23 years ago in Port Arthur, Australia, 35 people were shot dead by a lone gunman wielding an AR-15. It was the worst massacre in the country since at least 1928. Within weeks, Australia had banned all semi-automatic and self-loading weapons and introduced greater restrictions on ammunition sales. The public broadly supported these measures but politicians faced opposition from the powerful gun lobby. Following the introduction of tighter gun laws, the country went 18 years without a mass shooting.
In March of this year, New Zealand was rocked by the massacre of 50 muslims at two mosques in Christchurch. The proudly multicultural country struggled to comprehend such a tragedy happening on its shores. Meanwhile, the nation’s politicians set about following Australia’s example. Less than a month after the massacre, a bill to outlaw military-style weapons passed its final stage in the New Zealand Parliament, almost unanimously.
America’s history when it comes to mass shootings is well known. According to the Washington Post there were eight major US mass shooting events in 2018 alone. The previous year saw 58 people shot dead at a music festival in Las Vegas, an incident in which a staggering 851 were injured (422 by gunfire). A raft of shootings at schools, night clubs and places of worship have plagued the country in recent years with studies showing that such massacres are on the rise.
The case for tighter gun laws in the US is overwhelming, arguably more so than in any other country. Two thirds of all homicides stateside are gun-related. For comparison the UK figure is under 5%. This is largely because gun ownership in the US far exceeds any other nation. There are around 90 guns for every 100 people in America and research shows a clear correlation between rates of gun ownership and gun-related deaths.
The most familiar obstacle to tighter gun control in the US - along the lines of Australia and New Zealand - is the Second Amendment. This gives Americans a constitutional “right to keep and bear arms” and is the bedrock of the gun rights movement. What’s perhaps less well known is the that the text of the second amendment bestows this right not upon individuals but a ‘well regulated’ State Militia. In any case, such constitutional barriers could always be overcome were there sufficient political will.
Perhaps surprisingly, the lack of support for gun control in the US seems to be confined to Capitol Hill. According to Gallup, over sixty percent of Americans believe gun laws should be ‘more strict’ with fewer than one in ten favouring looser regulation. By contrast, even modest reforms - such as the introduction of universal background checks, proposed after the Sandy Hook massacre - have floundered in Congress.
The influence of lobby groups such as the National Rifle Association (NRA) cannot be overstated. In 2017, the Center for Responsive Politics found that gun rights lobbyists outspent their gun control counterparts by around five to one. Meanwhile, all but six Republicans in Congress at the time of the report had received some NRA funding. The ‘soft power’ of the gun lobby as a route to power for Republicans is also significant. Lee Drutman, of the think tank New America, argues that politicians “rise up in Republican politics is by supporting gun rights issues... because there a lot of Republican voters in the coalition who care very deeply about gun rights”.
Australia and New Zealand also have influential gun lobbies. In fact, a 2018 report found that the Australian gun lobby spent more per capita than even the NRA. Moreover, at the time of the Port Arthur shooting, gun rights advocates were regarded as “the ruling lobby in Australia”. So, how did politicians in the two nations overcome this powerful opposition?
Firstly, the speed of reform gave gun rights groups no time to make their case or exercise their influence on lawmakers. The Australian National Firearms Agreement famously took shape within just twelve days whilst the beginnings of reform in New Zealand, following the Christchurch massacre, were similarly speedy.
Second, in both countries reformers have benefited from popular support. The New Zealand public overwhelmingly backs the reforms recently approved by the country’s parliament, as did the Australian public in 1996. Prime Minister John Howard was so confident the public was on his side that he even threatened hesitant States with a referendum on gun laws.
Lastly, lawmakers in Australia and New Zealand have had the courage to defy powerful special interest groups, even at the expense of their political careers. A 2013 segment on American comedy program The Daily Show featured politicians, including former Queensland Premier Rob Borbidge, who implemented gun reforms and suffered for it at the ballot box. The conservative New Zealand First and National parties are also expected to pay a price for supporting gun reform, having opposed such measures in the 2017 election.
Readers can decide for themselves whether America’s politicians lack the speed, support, or guts to follow Australia and New Zealand’s lead.