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New Zealand just banned military-style firearms. Here’s why the U.S. can’t.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced a ban on all military-style semiautomatic weapons and assault rifles on March 21. (Video: Reuters)

When New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced last Saturday that the country’s gun laws would change, less than 24 hours had passed since a right-wing terrorist attack killed at least 50 in Christchurch. On Thursday, she confirmed that her government had banned military-style semiautomatic weapons and assault rifles and a buyback program was being set up. The changes were supported both by the coalition government and the center-right main opposition party.

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 earlier this week 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 after mass shootings.

How similar were gun laws in New Zealand and the United States until now?

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, told Australia’s ABC last week. “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 United States’ 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.

New Zealand bans military-style rifles, prime minister says days after mosque attacks that left 50 dead

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 homicides are far more rare than they are in the United States.

So, how could New Zealand ban some weapons so quickly? The answer is multifaceted, ranging from the urban demographics . . .

But unlike the NRA, New Zealand’s interest groups have predominantly lobbied the government quietly, rather than threatening politicians with the scorn of their 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 never will 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 important, 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.

. . . over electoral systems . . .

“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 Webster, the gun policy expert.

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. To pass legislation, only a simple majority is needed.

. . . to the power of courts.

Ardern is also less likely to face challenges from the courts than politicians would in the United States, where the Supreme Court has interpreted the Second Amendment as giving people 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.

This post was first published March 18. It was updated March 21.

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