American Exceptionalism at Its Worst
On March 15, a terrorist carrying two semi-automatic weapons and three rifles attacked worshipers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, killing 50 men, women, and children—some of them refugees who had fled war zones seeking safety. In the hours that followed nearly 70,000 New Zealanders signed petitions calling for gun control reform, and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern led the nation’s elected leaders in vowing to take swift action. On March 21, less than a week later, Prime Minister Ardern announced the introduction of a national ban on all military-style semiautomatic weapons and assault rifles, high-capacity ammunition magazines, and parts that allow weapons to be modified into semiautomatic guns, as well as provisions for a government funded buyback of existing assault weapons. In her announcement, she said, “I absolutely believe there will be a common view amongst New Zealanders—those who use guns for legitimate purposes, and those who have never touched one—that the time for the mass and easy availability of these weapons must end.”
That was leadership. As Nick Kristof wrote in a recent New York Times opinion piece: “Contrast that with the United States, where just since 1970, more Americans have died from guns (1.45 million, including murders, suicides and accidents) than died in all the wars in American history (1.4 million). More Americans die from guns every 10 weeks than died in the entire Afghanistan and Iraq wars combined, yet we still don’t have gun safety rules as rigorous as New Zealand’s even before the mosques were attacked.”
I have written about this question before: How have other countries responded after a gun massacre or mass shooting? In 1996, 35 people were killed and 23 others were wounded by a gunman at the Port Arthur tourist site in Tasmania, Australia, in one of the largest massacres ever committed by a single shooter at that time. Within twelve days of the shooting, spurred by strong public support, the Australian federal and state governments agreed to the historic National Firearms Agreement (NFA), which banned semi-automatic and pump action rifles and shotguns and required registration of all firearms, strict standards for gun licenses, and a permit for each gun purchase subject to a 28-day waiting period. The NFA also prohibited private sales, regulated ammunition sales, and required licensees to receive firearm safety training and store firearms safely. To get banned rifles and shotguns off the streets, the federal government bought back or accepted turn-ins of over one million guns which were then destroyed. New Zealand’s proposed changes are based in part on Australia’s successful model. In the 18 years before the NFA there were 13 mass shootings in Australia in which five or more people were killed. In the 23 years since there has been one.
Just weeks before the Port Arthur massacre in Australia, 16 five- and six-year-olds and their teacher were killed in a devastating school shooting in Dunblane, Scotland. The shooter owned his guns legally and the outrage over his crime started a public campaign for tighter gun control culminating in a petition being handed to the government with over 700,000 signatures. A 1987 mass shooting by a man who killed 16 people and wounded 15 others had already led Great Britain to ban semi-automatic and pump action rifles and shotguns. This time, eleven months after the Dunblane murders, Great Britain passed the Firearm (Amendment) Act of 1997 instituting tighter controls over handguns. Soon after, the country went a step further and prohibited all handguns in civilian hands. The government also instituted firearm amnesties across the country resulting in the surrender of thousands of firearms and rounds of ammunition.
In 2015, six children and teens were killed by guns in the United Kingdom, which includes both Great Britain and Northern Ireland and had a total of 15.4 million children and teens. That same year in Texas, Florida, and Pennsylvania, with a similar combined population of 15.5 million children and teens, 495 children and teens were killed by guns. What a difference guns make.
Some will argue that the United States is a very different place than Australia, Great Britain, or New Zealand, with entrenched attitudes equating guns with personal freedom, tens of millions more people, and tens of millions more guns, and we may never be able to expect the same success reducing the number of gun murders or mass shootings to near zero. This argument is not a valid reason to dismiss anything other countries are doing to act in favor of continuing to do nothing here. In all three of those countries extraordinary tragedies pushed a groundswell of citizens to stand up, say “no more,” and demand elected leaders take significant action.
If Americans had said no more in 1999 after Columbine, there may never have been a Virginia Tech. If we had said no more after Virginia Tech, there may never have been a Fort Hood. If we had said no more after Fort Hood, there may never have been an Aurora. If we had said no more after Aurora, there may never have been a Newtown. If we had said no more after Newtown, there may never have been a Charleston. If we had said no more after Charleston, there may never have been a San Bernardino. If we had said no more after San Bernardino, there may never have been an Orlando. If we had said no more after Orlando, there may never have been a Las Vegas. If we had said no more after Las Vegas, there may never have been a Sutherland Springs. If we had said no more after Sutherland Springs, there may never have been a Parkland. And if our leaders had acted as swiftly as Prime Minister Ardern along with the groundswell of students, parents, faith leaders and others saying no more after Parkland, there may never have been a Pittsburgh and some of the tens of thousands of other American gun deaths each year might also have been prevented.
This is American “exceptionalism” at its very worst. When are Americans and our elected leaders going to say “no more?”
As we recognize and admire the noble response of leaders in New Zealand to the horrific anti-Muslim massacre, we must redouble our efforts here at home to create a noble response from our leaders to children dying from guns and renew our commitment to Protect Children, Not Guns.
Ten Facts on Child Gun Deaths in America
- Guns killed a child or teen in America every 2 hours and 48 minutes in 2017. That year 3,410 children and teens were killed by a gun—68 times the 50 slain in New Zealand.
- U.S. child and teen gun deaths could have filled 170 classrooms of 20 children in 2017.
- 2017 marked the greatest number of child and teen gun deaths since 1998. 282 more children died in 2017 than in 2016.
- Guns killed more children under 5 than law enforcement officers in the line of duty. 93 preschoolers died from guns compared with 42 law enforcement officers in the line of duty.
- 1,397 Black children and teens were killed by guns in 2017. Black children and teens were 41 percent of child and teen gun deaths, although only 14 percent of their peer population.
- The gun death rate for Black children and teens was nearly four times that of White children and teens and more than 10 times that of Asian and Pacific Islander children and teens.
- The majority of Black child and teen gun deaths were homicides; for White children and teens, the majority were suicides.
- Between 1963-2017, 67,421 Black children and teens were killed by guns—nearly 17 times the number of recorded lynchings of all Black people in the 74 years between 1877-1950.
- Since 1963, 3.5 times more children and teens died from guns on American soil than U.S. soldiers killed in the Vietnam, Persian Gulf, Afghanistan and Iraq wars abroad.
- Our nation has more guns than people. Although less than 5 percent of the global population, U.S. residents own nearly half (46 percent) of all civilian guns in the world—an estimated 393 million firearms.