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American exceptionalism at its worst

Marian Wright Edelman | 4/4/2019, 3:42 p.m.
On March 15, a terrorist carrying two semi-automatic weapons and three rifles attacked worshipers at two mosques in Christchurch, New ...

Children’s Defense Fund

On March 15, a terrorist carrying two semi-automatic weapons and three rifles attacked worshipers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, killing 50 men, women and children – some of them refugees who had fled war zones seeking safety.

In the hours that followed, nearly 70,000 New Zealanders signed petitions calling for gun control reform, and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern led the nation’s elected leaders in vowing to take swift action.

On March 21, less than a week later, Prime Minister Ardern announced the introduction of a national ban on all military-style semi-automatic weapons and assault rifles, high-capacity ammunition magazines, and parts that allow weapons to be modified into semi-automatic guns, as well as provisions for a government funded buyback of existing assault weapons.

In her announcement, she said, “I absolutely believe there will be a common view amongst New Zealanders – those who use guns for legitimate purposes, and those who have never touched one – that the time for the mass and easy availability of these weapons must end.”

That was leadership.

As Nick Kristof wrote in a recent New York Times opinion piece: “Contrast that with the United States, where just since 1970, more Americans have died from guns (1.45 million, including murders, suicides and accidents) than died in all the wars in American history (1.4 million). More Americans die from guns every 10 weeks than died in the entire Afghanistan and Iraq wars combined, yet we still don’t have gun safety rules as rigorous as New Zealand’s even before the mosques were attacked.”

I have written about this question before: How have other countries responded after a gun massacre or mass shooting?

In 1996, 35 people were killed and 23 others were wounded by a gunman at the Port Arthur tourist site in Tasmania, Australia, in one of the largest massacres ever committed by a single shooter at that time. Within 12 days of the shooting, spurred by strong public support, the Australian federal and state governments agreed to the historic National Firearms Agreement, which banned semi-automatic and pump action rifles and shotguns, and required registration of all firearms, strict standards for gun licenses, and a permit for each gun purchase subject to a 28-day waiting period.

The NFA also prohibited private sales, regulated ammunition sales, and required licensees to receive firearm safety training and store firearms safely. To get banned rifles and shotguns off the streets, the federal government bought back or accepted turn-ins of over 1 million guns, which were then destroyed.

New Zealand’s proposed changes are based in part on Australia’s successful model. In the 18 years before the NFA, there were 13 mass shootings in Australia in which five or more people were killed. In the 23 years since, there has been one.

Just weeks before the Port Arthur massacre in Australia, 16 children, ages 5 and 6, along with their teacher, were killed in a devastating school shooting in Dunblane, Scotland. The shooter owned his guns legally and the outrage over his crime started a public campaign for tighter gun control, culminating in a petition being handed to the government with over 700,000 signatures.