Unless you’re a New Zealander, I don’t think you can truly understand the sheer disbelief that flooded us, simultaneously, as Kiwis, this time last week. I was in Finland, and when I woke up I rubbed my eyes because I thought I’d misread Christchurch on the breaking news alert.
In America, your children go through school shooting drills; in New Zealand, parents in Christchurch this week have had to explain to their children why the usually unarmed police officers are carrying assault rifles.
We had no playbook for a white supremacist terrorist killing 50 people at two mosques on a Friday afternoon, so we quickly made one: in just six days, politicians on both sides agreed to sweeping gun law reforms, including a ban on semi-automatics, assault rifles, and high capacity magazines.
Contrast that to the United States, where there has been 62 mass shootings already this year, and 113 people were shot at school last year. Your politicians, bewilderingly, continue to do nothing except deliver divisive, glib statements scattered with thoughts and prayers.
It’s made me really proud to be a New Zealander. Proud to be from a country that can quickly recognize the right thing to do (ban assault rifles), and just do it. Kind of like when we, despite being a powerless country at the bottom of the world, stood up to America, France, and other global powers, by deciding to be nuclear free—that was also, incidentally, the cause of our last terror attack, in 1985.
And while there’s been a lot of praise worldwide for our reaction to Friday’s massacre, and for our Prime Minister, Jacinda Arden's reaction, I’ve also seen confusion—how can two western democracies react to gun violence so differently? Especially two western democracies that, up until now, have had similarly high gun ownership. We’re both outliers in not having a gun register, despite there being more than 1.2 million guns owned by 250,000 New Zealanders, in a country of less than five million.
The glaringly obvious difference is that we, thankfully, don’t have an antiquated law that says, or at least has been interpreted as saying, everyone has the right to own a gun. But even if we did, I don’t actually think it would matter that much. One hundred and twenty six years ago women did not have the right to vote in New Zealand. We realized that was wrong, so we—the first country in the world to do so—changed it. Because we know that something being enshrined in law doesn’t make it above criticism; nor does it mean it should never change.
Beyond not having what is arguably a deadly constitution, I believe our swift ban is largely down to our national psyche—who we are, collectively, as a nation. We don’t value guns like you do in the U.S. Most New Zealanders either don’t care about gun rights or at least see ownership as a privilege, not a right; our police don’t carry guns (they’re locked in the trunk of their cars, for use in moments, sadly, like this one); nobody close to me has ever even held a gun, and for the few acquaintances who have, it’s been for a non-violent purpose—hunting, killing livestock, etc.—because
Gun-violence is so uncommon in New Zealand that when our armed police are deployed our version of SWAT), it becomes breaking national news. Kiwis, me included, freak out when they see a cop holding a gun.
As a country, we’re big on agriculture (dairy is our biggest export), and we have a lot of land (New Zealand is actually larger than the U.K.), but that land is sparsely populated; around 86 percent of Kiwis live in cities, meaning we’re basically a very urban, very liberal country when it comes to guns. We recognize that guns kill people, and most Kiwis I know, up until a week ago, didn’t even know assault rifles could be purchased in New Zealand. In America, you sell them at Walmart to people who aren’t even old enough to buy beer.
Our lack of a gun culture is, I believe, the beautiful anchor that’s kept us level-headed; able to avoid the roadblocks that continue to prevent the U.S. enacting meaningful, positive gun reform. There’s an understanding amongst gun owners in New Zealand that politicians aren’t trying to take away all of their guns. Most know it’s a necessary balancing act between gun freedoms and making it hard for terrorists to terrorize.
But, just like in the U.S., there are some gun owners who believe any reform is a slippery slope to the banning of all guns. Gun stores in New Zealand sold out of semi-automatics as gun enthusiasts panicbought in the wake of a ban. And, like the U.S., our gun lobby is also powerful—it was even offered help from your NRA after the attacks. But thankfully, pro-gun advocates are not the majority, so the lobby is forced to operate in silence. Because of our lack of a gun culture, our gun lobby, crucially, is not vocally powerful like your NRA.
A necessary but quick lesson in New Zealand politics: Our Government is currently a Labour-led coalition Labour is basically New Zealand’s Democratic Party and the National Party our version of your Republican Party except much more moderate and centrist is in opposition. Most gun owners live in rural areas, have guns for agricultural reasons, and vote National.
Unlike in the U.S., New Zealand’s gun owning voting block just isn’t big enough to win an election. Even if, hypothetically, National disagreed with Arden's swift gun reforms, politically, it had no choice but to publicly support them because that’s what voters overwhelmingly want. Simply, it would have been political suicide, even for the party that has the support of gun owners, to publicly argue to keep military-style guns that did as they were designed to do: kill many quickly.
Analogously, it’d be kind-of like if the gun reform movement in the U.S. became loud and large enough that Donald Trump had to support its proposed policies, because he recognized that if he didn’t, there was no chance of reelection—no amount of NRA money can silence a vocal voting majority.
But we’re far from perfect; while I’m proud to be from a country that only needed one tragedy to fix our gun laws, I’m also frustrated we needed a tragedy in the first place.
We should have learned from Australia, which 22 years agomade similar changes to its gun laws. In 1996, after 35 people died at the hands of a gunman with a semi-automatic, Australia banned semi-automatics.
They haven’t had a mass shooting since.
But we didn’t follow, and despite warnings about the availability and prevalence of semi-automatic guns, the New Zealand government did little. Reform attempts were made in 2005, 2012, and 2017, but nothing really changed, legislatively, in 26 years.
The inaction was, I believe, largely down to apathy. Most Kiwis ignorantly assumed we didn’t have a gun problem, so most paid little attention to reporting on guns, or politicians’ actions when it came to gun laws.
Then 50 people died, and we collectively demanded change.
The final piece of the puzzle, the key reason we took gun reform action, while you still haven’t, is our Prime Minister.
Last week’s horrific, unprecedented, unexpected terrorist attack was obviously the catalyst for our reform, but reform wasn’t a given. Jacinda Ardern showed true leadership in recognizing, and acting on, a simple equation: that making semi-automatic guns illegal will make it harder for someone to terrorize our country again.
In the U.S. your roadblocks are convoluted; a lot needs to change for your politicians to also recognize, and act on, that simple equation. First and foremost, you need to start treating each other like fellow Americans. Hatred, and what seems to be a pervasive othering of naysayers, is hampering progress. Though there seems to be recognition that divisive politics encourages intolerance, there is little recognition that intolerance enables and encourages divisive politics.
In New Zealand we responded to terrorism with cohesive inclusiveness, with love. We don’t have openly divisive politicians to the same degree you do in the U.S. because we simply would not stand for that kind of rhetoric. It’s cliché, but be the change you want to see. Maybe then you can start to have constructive debates that lead to change.
My pride in our quick reforms extends to a hope that we will be the spark that leads to your change. Like how we sparked change when we became the first country to give women the right to vote, or defied the world in shunning nuclear power.
We’re small and we’re far away, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn from us.