TThe United States was rocked by the most horrific school shooting in almost a decade. On May 24, an 18 year old gunman entered Uvalde Elementary School in Texas and shot and killed 20 children and 2 teachers using an AR-15 style rifle.
This tragic incident has renewed national debate about gun control, in particular in regards to semi-automatic assault weapon availability, which are responsible for the vast majority of recent mass shootings here in the U.S.
“As a nation, we have to ask—when in God’s name are we going to stand up to the gun lobby?” U.S. President Joe Biden said in emotive remarks following the shooting.
Although mass shootings are not unique to the U.S., the country has the highest rate of gun deaths among rich countries—more than eight times higher than Canada and nearly 100 times higher than the U.K. Following each terrorist attack, the U.S. experience a similar aftermath. There are calls for increased gun control but they face resistance from Republican lawmakers and lack of legislative action. But in a number of other countries—notably New Zealand and Norway—a single mass shooting has been enough to force widespread change.
This is what the U.S. can learn from mass shootings elsewhere about gun control.
Christchurch, New Zealand
One week ago, 51 people were killed by a white supremacist at Christchurch mosques, New Zealand. In March 2019, Jacinda Arden, Prime Minister, announced broad gun control reforms. While there were approximately four firearms per person in New Zealand at that time, guns were mostly used as tools by hunters and farmers. It was clear that there were risks after the Christchurch attack. “In short, every semi-automatic weapon used in the terror attack on Friday will be banned in this country,” Arden said.
Under the new law gun owners had just six months to get their weapons sold to the government. It cost approximately 100 million New Zealand dollar ($65 million). The new law resulted in the confiscation of over 60,000.
A new registry was created to monitor the sale and purchase of firearms. The first license holders were granted shorter licenses and there is a ban on more guns. Only time will tell the true impact of the legislation—recorded firearm related offenses actually increased in 2020, but gun control advocates say this reflects the police taking gun crime more seriously.
New Zealand was previously considering tighter restrictions on weapons in 1996 after an attack in Australia which left 35 dead, prompted Canberra’s government to outlaw semi-automatic rifles. After pressure from gun lobbyists and resistance among politicians, the idea was scrapped.
Arden, in light of Uvalde’s Texas shooting, expressed his shock and sympathies for the victims. “When I watch from afar and see events such as this today, it’s not as a politician. I see them just as a mother,” Ardern said.
“When we saw something like that happen, everyone said never again, and so it was incumbent on us as politicians to respond to that,” she said of New Zealand’s response to the 2019 attack.
Learn more All Assault Weapons Banned in New Zealand It could be applied in America.
Gun laws were considered fairly strong in Norway—despite high ownership levels of rifles and shotguns for hunting—even before the two-stage terror attack in July 2011 that left 77 people dead. Anders Breivik was posing as a policeman and made his way to Utoya, home of the Labour Party’s summer youth camp. Breivik had originally intended to kill Gro Brundtland of the Labour Party, who he claimed allowed Muslims to settle in Norway. However, her presence at the event was cancelled. Instead, he shot 69 people dead with a semi-automatic rifle and a Glock pistol, in the country’s deadliest domestic attack since World War II.
At the time, gun owners in Norway had to obtain a license, be over the age of 18, and provide a “valid” reason for ownership. His weapons were legally obtained through hunting permits and membership in a pistol club. The tragedy was used by some pro-gun activists in America as evidence that more stringent gun laws did not prevent mass shootings. However, the homicide-by-firearm rate in the U.S. is currently nearly 12 times higher than in Norway—experts say that a mixture of gun controls, education, and culture contribute to the Nordic nation’s better record.
The push for more gun control after mass shootings in Norway was slower than New Zealand’s. Although an independent commission recommended tightening gun ownership rules in 2011, it wasn’t until 2018 that the Norwegian parliament passed a ban on semi-automatic rifles, which took a further two years to implement. A gunman stormed the mosque, opened fire and injured one person.
When a gunman used a handgun to kill 16 children and an adult in Dunblane, Scotland, 1996, legislative reforms were made in order to improve gun laws. There were not any regulations in place for handguns in Britain at the time. Guns were mainly used only on private property in the U.K. to recreational purposes.
