Gun control: New Zealand shows the way

Katie Kouchakji, Auckland

The Pacific nation has introduced swift and sweeping reforms of gun laws following the mass shooting in Christchurch in March – a move that highlights the continuing lack of action to tackle gun violence in the United States.

‘One of New Zealand’s darkest days,’ was how the country’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern described the mass shooting in Christchurch on 15 March. Fifty-one people were killed and 50 others wounded when a lone gunman opened fire at two mosques in the city, in the country’s worst peacetime shooting. The gunman livestreamed his actions on Facebook.

Less than a month later, New Zealand’s Parliament voted 119-1 to introduce a nationwide ban on semi-automatic weapons and assault rifles. In addition to the sweeping reform of gun laws, a special commission is being set up to explore broader issues around accessibility of weapons and the role of social media.

The rapid response to the Christchurch attack is in stark contrast to that of the United States. America has the highest rate of murder and manslaughter by firearms in the developed world and a high rate of mass shootings, yet even moderate reform of gun laws has been blocked for 25 years. Not even last year’s March for Our Lives (MFOL) demonstration in support of legislation to prevent gun violence – one of the largest protests in American history – could trigger political will for reform.

Australia experienced a massacre and changed its laws. New Zealand has had its experience and changed its laws… I don’t understand the United States

Jacinda Ardern
New Zealand Prime Minister

Ardern expressed her bafflement at the lack of action in the US in an interview with CNN in May. ‘Australia experienced a massacre and changed its laws. New Zealand has had its experience and changed its laws. To be honest with you, I don’t understand the United States,’ she said.

Reform and roadblocks

It’s no secret that the rate of gun incidents in the US outstrips that of any other member country of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

According to an investigation by New Zealand national news service Stuff, there have been 105 gun-related homicides in the country, excluding police shootings and hunting accidents, since January 2004. By comparison, between January and May this year alone, non-profit information service Gun Violence Archive recorded 21,914 gun incidents in the US, and 5,752 deaths as a result of guns. During this period, the US has seen 148 mass shootings – 92 of which have occurred since the Christchurch attack – resulting in 63 deaths. The death toll from gun violence continues to rise daily at an alarming rate.

Within 72 hours of the Christchurch shootings, Ardern and her cabinet had agreed, in principle, changes to New Zealand’s gun laws. Just over two weeks later, revisions to the 1983 Arms Act were introduced to Parliament. Senators moved quickly: by 11 April, the Arms (Prohibited Firearms, Magazines, and Parts) Amendment Act became law.

The reforms include a ban on all assault rifles, military-style semi-automatic guns, high-capacity magazines, and parts that can be used to build military style-semi automatic weapons.

‘I strongly believe the vast majority of legitimate gun owners in New Zealand will understand that these moves are in the national interest, and will take these changes in their stride,’ said Ardern. Hundreds of New Zealanders have voluntarily surrendered their weapons to police, and a government buy-back initiative will enable people to dispose of firearms that are now banned.

In the US, on the other hand, it’s been advocacy groups that have led the charge on calls for gun reform. Leading players include non-profits Everytown for Gun Safety and Never Again MSD, organised by students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, following a mass shooting in February 2018.

MFOL, which saw at least 1.2 million people take to the streets of Washington, DC, on 24 March 2018, was seen as a possible tipping point for gun reform in the US. In addition, a Reuters/Ipsos poll of 6,800 Americans in February 2019 found that 69 per cent of respondents supported strong or moderate restrictions on firearms.

Images: (top image) New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern leaves after the Friday prayers outside Al Noor Mosque; (second image) a police officer stands guard at the Mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, 22 March 2019 © REUTERS/Jorge Silva

Despite this, most efforts to reform US gun laws continue to fail. In February, the House of Representatives passed the first bill in 25 years aimed at controlling access to guns, which the Senate failed to advance. Similar restrictions put forward in 2016, following the nightclub shooting in Orlando, suffered the same fate. Most efforts to reform gun laws are happening at state level, but even these are highly contentious.

