SALT LAKE CITY — Six days after a gunman killed 50 people outside two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced a ban on military-style semi-automatic guns and assault rifles.
Twelve days after the 1996 mass shooting at Port Arthur in Australia, then-Prime Minister John Howard implemented gun laws similar to those outlined by Ardern.
More than six years after the Sandy Hook mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school, the United States has not passed federal legislation that would require universal background checks for those interested in buying a gun.
The rapidity at which New Zealand and other countries have arrived at a consensus on gun policy after tragic mass shootings stands in stark contrast to the U.S., which has reached seemingly little consensus on how to prevent future mass shootings. This isn’t to say that measures haven’t been taken. In December, the federal government banned bump stocks, which can be attached to semi-automatic weapons to make them fire at faster speeds, and in February the House Judiciary Committee passed two bills that would require universal background checks on every gun purchase. However, pundits have expressed doubt the bills will pass the Republican-controlled Senate.
The U.S. has some of the loosest gun laws of any developed nation, despite an ever-increasing death toll caused by firearms, according to the Atlantic. Since Sandy Hook, there have been 1,988 mass shootings, averaging about one per day since 2015. (A mass shooting is defined as an event “in which four or more people, excluding the shooter, were shot but not necessarily killed, at the same general time and location.”) So far in 2019, the U.S. has seen 63 mass shootings. In 2016, 38,658 people died as a result of firearms (70 percent of which were suicides), up from 33,599 in 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Over the past week, multiple members of Congress, increasingly frustrated with the government’s apparent inability to act, took to Twitter to ask in various ways, “Why can’t the United States take action on gun policy as quickly as New Zealand did?”
This question is perhaps best answered by asking another question: What would need to happen for the United States to stand united behind a gun policy, like New Zealand did? And should the United States strive to follow New Zealand’s example, or not?
Pillars of gun safety
In order for the U.S. to reach a consensus on gun policy, Americans will need to let go of the "conviction that guns have something to do with freedom," and see gun violence as a public health problem that has a cure, said Philip Alpers, a native New Zealander who is an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Sydney’s School of Public Health in Australia and founder of GunPolicy.org, an international gun violence database.
He added that doesn't mean getting rid of guns, but rather accepting what he calls the “three pillars of gun control,” to which around 150 countries adhere.
“The first pillar of gun control is to license the operator of a firearm just as you license the driver of a car,” Alpers said. “The second is to register the object — the gun — just as you would register a car. The third pillar is the presumption in law that firearm ownership is a conditional privilege, just as it is with a car. If you do something silly with a car, you lose your license.”
“The only country which doesn’t do any of those three things is the U.S.,” Alpers continued. “There’s no licensing in most states, no registration in almost all of the states, and the Second Amendment is the precise opposite of the assumption that firearm ownership is a conditional privilege.”
For most of U.S. history, the Second Amendment has been interpreted to protect the right of state and local governments, not individuals, to bear arms. That changed with the landmark 2008 case District of Columbia v. Heller, in which the Supreme Court ruled that individuals have a fundamental right to keep a firearm in their home for self-defense. However, the court also ruled that the amendment did not protect an individual’s right to carry a firearm wherever they wanted, nor an individual’s right to possess any type of gun.
Two years later, in the 2010 case McDonald v. City of Chicago, the Supreme Court ruled that the Second Amendment applies to not only the federal government, but also state and local governments, meaning that states or cities cannot ban an individual from owning a firearm for the purpose of self-defense.
John Lott, an economist and president of the Crime Prevention Research Center and author of the 1998 book "More Guns, Less Crime," said that the best way to ensure the safety of the American people is not necessarily to institute more regulations on guns, but rather to "get rid of gun-free zones."
"Most mass shootings have occurred in places where people aren't allowed to defend themselves," Lott said. "It's not by accident. These terrorists try to go to places where they can kill as many people as possible. The advantage of having someone there with a permitted concealed handgun who isn't readily identifiable is, it completely takes away the strategic advantage of these killers."
