Just six days after a gun massacre killed 50 people, New Zealand’s government leaders, both left and right, have decided to ban military-style semi-automatic weapons such as those used in the shootings. The speed of the consensus is certainly noteworthy. Australia took 12 days after a 1996 mass killing to pass similar laws. Many in America are still waiting for such a ban. But what is important to note is how the Kiwis did it.
The compromise announced March 21 was made possible because top political leaders on either side of the gun debate finally listened to each other’s fears with a certain civic compassion. The national trauma of last Friday’s killings at two mosques certainly made sure of that.
As in the United States, emotions over guns run deep in New Zealand, with a gun lobby on one side and gun-control advocates on the other. Even though the country has no equivalent of a Second Amendment and enjoys far fewer gun murders per capita than in the U.S., many previous efforts at tightening gun restrictions have failed. This time, there was a mutual acknowledgment of each other’s concerns.
Under the agreement, hunters and farmers will be able to keep guns with little rapid firepower. Owners of military-style semi-automatics and high-capacity ammunition magazines will need to surrender their weapons and then be compensated. In other words, guns with the highest fear factor – and designed for maximum slaughter – must be forsaken.
As one New Zealand hunter put it, “Most of us aren’t keen on seeing idiots in the bush with [AK-15 assault rifles].” Another owner said the convenience of owning an AK-15 rifle “doesn’t outweigh the risk of misuse.”
This is a lesson for the U.S., where opposing camps remain stuck in their respective narratives of fear. The different emotions – fear of crime, fear of government, fear of suicide, etc. – must first be addressed before facts and reason can prevail. In fact, in its decisions recognizing a fundamental gun right, the Supreme Court has acknowledged that gun rights are not unlimited, especially for the kind of weapons commonly used to instill fear.
Justice Antonin Scalia, the conservative who wrote the key decision, cited laws written in 18th-century America that ban “dangerous and unusual” weapons used to “affright” people. “It’s clear that certain restrictions on the bearing of arms are traditional and can be enforced,” the late justice told a journalist.
Those countries with too many guns designed for mass killing must find their own path toward political unity on gun restrictions. New Zealand just set one example by showing how civic respect and listening can replace many fears about guns and gun control.