Weak political response to mass gun violence in US could be a product of culture

When researchers compared the US and New Zealand’s responses to gun violence, they found that the two countries are ‘worlds apart’ when it comes to reacting to and preventing firearm violence


                            Weak political response to mass gun violence in US could be a product of culture

The dominant gun culture in the US might influence the country’s “anemic political response” to mass gun violence, according to researchers.

In a commentary, which examines the differences between the US and New Zealand’s responses to gun violence, the researchers say that the two countries are “worlds apart” when it comes to reacting to and preventing gun violence.

The estimated number of civilian-owned firearms in the US is more than one per person, and in New Zealand, it is about one firearm for every four citizens. The difference seems to be cultural, says the research team from the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California and the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand.

They explain that while gun ownership in the US is protected by the Second Amendment and considered to be a right, owning a gun is regarded as a privilege in New Zealand. 

After the two recent mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio and El Paso, Texas, which killed 31 people and injured dozens in less than 24 hours, President Donald Trump was silent on the issue of gun control, and instead blamed video games and mental health for the incidents. Other politicians including Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and lieutenant governor of Texas Dan Patrick have also made video games the scapegoat for the recent violent crimes. 

The US response stands in stark contrast to that of New Zealand, a country that quickly changed its gun laws to address gun violence following a devastating mass shooting, the researchers state.

After the two recent mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio and El Paso, Texas, which killed 31 people and injured dozens in less than 24 hours, President Donald Trump was silent on the issue of gun control, and instead blamed video games and mental health for the incidents.
(Getty Images)

According to the researchers, the resistance to legislating firearm safety in the US is probably because of the National Rifle Association (NRA), one of the nation’s most influential lobbies.

The paper says that the NRA has about six million members - which is more than the number of citizens of New Zealand (about 4.8 million).

Further, the NRA has donated over $4 million to active members of Congress during the past 20 years. Besides the pressure from the gun lobby, says the team, US politicians represent many gun owners in their districts. 

“The estimated total number of civilian-owned firearms in the US is 393,347,000, more than 1 per citizen. The high prevalence of gun ownership may be a result of its constitutional footing. The right to bear arms is defined by the Second Amendment and has been reestablished by federal case law, although federal courts and the Supreme Court do not always agree on its interpretation,” says the paper published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

According to estimates, New Zealand also has high gun ownership - 1.2 million legally owned firearms. “However, in contrast to the US, New Zealand has no constitutional basis for firearm ownership, and any influence from the gun lobby is small. One of the largest groups is the Council of Licensed Firearms Owners, with several thousand members. Further, New Zealand police affirm that possession and use of firearms is not a right, but a privilege that comes with responsibilities,” the paper states. 

The commentary further says, “Although some gun ownership groups in New Zealand espouse firearm rights rhetoric similar to that of the NRA, their influence on gun legislation is limited. Perhaps the tempered influence of the gun lobby and strong political response in New Zealand reflects the practical role firearms play in their society. Firearms in New Zealand are generally viewed primarily as tools of the trade for farmers and hunters.” 

Gun deaths in New Zealand are also rare, especially compared to the US, where total gun fatality and suicide rates are the highest among all high-income countries.

“Although firearms are common in New Zealand, firearm fatalities are rare. From 2001 to 2014, the annual average number of firearm deaths was 56 (annual average of 10 non-self-inflicted deaths, including accidental injury and homicide). In sharp contrast, during the same period, there were an estimated 35,000 firearm fatalities annually (98 firearms deaths per day),” says the research team. 

The paper further states that the total firearm death rate in New Zealand is 1.3 per 100 000, driven mainly by suicides (1.1 per 100,000). In the US, however, the total firearm death rate is four times higher than the next high-income country - or 11.2 per 100 000. The US firearm suicide rate is 6.9 per 100,000, the highest among all high-income countries. 

Gun deaths in New Zealand are rare, especially compared to the US, where total gun fatality and suicide rates are the highest among all high-income countries. (Getty Images)

For their study, the researchers looked at two tragic incidents, which tested each country’s political will. This includes the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012, that killed 26 people, including 20 children in Newtown, Connecticut; and the March 15, 2019 incident in Christchurch, New Zealand, where an assailant targeted two mosques during Friday prayers, killing 51, and wounding an additional 49. 

“We contrast the immediate, forceful political response in New Zealand with the slow, anemic response in the US within the context of how each country views firearms,” says the team.

The paper says that within six days of the Christchurch tragedy, the New Zealand prime minister announced a proposal to ban semi-automatic weapons, and within two weeks, a formal introduction of the bill occurred.

Twenty-six days after the attack, the bill passed by a vote of 125 to 1.

“The new firearm laws in New Zealand amend the Arms Act by banning most -semi-automatic firearms and some shotguns and large-capacity magazines, as well as introducing restrictions on who is exempt from possessing a prohibited firearm. In addition, tougher penalties were instituted for persons illegally possessing prohibited firearms and parts,” says the paper.

In contrast, within five weeks of the Sandy Hook tragedy, President Barack Obama signed 23 executive orders and made 12 congressional proposals.

“The US Senate voted on the Assault Weapons Ban of 2013, which failed to pass by a vote of 40 to 60. In addition, the Manchin–Toomey Amendment, which aimed to improve background checks for gun sales, failed to pass by a vote of 54 to 46 (60 votes needed),” says the commentary.

The researchers further say, “Underscoring the political reluctance to act, perhaps the most productive federal actions since Sandy Hook was simply clarifying that firearms research is not prohibited by federal agencies and the signing of a bill that fixed loopholes in the federal background checks system. Conversely, the Trump administration and Congress reversed an executive order by the Obama administration that made it more difficult for mentally ill persons to purchase firearms. Six years after Sandy Hook, in February 2019, the Violence Against Women Act, which restricted domestic violence offenders from purchasing firearms, expired and has not been reauthorized by the Senate.”

According to the research team, a comparison of the two countries as far their views on gun ownership is concerned as well as the roles firearms have in suicide and death, shows the reality of two very different gun cultures, which have determined their respective countries’ responses to tragedy.

“The stark contrast between these cultures can affect our understanding of how to address gun violence. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern echoed this sentiment recently: ‘Australia experienced a massacre and changed their laws. New Zealand had its experience and changed its laws. To be honest with you, I do not understand the US’. Indeed, the two countries are worlds apart,” says the commentary.

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