The massacre of 12 people and the injuring of 59 more by alleged gunman James Holmes, in Denver, Colorado should give us pause to think about the effectiveness of our own gun laws here in New Zealand and indeed elsewhere in the world.
The era of civilian mass killings in peaceful and stable nations has given us a litany of small town and city names that will forever be etched in many people's memories - Aramoana (New Zealand), Dunblane (Scotland), Port Arthur (Australia), Colombine (United States), Otoya Island (Norway) and now Aurora, Denver (United States).
In recent weeks, there have been mass shooting attempts in Toronto, Canada. But the country with the most reported instances of mass shooting attempts has been the United States. The US is about the only nation in the world where citizens have a constitutionally protected right to keep arms. The original intent of the US Constitution's article on the right to keep and bear arms was to ensure that ordinary Americans had the means to defeat any British invasion back in the days when it was a fledgling independent state some 235-odd years ago. But now, successive court decisions and legislation has effectively extended that interpretation to mean that any citizen can keep guns and use them in self-defence.
What sort of message does that send? While I admit that gun control legislation has been brought into play both at the federal and state level in the United States, these efforts have been hamstrung by the need to observe the Constitution. And woe betide any politician or judicial official in the US who runs foul of the National Rifle Association (the infamous NRA). This powerful lobby group is well funded and resourced and actively campaigns against any politician at either the federal or state level who aims to restrict gun owners rights in any way. It has had some powerful spokespeople over the years too including the late actor (and best known player of Moses of all time) Charlton Heston.
Contrast this to the situation in New Zealand.
Here, our gun control laws were strengthened after the terrible events at Aramoana in November 1990. This small coastal settlement, near my home city of Dunedin, saw 13 people slaughtered and many more seriously injured at the hands of loner and gun fanatic, David Gray. In one of the few positive moves that the fourth National Government ever made (and in response to the massacre) it tightened our gun laws even further. Ditto, Australia after the Port Arthur massacre in 1996 when a conservative prime minister, John Howard, bravely faced down hostility eminating from gun control advocates in his own Liberal-National ruling coalition and protests in the rural hinterland to force through significant changes to Australia's gun laws.
Consequently, many American readers should note this - there have been no gun-based mass killings in either country since both tightened their gun control laws (although there have been a series of shootings which had the potential to turn into mass slayings but these have been relatively rare as well). Similarly, there have been no mass killings in Britain (although to my recollection one serious attempt was made last year) since the UK Government (under John Major's Conservative administration) toughened its own gun control legislation in the wake of the Dunblane shootings. Further, we don't have a strong gun lobby in this country. Gun owners rights advocates were relatively vocal against the fourth National Government's gun control laws in the 1990s but they have only made rare public statements since that time given that they are not as well resourced as their NRA counterparts and they also don't enjoy the same mass public support that their American counterparts receive.
Also US Republicans (who are more inclined to support gun ownership rights) should note a very important point - conservative governments in Australia, New Zealand and the UK all changed and tightened their gun laws following massacres that occurred on their watch. It was both sad and regrettable that it took mass killings to wake up governments to the dangers of massive numbers of unlicensed weapons falling into the wrong hands. But when these mass shootings occurred, both public and political opinion woke up to the need to restrain the domestic arms trade.
However, it is true that one cannot rule out a recurrence of another mass slaying event in New Zealand or in other jurisdictions which have tightened their gun laws. But, in my view, the one crucial difference between countries that have good (if still imperfect) gun control laws, like New Zealand, and those with looser laws, such as the United States, is that it reduces the potential incidence of either mass shootings or attempts at such. And these are the worst kinds of massacres that can occur in otherwise tranquil, politically stable societies, such as New Zealand's.
Today, another American community is mourning the loss of its citizens in another tragic slaying. I am glad that we haven't had to do the same for over 20 years. Gun control laws can and do make a difference as we in New Zealand know. Let's keep it that way.
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