"The most effective way of reducing casualties is to allow civilians to be able to carry concealed handguns," Lott added.
Not all policymakers agree with either Alpers or Lott, and gun policy laws vary widely across the country, with states taking matters into their own hands to the extent that they are able.
According to a 2018 Washington Post analysis that examined which states had implemented some of the stricter gun control measures — including mandatory background checks, red flag laws, relinquishment laws, assault weapons bans, high-capacity magazine bans, gun possession prohibitions for high-risk individuals, and gun possession prohibitions for individuals with domestic violence convictions — California and Connecticut had the strictest gun control laws in the nation, with all seven types of laws implemented. Close behind were New York and Massachusetts, which had implemented six of the above laws. Idaho and Montana didn’t have any of the above laws, although they did, for example, have laws that prohibit carrying guns on elementary school campuses.
Utah has implemented two of the measures — gun possession prohibitions for high-risk individuals and individuals with domestic violence convictions. As of 2018, it had 13 total gun laws, including several laws requiring a permit for concealed and open carry of a firearm. Nevertheless, it remains a state friendly to guns.
The analysis revealed that 19 states and the District of Columbia have instituted mandatory universal background checks. Six states and the District of Columbia have banned the sale of assault weapons, while seven states and the District of Columbia have banned the sale of assault pistol ammunition and other high-capacity magazines. Seven states have instituted relinquishment laws, which state that if any person becomes disqualified from possessing a firearm, they must turn in those firearms.
Public health research
Recent polls show that around 90 percent of Americans favor the idea of instituting mandatory background checks, and experts are generally in agreement that background checks are the most effective way of preventing guns from getting into the wrong hands.
“What is clear is that states with stricter laws do much better than states with weak laws” in terms of gun-related deaths, said David Hemenway, a professor of heath policy and director of the Injury Control Research Center at Harvard University.
Hemenway added that there is not significant evidence in the U.S. that points to the effectiveness of registration or licensing laws in preventing gun-related deaths, but that’s because of a lack of data due to a lack of federal grant money for public health research into gun violence.
Some states, such as Hawaii, do have gun licensing laws, but Lott said they have been largely ineffective in tracing crimes back to criminals.
In 1996, Congress passed an amendment sponsored by the National Rifle Association to a spending bill that prevented the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from using funds to “advocate or promote gun control” after a series of public health reports found that having a gun in the house increased the probability of one committing suicide or homicide. As a result, research on gun violence was brought to a complete halt for around 15 years and has been minimal ever since.
A spending bill signed by President Donald Trump in 2018 removed that language, allowing the center to resume research into gun violence.
Mark Rosenberg, who oversees gun violence research at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told NPR that the new bill will allow researchers to “develop things for legislators. We can give them the evidence and what is safe and what is effective, just like we do for medications.”
“They're under a tremendous amount of pressure right now to vote for or against some of these gun legislative proposals,” Rosenberg continued. “We owe it to them to give them information about what works. We don't know for even the simple basic measures of gun registration and licensing of gun owners — we don't know that that would work — or preventing the sale of semi-automatic rifles. Will that prevent mass shootings or school shootings? We owe it to them to get the research done so we can give them the data.”
Alpers thinks this data could make a difference, but added that he believes "the U.S. already knows how to solve this problem," pointing out that the U.S. has been a pioneer in many areas of public health, including car safety, HIV/AIDS research, Ebola research, and smallpox and measles cures.
"American public safety experts and practitioners persuaded America, and then the world, to use standard public health procedures" in all of these areas, he said.
"It's inevitable that the U.S. administration will eventually follow the exact same best practices with guns as it did with all the other admirable initiatives that it has already led," Alpers added. "But it's going to take time."
Of course, "It's going to take time" is precisely what many Americans are tired of hearing.
But there's a difference between "taking time to get things right and not wanting to change anything at all," said Samara McPhedran, director of the Homicide Research Unit and deputy director of the Violence Research and Prevention Program at Griffiths University in Australia.
"Firearms policy is a very complex and technical area and effective policy comes from making calm, measured, well-informed decisions," McPhedran said.