The U.K. government implemented a ban almost total on handguns in less than a year after being pressured by bereaved family members and the general public. This was later extended to all handguns.
Similar to New Zealand, the British government started a gun buying program. It was successful in removing 20,000 firearms from circulation. The number of gun deaths was markedly reduced in the years that followed the 1997 law’s change. The U.K. hasn’t experienced a mass shooting since Dunblane in 1996.
Port Arthur in Australia
In 1996, Australia was faced with its own gun violence crisis when 35 victims were killed by a semiautomatic rifle. The gunman used a semi-automatic weapon in Port Arthur in Tasmania. Two weeks later, both federal and state lawmakers backed bans of semi-automatic and pump-action rifles. The government purchased at least 650,000 assault weaponry and made it into slag. Lawmakers also mandated licenses to prove a “genuine need” to own weapons, and firearm safety courses.
In 2002 at Melbourne University, two students were shot to death by an attacker who used different kinds of handguns. This prompted new restrictions. The laws against trafficking, harsher punishments for handgun misuse, and limitations on handguns allowed civilians. In Australia, nearly half of all gun owners have been licensed since 1997. The homicide-by firearm rate has also dropped significantly.
USA is an exception in gun control
While mass shootings can cause grief and anger in America, they rarely lead to tighter weapons regulations at the federal level. “Other countries experience horrific, fatal mass shootings with an assault style rifle and they say, ‘Never again,’ and they mean it,” Cassandra Crifasi, deputy director of the Center for Gun Violence Solutions at Johns Hopkins University, tells TIME. “In the U.S., we say, ‘Never again.’ But then we keep doing the same thing, which is almost nothing.”
America has the most guns per capita of any country on the planet. Unlike other countries with recent mass shootings, gun ownership in the U.S. is ingrained in the nation’s history, pop culture, and core identity. But the majority of Americans support at least some regulation of gun ownership—according to a Morning Consult/Politico survey taken last year, 84% of voters support universal background checks for gun purchases.
Constitutional protections for the right of bear arms are unaffected by nationwide licensing requirements. However, experts argue that reform can be achieved through alternative interpretations of the Constitution which require applying the document to today’s society. Introducing restrictions and registration rules on gun ownership won’t violate the right to bear arms, but will account for the kind of powerful assault weapons which are readily available today and used by mass shooters to inflict maximum harm. “Folks wrongly interpret the Second Amendment as being that you can’t have any kind of regulation,” Crifasi says.
Crifasi identifies two major reforms the federal government can implement that will still protect the Constitution right to gun ownership: extreme risk protection orders and license registration. These allow the owners of guns to be temporarily removed from their homes in crisis situations. While some states have such rules, like Massachusetts and Illinois do, it is not common for dangerous gun owners across the country to be able to seamlessly move from one state into the other.
Advertisement reforms can be used to control ownership. Military-grade weapons are marketed to the public for use in their homes, and the advent of social media means they’re reaching more people than ever. Images of an unidentified Twitter account emerged just days after the Uvalde massacre shooting. ad by Daniel Defense—the company behind the weapon used by the shooter—featuring a young child holding an assault weapon.
Daniel Defense had not responded to TIME’s request for comment at the time of publication.
Additional restrictions can be imposed by cities and states within the United States on gun ownership. For example, in response to the Sandy Hook shooting, Connecticut lawmakers voted to strengthen the state’s ban on assault weapons and prohibit the sale of high-capacity magazines. New York adopted gun laws as a response to other mass shootings. They are called the SAFE act. It also includes a Red Flag Law that prohibits individuals from possessing or buying guns if they hurt others.
The gridlocked nature of U.S. politics—with a system of checks and balances—in part explains the inability to tackle the issue. Experts say the main reason the U.S. has not been able to achieve the same level of progress in the past is due to the enormous influence and power held by the gun lobby. “The gun lobby has put a stranglehold on some of our elected officials so that they are more beholden to gun manufacturers than to their constituents,” she says. To influence gun policy, the National Rifle Association (NRA), spends $3,000,000 per year.
These dynamics will continue to exist but reforms are unlikely. Mass shootings like Uvalde will be what Crifasi calls “the cost of doing business.”
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