New Zealand is moving to ban assault weapons. Why can’t US?


New Zealand is moving to ban assault weapons. Why can't US?
Members attend the New Zealand Parliament session to pay respects to those who lost their lives in the Christchurch attacks, in Wellington on March 19, 2019.

A week after a mass shooting at two mosques, New Zealand’s government is on track to ban assault weapons next month and take back those that are already out there.

Twenty years after Columbine, the first of so many major mass shootings in the US, the federal government has done basically nothing. The federal assault weapons ban expired in 2004. Support for reinstating such a ban is less than 50%, according to recent polls.

Instead, teachers in Indiana are being shot with pellets to prepare them for possible school shootings. Because if you can’t stop them, prepare for them. Or something. Shootings in the US feel, sickeningly, normal.

Why is that? There are some clear differences between the US and New Zealand to consider:

There’s no Second Amendment in New Zealand

While the US was formed after a revolution from Great Britain, New Zealand is still technically part of the Commonwealth. There was no bloody revolution, so no resulting right to bear arms was written into its laws. Notably, the US has previously had an assault weapons ban, so it should be constitutional to enact one again. Additionally, seven states have their own assault weapons bans.

Imagine if Nancy Pelosi controlled the government and there was no Senate

New Zealand does not have a bicameral legislature, which is to say it does not have a Senate. It also doesn’t have a president. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s government is formed out of Parliament, roughly the New Zealand equivalent of the US House of Representatives.

Ardern can essentially announce there will be new gun laws because she and her coalition — among her Labour Party and the nationalist New Zealand First party and the Green Party — control the Parliament. They still have to write and debate new laws, but since the one governing coalition controls the one house of government, there’s a good chance they’ll succeed.

Also, unlike in the US, there is bipartisan support for the new assault weapons ban. The opposition party in New Zealand has endorsed quick action to ban assault weapons. The brake on the actions of the New Zealand Parliament is that if voters don’t like what they do, they’ll pick a new party in the next election.

The check-and-balance system slows down change

The Democrats who have taken control of the US House don’t control the government. They’re still, essentially, the loyal opposition. When Democrats moved gun legislation, as they plan to do this year, it won’t become law unless it also passes through the Senate, where the Republican majority seems highly unlikely to vote for it.

Even if they did, President Donald Trump could veto it. Further, the gun bill House Democrats have passed has to do with background checks. They have not moved on a proposal banning assault weapons. The government in the US is less responsive and less nimble than New Zealand’s. It takes a lot more agreement to get anything done in the US, which was built around the idea of separation of powers and protecting individual rights.

That’s probably part of the reason lawmakers in New Zealand were long ago able to enact a nationalized health insurance system, but in the US that seems impossible. On the other hand, it was impossible for Republicans to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Obstruction works both ways.

Democrats paid a political price for banning assault weapons in 1994

It was under President Bill Clinton and a Democratically controlled House and Senate that the 10-year partial ban on assault weapons was enacted. It took some doing. It was folded into a larger crime bill that now has a very troubled legacy because it paved the way to runaway incarceration, particularly of minorities.

Shortly after it was signed into law, Democrats lost control of the House. Clinton staffers have specifically blamed the assault weapons ban. And the national appetite for such a ban had evaporated by 2004, when it lapsed. When Democrats again had control of the entire government, in 2009, President Barack Obama failed to follow through on promises to make the ban permanent.

New Zealand is a much, much smaller country than the US

The US population was about 326 million in 2017, according to the US Census Bureau. In that year, the New Zealand population was about 4.8 million, according to the World Bank, which would place it somewhere between Louisiana and Alabama and make it the 25th largest state. Governing a place of 5 million people, and accounting for their differences of opinion, is a far different thing from governing a place many, many, many times that size in both population and geography.

It’s one reason why US states have been able to act where the federal government has not. And it’s important to note that about 10 times as many people are affected by the more-than-20-year-old assault weapons ban in California, with its nearly 40 million residents, than will be in New Zealand.

And this might be the most important reason. There is more than majority public support for tighter gun laws in the US, but not majority support for a federal assault weapons ban. In a Gallup poll in 2018, 61% favored stricter gun laws, but just 40% of Americans favored an assault weapons ban. There are regional anomalies to this, which means lawmakers from certain states will continue to block it. Under the US system of government, they’ll be able to. In a 2017 Pew survey, just 27% of Americans in the Northeast had guns in their households, compared with 45% of people in the South and 46% in the West. Also, far more Republicans than Democrats have guns in their households, compounding the partisan divide on the issue.

There are a lot more guns in the US

There are a lot of guns in New Zealand — more than 1.2 million, which is about 1 for every 3 people. But there are a gobsmacking unbelievable number of guns in the US, which has almost a gun for every person and about half the civilian-owned guns in the world, which suggests they are that much more ingrained in US culture.

 

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