Another tragedy and a long-running paralysis has come to dominate the NZ prime minister’s US trip.
Against the backdrop of a shocking mass murder – and a shocking political inertia on gun control – Jacinda Ardern has found her visit to the United States increasingly preoccupied with the issue on gun law reform, with policymakers and media asking about New Zealand’s experience after the 2019 terrorist attack in Christchurch.
The prime minister’s appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert was dominated by the fallout from the shooting at a primary school in Uvalde, Texas, where 21 people including 19 children were killed on Tuesday. Colbert asked how New Zealand was able to enact its ban on semi-automatic weapons, “when we can’t pass so much as universal background checks for people with a history of mental illness or violent behaviour, even though 91% of Americans want that, on both sides of the aisle”. That measure remains stalled at the US Senate, and there is little optimism of breaking the deadlock.
“When we saw something like that happen, everyone said never again, and so it was incumbent on us as politicians to respond to that,” Ardern said, in remarks widely picked up by other US media. “We have legitimate needs for guns in our country for things like pest control and to protect our biodiversity. But you don’t need a military-style semi-automatic weapon to do that.”
The following day, Ardern travelled to Washington DC, where the Texas shooting, which came just days after a white supremacist inspired by the Christchurch terrorist fatally shot 10 people in upstate New York, loomed large in discussions with senators. Among them was Utah’s Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate defeated by Barack Obama in the 2012 election. His acceptance of US$13m in donations from the National Rifle Association lobby group has resurfaced in the wake of the massacre.
“Gun law reform was discussed,” Ardern told media following meetings at the Capitol. “There was an interest in hearing about New Zealand’s experience and a chance for us to hear the perspectives of legislators here, in the environment following two recent horrific and absolutely tragic events.”
Asked what she could have in common with Romney, given his relationship with the gun lobby, she added: “New Zealand has had an experience on March 15, a horrific terrorist attack. Here in the United States we have seen the evidence of mass shootings and the impact that has had. Today I was here not to do anything more than share the experience New Zealand has had, our own reform and the role it’s played.” She added: “Do we have more work to do? Yes we do but I was more than happy to answer the questions that different representatives had on our experience … I’m always cautious – it’s not for me as the leader of a nation with different histories and experiences to tell other nations what they should or should not do. All I can do is reflect that New Zealand had its own horrific experience and we made changes as a result.”
Georgia Senator Jon Ossoff said in the response to the Christchurch attacks, Ardern “demonstrated the kind of leadership that we need to see in this country right now”.
Ardern’s appearance with Colbert had prompted a renewed flurry of interest in New Zealand’s response, said Philippa Yasbek. A co-founder of the Gun Control NZ group, she had received calls from US media through the night seeking comment. “What’s so horrifying is the sheer number of mass shootings you’re seeing,” she told The Spinoff. “America is the only country in the world that has failed to make meaningful reforms to prevent it.” In the face of popular demand, Americans confronted a “bizarre tyranny of the minority”, she said.
While there were reasonable reservations about “preaching to America”, Ardern’s voice in the US at this moment was valuable, said Yasbek. If a White House meeting with President Joe Biden were to be confirmed, the two leaders speaking side by side on the need for reform would send a powerful message, especially if it focused on the “horrific toll of gun violence on the parents or relatives or friends who have lost loved ones – moving it beyond the political”. Experience suggested that none of that, however, would turn the dial in a serious way, given the grip of the gun lobby, she said. “I really hope to be proved wrong.”
Biden addressed the challenge directly in an emotional address responding to the shooting. “As a nation we have to ask, when in God’s name are we going to stand up to the gun lobby?” he said. “When in God’s name are we going to do what has to be done? Why are we willing to live with this carnage? Why do we keep letting this happen? Where in God’s name is our backbone?”
New Zealand’s law reforms after the mosque attacks attracted American attention in 2019, too, prompting headlines like the Washington Post’s “Why New Zealand can do what the US hasn’t been able to: Change gun laws in the face of tragedy”. The difference, it concluded, is the political power of America’s pro-gun lobby. “Whereas New Zealand’s prime minister was able to say, ‘Our gun laws will change,’ without having to fear her government would fall apart, the response after the next US mass shooting will continue to be: Our gun laws won’t change, but we can definitely offer thoughts and prayers.”
The post-2019 reforms had “faced similar patterns” in pushback from the gun lobby, “just not as extreme” , said Yasbek. The spate of gun crime witnessed across Auckland in recent days was in part a “legacy of 25 years of neglect”, with an unregulated secondary market allowing criminal groups to build “stockpiles of weapons”. The implementation of a firearms register was moving much too slowly, she said, with Gun Reform NZ calling for the deadline for registering to be brought forward from five to two years.
In the United States, meanwhile, the satirical site The Onion summed up the bleak scene by adding yet another episode to its visceral, years-long series of headlines: ‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.