When New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced on Saturday morning that the country’s gun laws would change, less than 24 hours had passed since the right-wing terrorist attack that killed at least 50 in Christchurch. The availability of semiautomatic weapons and other guns is expected to be restricted, according to an agreement Monday by the cabinet of the country’s coalition government.
To U.S. observers in particular, the almost immediate response might have appeared surprising for a country that shares more similarities in its approach to guns with the United States than with the rest of the Western world. On social media, some ironically remarked that New Zealand had not even tried “thoughts and prayers” yet. Used to express condolences, that term to many Americans now also stands for the chronic policy inaction of U.S. politicians following mass shootings.
On the surface, New Zealand and the United States appeared to have a relatively similar approach to guns until Friday morning. Both are among the only nations without universal gun registration rules, and both have strong gun lobbies that have stalled previous attempts to rein in gun owners’ liberties.
“In New Zealand, the gun lobby dictates policy to the government,” Philip Alpers, founding director of gun legislation research tool GunPolicy.org, told Australia’s ABC. “They are listened to far too acutely by the government, and they have managed to water down every single attempt at improving the gun laws. The gun lobby is directly responsible for having defeated the amendments that could have prevented this crime.”
Sound familiar? New Zealand’s gun lobby shares many of its goals with the America’s National Rifle Association, the world’s biggest gun lobby organization, which supports aligned politicians financially and uses social media to attack its opponents. Some of the NRA’s frequent arguments may also apply in New Zealand, with an estimated quarter of a million gun owners in a country of only 5 million people.
Given that “there are so many law-abiding gun owners who do not commit violence,” said Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, referring to the United States, “the conclusion that many people draw is that mass shootings are due to evil or deeply disturbed individuals and not due to the wide availability of guns.” In theory, that argument would work even better in New Zealand, where mass shootings and murders are far rarer than in the United States.
But unlike the NRA, New Zealand’s interest groups have predominantly lobbied the government quietly, rather than threatening politicians with the scorn of its powerful voter base. The perceived silence of those lobbying organizations led to some calls from gun enthusiasts for a bolder and more vocal stance. New Zealand’s gun lobbies were probably well aware, however, that they are not the NRA and will never be, despite the aspirations of some of their members.
The country’s lobby mainly represents a core of rural supporters, whereas more than 86 percent of New Zealanders now live in urban areas and form a largely liberal majority. In the United States, the ratio of citizens living in urban areas is slightly lower. More importantly, however, the U.S. system of representation and the way congressional districts are drawn increase the significance of rural Republican voters disproportionately. That helps explain why the NRA can pressure politicians into following its demands, even though NRA supporters account for only a fraction of all U.S. voters.
“Our form of government, with a Senate that gives extraordinary power to rural states over urban states and is deferential to states’ rights, makes it difficult to advance relatively modest gun-control measures, much less more sweeping measures,” said gun policy expert Webster.
In contrast, New Zealand’s election system is designed in a way that the number of lawmakers a party has in Parliament is aligned with its share among all votes cast. The mixed member proportional voting system — which is also in place in countries such as Germany — is supposed to prevent small interest groups from being able to gain disproportionate influence over lawmakers.
Ardern is also less likely to face challenges from the courts than politicians would in the United States, where the Second Amendment has been interpreted by the Supreme Court as giving individuals the right to own guns. Those legal hurdles have been exacerbated by a gun lobby that has conveyed a perception that tighter laws are by definition a violation of the Second Amendment.
“The gun lobby has been very influential in convincing people the [Second Amendment prohibits any] form of gun control, which affects the politics over even modest measures,” Webster said.
As a result, the United States is likely to remain an outlier on gun reform.
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 U.S. mass shooting will continue to be: Our gun laws won’t change, but we can definitely offer thoughts and prayers.
Mahtani reported from Wellington, New Zealand.
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