning assault weapons has dropped over time. In 1996, when Gallup surveyed Americans about an assault weapon ban, support for it was 57 percent. In 2018, 40 percent of Americans approved of such a ban. Less than half of Americans also believe there would be fewer mass shootings if people had a harder time obtaining semi-automatic weapons, according to Pew.
Data on gun ownership and attitudes about guns in New Zealand are far different. Of 4.9 million New Zealanders, just 6 percent hold a firearm license, compared to 30 percent of Americans who own at least one gun. There are also an estimated 1.1 million firearms in New Zealand, according to government data. In the U.S., there are more guns than there are people. (According to a June 2018 Small Arms Survey estimate, there are more than 393 million civilian-held firearms in the U.S., both legal and illegal; the U.S. population is 330 million.)
In New Zealand, many farmers own guns to control pests. However, New Zealand’s Federated Farmers, a lobbying group for farmers, came out quickly in support of the gun reforms announced after the March 15 shootings.
But even if rural residents were opposed to the new rules, they do not have as much voting power to influence the issue compared to New Zealanders who live in urban areas, according to Webster.
New Zealand’s Parliament is unicameral, meaning that it is made up of just one legislature. Voters elect representatives, which form a coalition with like-minded parties, and those elected officials nominate the prime minister. Gun reform measures do not have to pass obstacles the way a bill would in the U.S., where gun proposals would have to get the seal of approval from, at the moment, a Democratic House, a Republican Senate and Republican White House.
In the U.S., states have more control over local gun laws. And states with largely rural populations, such as Wyoming, have the same number of U.S. senators as states like California that are more liberal and urban.
“Rural residents are more likely to think that they are responsible for their personal and family safety because they do not live close to law enforcement and that guns will help keep them safe,” Webster said. “Guns and gun ownership also have deep cultural meaning among people who live in or grew up in rural communities.”
The gun lobby
“The US isn’t NZ,” tweeted Dana Loesch, a National Rifle Association spokesperson, last week. “While they do not have an inalienable right to bear arms and to self defense, we do.”
Another difference: Gun lobbyists are a force in both the U.S. and New Zealand, but their scale and political influence in the two countries is starkly different.
New Zealand’s Council of Licenced Firearms Owners has opposed the prime minister’s gun law proposal. The group is asking islanders to sign a petition that calls the new firearm proposals “unjust to law abiding New Zealand citizens.”
“The gun lobby is much more powerful in the U.S.,” Webster said. “The gun lobby and politicians often appeal to fear of racial, ethnic or religious minorities to promote gun ownership and the deregulation of guns.”
Nicole McKee, a board member of the New Zealand gun group, said in a video statement that she can support effective changes “so that terrorist attacks cannot happen again.” But McKee said she expects her organization and pro-gun advocates “to be part of a constructive dialogue.”
McKee’s group has called on New Zealand’s House of Representatives to allow for an in-depth public consultation period on changes to the country’s firearms laws.
It is not the first time the organization, and other pro-gun groups in New Zealand, have tried to stop gun control measures.
In 1997, High Court Judge Sir Thomas Thorp suggested several amendments to New Zealand firearm laws, including a buy-back program for military-style semi-automatic weapons. The Council of Licenced Firearms Owners argued at the time that the bill would be too costly.
“Special interest groups prevent meaningful change,” said Philip Alpers, an adjunct professor at the Sydney School of Public Health and founder of GunPolicy.org, which tracks gun laws worldwide.
In the U.S., the NRA has ramped up its lobbying efforts to entirely different levels. According to Open Secrets, an organization that tracks campaign and lobbying contributions, the NRA spent $1.67 million on lobbying efforts in 2008. Ten years later, that number grew to $5.08 million. The NRA’s political action committee spent roughly $19 million in 2018.
Their lobbying efforts have made a clear impact on politicians — no matter under which party they fall. Democrats proudly tout their F rating from the NRA, while Republicans are often concerned about maintaining their A+ rating with the group. In 2017, Trump was the first president in 34 years to speak at the NRA’s annual Leadership Forum, and told the audience, “You have a true friend and champion in the White House.”
According to Richard Aborn, a former director of the Brady Campaign, it’s not that the U.S. can’t enact greater firearm regulations. “We just don’t, at the moment, have the political will.”
Editor’s Note: It was incorrectly reported that a Pew poll asked Americans about the impact that reducing access to automatic weapons would have on mass shootings; the survey instead asked about access to semi-automatic weapons.