Rob Bernstein is Co-Chair of the IBA Human Rights Law Committee. ‘The well-funded and well-organised gun lobby led by the National Rifle Association is the greatest challenge for reforms,’ he says, speaking in a personal capacity. ‘Too many legislators are beholden to gun lobby money.’

A New Zealand-style approach wouldn’t be accepted in the US, adds Bernstein. ‘The unfortunate reality is that’s more than even our most progressive politicians are hoping for at this time.’

Too many legislators are beholden to gun lobby money

Rob Bernstein
Co-Chair, IBA Human Rights Law Committee

Faced with a legislative standstill, the focus should be improving safety, says Dr Georges Benjamin, Executive Director at the American Public Health Association. ‘Lots of things in our homes and society carry some risk and can kill us,’ he says, giving razors, power tools and cleaning products as examples. ‘[We] have evaluated their risk and tried to make every single one of those consumer products safer – except guns.’

There’s an enormous amount the US can do to make guns safer, says Benjamin. For example, tighter background checks on gun sales, better education on safety precautions and owner responsibility, and compulsory training before acquiring a gun licence. Technology such as fingerprint IDs to ‘unlock’ a gun and visual indicators to show that weapons are loaded can help to reduce accidental shootings.

‘There are probably some things we should ban, like bump stocks [for firing bullets in rapid succession],’ he adds. ‘Some weapons of war we shouldn’t have on our streets. They’re not useful for hunting.’

Bernstein notes the US Supreme Court’s 2008 ruling in District of Columbia v Heller. The Court held that the Constitution’s Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to bear arms, but does not maintain that this right is unlimited. ‘That certainly left the argument open that certain classes of weapon can be banned as excessive for self-defence,’ he says. Such tests are winding their way through the US judicial system at present, including Kolbe v Hogan, where the 4th Circuit upheld Maryland’s ban on assault weapons.

Calling out extremist content

Another impact of the Christchurch attack is a push by Jacinda Ardern to ensure that hateful content is eliminated on social media. The livestream video of the 15 March attacks spread widely before Facebook took it down. The social media behemoth has since pledged to tighten the rules on use of its livestreaming feature.

Ardern’s drive has resulted in the so-called ‘Christchurch Call’, a voluntary pledge to eradicate violent extremist content online, being adopted by 18 countries and eight tech companies, including Facebook, Google, Twitter, YouTube and Amazon, as of 21 May. It includes developing measures to prevent extremist content from being uploaded, addressing the roots of extremist violence, increasing transparency over the removal of content and reviewing how algorithms direct users to this content. Notably absent from the list of countries that adopted the plan is the US.

‘There’s an important role for social media to build safer communities,’ says Janet Anderson-Bidois, Chief Legal Adviser at New Zealand’s Human Rights Commission. While New Zealand does have laws underpinning online content, such as the Harmful Digital Communications Act, she says Christchurch highlighted that ‘we need to look very carefully at those laws and whether they are adequate to deal with mass dissemination of harmful content’.

But there can be challenges in enforcing New Zealand’s laws against firms that are headquartered overseas. ‘It might be a combination of both legislative change in New Zealand and a response from the companies,’ says Anderson-Bidois.

Legislation, education and engagement are key elements in tackling gun violence, but how reforms and initiatives can deliver the greatest impact remains an open question.

It’s worth noting that Australia has not seen a mass shooting since it introduced an outright ban on automatic and semi-automatic weapons as well as tougher licencing laws in 1996.

‘The real answer is “I don’t know for certain, but we need to try something”,’ says Bernstein of the US situation. ‘The Columbine High School massacre… was unthinkable in 1999. [In early May] in Colorado, we had the second fatal school shooting in a week… and the news reported it to be the thirteenth fatal school shooting in the US this year.’