She added that, in general, it concerns her when "reacting is turned into a virtue and thinking is turned into a vice."
McPhedran said while many governments have applauded Australia's quick action to implement tougher gun policies after the 1996 mass shooting, the laws have also had some unintended consequences, including the creation of a black market of firearms.
In addition, recent studies have shown that the effects of Australia's gun laws are not as straightforward as they may seem. For example, the rate of firearm-related homicides in Australia declined after the mass shooting, but those rates had also been declining before the mass shooting. Although gun-related suicide rates have gone down, so too have rates of suicide by other means, which makes it difficult to say that banning guns alone was responsible for reducing suicide rates. And while there haven't been any public mass shootings in Australia since the stricter gun laws were implemented, it's still unclear why the country didn't have any mass shootings before 1987, when gun laws were lax and semi-automatics were widely owned, McPhedran said.
"The reality and the evidence and a careful evaluation of the situation before 1987 in Australia strongly suggest that there’s a lot more going on and the situation is far more complex than people realize," McPhedran said. "It takes time to get these policies right, work out exactly what needs to change, and identify any potential unintended consequences of any action."
Nevertheless, other research, including a study co-written by Hemenway and Mary Vriniotis, has indicated that Australia's gun laws have had an overall positive effect on reducing rates of homicide and suicide, as well as mass shootings.
"From the perspective of 1996, it would have been difficult to imagine more compelling future evidence of a beneficial effect of the law. Whether or not one wants to attribute the effects as being due to the law, everyone should be pleased with what happened in Australia after the NFA (National Firearms Agreement) — the elimination of firearm massacres (at least up to the present) and an immediate, and continuing, reduction in firearm suicide and firearm homicide," the study concluded.
Knowing when to take action
While making measured decisions is important, at a certain point it also becomes necessary to take action, Alpers said.
He pointed out that gun lobbies such as the National Rifle Association often "make very reasonable requests" to legislative bodies after events like a mass shooting to "not have a knee-jerk reaction with ill-considered legislation." However, Alpers said, those requests often result in the government making an official inquiry into the matter, which can often take several years and delay the solution-making process considerably.
Alpers said that before the 1996 Australia mass shooting, there had been 11 official inquiries into gun control policies in 10 years because of prior mass shootings. Each inquiry had arrived at a similar set of recommendations, which ultimately weren't implemented. Before the New Zealand mass shooting, Alpers said, there had been four such inquiries in 22 years, each of which had also been defeated by the gun lobby.
When the most recent mass shootings happened in Australia and New Zealand, Alpers said, "it was the last straw."
Both countries were able to quickly identify the gun control policies they wanted to implement because they had those prior sets of recommendations at their fingertips. And although the gun lobby in Australia has pushed back against some of the country's gun regulations, and Alpers expects there to be debate on New Zealand's amendment to the Arms Act when it comes before Parliament in April, an overwhelming majority of people in both countries — and across party lines — support the gun laws, rendering the lobbies "almost impotent."
"The public is a force to be reckoned with," he said. "If you tried to go against the public there would be total uproar."
A symbol of freedom?
Do Americans, as a society, want to follow in the path of New Zealand, Australia, and the 150 or so other countries that adhere to the three pillars of gun control?
Alpers said the debate about gun control is less about guns than it is about freedom and what it means to be American.
"Behind the gun is a symbol of freedom, and the American admiration for freedom is intense," Alpers said.
Returning to the car-gun analogy, he said, "The car is also a symbol of freedom. But we've curbed the abuse and misuse of cars without changing any of that. Guns could be the same. They could still have the same role in society as they do now, but without being so hugely available and so easy to use in the heat of the moment. Laws to reduce the fatality of cars did not reduce the accessibility or appeal of cars."
Hemenway said that if there was strong bipartisan support to take action on gun policy in the U.S., President Trump could do what New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern did and go out in front of the country and say, "We're going to do this."
"We could do that very quickly if we wanted to as a society," Hemenway said. "But it just hasn't happened yet."