Just days after the largest mass shooting in the history of their nation — on March 15, 2019 — New Zealand had a brand new gun control policy. The move made headlines across the United States, where we can’t even seem to find the right time to discuss guns, even after two mass shootings at different Walmarts and one at a garlic festival in the span of a few days. What’s even more shocking is that there was no centralized pushback to the restrictive actions in NZ. When the law was introduced to parliament on April 10th, it had wide bipartisan support. A second set of laws, announced on July 22nd, is also expected to pass.
Americans don’t even see bipartisan grieving after mass shootings. Our politicians know their talking points before they know the body count. For many — a list that perfectly coincides with those who accept NRA donations — there’s no moral outrage at all. Only “thoughts and prayers.”
The difference in the two responses is tricky to parse. New Zealand’s population is roughly 1/75th of ours (though it’s only two times less dense). It also doesn’t have gun rights written into its founding document, something which severely impedes progress on gun control in America. But the biggest difference is the philosophical approach taken by each nation. The U.S. response to gun violence is “rights-based” or, to be more clear, “personal rights-based.” The autonomy of the individual is valued over the safety of the general public.
In New Zealand, they take a “public health” approach. Meaning no one cares about your rights if they impede the reasonable desires of the public to avoid preventable catastrophes, no matter how rare those catastrophes are. This resulted in a strict ban on military-style semi-automatics, expensive gun buybacks, and new, more stringent licensing rules shortly after the Christchurch mosque shooting.
Americans have tried the rights-based method of firearms management since this country began. We fall back on it over and over in the face of tragedy. If we want true change — if that’s actually a national goal — it’s time to give the public health approach a try.
Horrific as it is, there’s never been a better time to make the public health argument for gun control. Not only have we seen a spate of mass shootings, not only has New Zealand modeled this thought process (with a swiftness that underscores the inaction of American politicians), but the recent suicides of two students from Parkland, Florida remind us of the collateral damage that mass cataclysm has on a community. Clearly, these sorts of highly publicized shootings have a longtail effect, which extends beyond those in the line of fire — as we saw earlier this year, with the suicide of Jeremy Richman, who lost his six-year-old daughter in the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre.