opinion

Thoughts and prayers don't save lives. What Donald Trump can learn from Jacinda Ardern.

Less than 24 hours after a terrorist murdered 50 people in a mass shooting at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern uttered the words her country was waiting to hear: “our gun laws will change”.

Less than six days later, she followed through on that promise. Legislation to come into effect on April 11 will see a ban on military-style semi-automatic weapons and assault rifles, plus large-capacity magazines. As well as an immediate halt on sales of weapons to avoid stockpiling, the government will spend an estimated NZ$100m-200m on a buyback program to remove now-banned weapons from the streets.

Announcing the reforms on Thursday, the Labor leader said, “Our history changed forever. Now our laws will, too.”

The speed at which Ardern turned a tragedy into action has been described as “the fastest ever” response by a government to a mass shooting.

Video by Mamamia

After 35 people were killed in the 1996 Port Arthur massacre, it took the Australian government, led by John Howard, an admirable 10 days to announce the National Firearms Agreement banning semi-automatic weapons. And it took seven months after the massacre of 16 children in Dunblane, Scotland, for the British government to enact a partial ban on handguns.

Meanwhile, in the United States…

In the six years and three months since a gunman murdered 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School – the event that many thought would finally provoke change – there have been at least 1988 mass shootings (that is, an event in which four or more people are shot).

Sixty two of those have happened in 2019 alone, claiming 110 lives so far.

In fact, since that day in December 2012, only one full calendar week has passed without a mass shooting in the US – the week of January 5, 2014. The reprieve lasted just 11 days.

What’s preventing the US from making gun reform?

In the United States, there’s a sadly predictable pattern after these shootings: lawmakers offer sympathy; the public demand action; and Congress does nothing.

The sad reality is, the United States is stuck in a cycle of inaction, and there two key things keeping them there:

  1. The United States famously has the “right of the people to keep and bear arms” enshrined in its constitution; New Zealand does not.
  2. The United States has a powerful gun lobby that promotes and defends that right, and donates millions to the election campaigns of like-minded politicians. (In fact, the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics estimated that during the 2016 election, the National Rifle Association and its affiliates spent $54m to help secure Republican control of the White House and Congress, $30.3m of which went toward helping elect Donald Trump.)

It’s the second one which is prevents any change to the first.

It’s the second one that explains why US lawmakers only seem capable of creeping forward, when Ardern and Howard could leap.

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Why Trump will only offer “thoughts and prayers”, when Ardern and Howard could offer change.

Why after 17 teenagers were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in February 2018; after 58 people were gunned down in Las Vegas in October 2017; and even after Sandy Hook… military-style assault weapons are still legal, there’s no federal law requiring universal background checks, and in some states a person can legally purchase an AR-15 before they can buy a beer.

Little wonder then, that many Americans are looking toward New Zealand with awe. A tiny country of 4.5 million is leading the way, setting an example on an issue that the world’s superpower has been unable unwilling to meaningfully address at a federal level for the last 25 years.

So what should President Donald Trump learn from Jacinda Ardern’s response?

Change is possible, even in the face of powerful opposition. New Zealand, is a country with a strong hunting tradition (there is one gun for every three New Zealanders compared to one for every eight Australians, The Sydney Morning Herald reported), and it had tried – and failed – three times previously to ban semi-automatic weapons: in 2005, 2012 and 2017. And that’s despite a mass shooting in 1990, in which a man murdered 13 people in the town of Aramoana using precisely that style of gun.

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But the point is it has happened now. In just six days. Because a leader showed the fortitude to listen to her countrymen, to put their safety above political interest. Because military-style weapons capable of firing 45 bullets every minute have no place on the streets.

And most of all because “thoughts and prayers” won’t save lives.

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