You know those scenes in American movies where the president, after learning the scope of a neglected problem, and doubtless growing as a person in the process, gives a dramatic speech about the meaning of America, their change of heart, and the specific policies they’re going to pursue now that they understand what’s wrong with the country? The platonic ideal comes in The American President, directed by Rob Reiner from a script by (who else!) Aaron Sorkin. This is what a fantasy of political courage, American-style, sounded like in 1995:
Tomorrow morning, the White House is sending a bill to Congress for its consideration. It’s White House Resolution 455, an energy bill requiring a 20% reduction of the emission of fossil fuels over the next ten years. It is by far the most aggressive stride ever taken in the fight to reverse the effects of global warming. The other piece of legislation is the crime bill. As of today, it no longer exists. I’m throwing it out. I’m throwing it out and writing a law that makes sense. You cannot address crime prevention without getting rid of assault weapons and handguns. I consider them a threat to national security, and I will go door-to-door if I have to, but I will convince Americans that I’m right, and I’m going to get the guns.
Imagining a world in which the United States took serious action to stem climate change and reduce gun violence in 1995 was aspirational in 1995; in 2019, it’s just painful. We all know by now, after all, that it’s impossible to ever enact any meaningful gun control, no matter how popular it is, no matter what atrocities we have to endure without it. Politicians looking at a problem, considering what the majority of their citizens want them to do about it, and then doing the thing is something that only happens in the movies, a dumb liberal fantasy that ignores reality on the ground. And then the Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand just does the thing. Here’s her speech Wednesday announcing a flat, fast, and immediate ban of all military-style semi-automatic weapons. It took her all of ten minutes.
If this were an Aaron Sorkin speech, there’d be a lot more talk about the meaning of America—if it were an Aaron Sorkin speech, it would be set in the United States, and there’d be a lot more talk, period—but in a negative-space sort of way, every word of Ardern’s speech sheds light on the meaning of America. If our country means nothing else—and under Donald Trump, it doesn’t—it means we never, ever take concrete steps to solve our problems, no matter how much handwaving we do. New Zealand’s response to a mass murder in their country is not about the United States. But it still puts us to shame.
Here’s the full text of Ardern’s remarks:
Welcome, everyone. On 15 March, the nation witnessed a terrorist attack that demonstrated the weakness of New Zealand’s gun laws. New Zealand’s regulation of arms primarily dates back to 1983. Sadly, since that time, the most substantive changes to our laws came following the Aramoana shootings. Those changes, however, did not go far enough. Successive attempts have been made, and failed, to change our laws since then. Those attempts were in 1999, 2005, 2012, and more recently though a select committee inquiry in early 2017. And still, none of the changes that have been made in the past dealt with one of the most glaring issues we have that sets New Zealand apart from many other nations: the availability of military-style semi-automatic weapons.
The attacker on 15 March took a significant number of lives using primarily two guns. They were assault rifles, and they were purchased legally on an A category gun license, the standard license held by gun owners in New Zealand. The capacity of these assault rifles was then enhanced using 30+ round magazines, essentially turning them into military-style semi-automatic weapons. While the modification of these guns was illegal, it was done easily, through a simple online purchase.
The guns in this terrorist attack had important distinguishing features. First, the capacity, and also, the delivery. They had the power to shoot continuously, but they also had large-capacity magazines. 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. And today, they will.
Today I am announcing that New Zealand will ban all military-style semi-automatic weapons. We will also ban all assault rifles. We will ban all high-capacity magazines. We will ban all parts with the ability to convert semi-automatic or any other type of firearm into a military-style semi-automatic weapon. We will ban parts that cause a firearm to generate semi-automatic, automatic, or close-to-automatic gunfire. In short, every semi-automatic weapon used in the terrorist attack on Friday will be banned in this country.
These changes will require legislation. That legislation is now being drafted and will be introduced under urgency. A short and select committee process will apply, so I encourage all those who wish to submit to start now. My expectation is that the law will be in place by the end of the next two-week sitting session, which is by the 11th of April.
As a government, however, we did not wish to allow a situation where irresponsible dealers continue to sell weapons that will be banned within a few weeks. That is why we have taken an interim measure. As at 3 p.m. today, an order-in-council took effect. These changes to our regulations will ensure virtually all of the weapons I have announced as being banned will be categorized as weapons that require an E-Class endorsement. The effect of this will mean that no one will be able to buy these weapons without a permit to procure from the police. I can assure people that there is no point in applying for such a permit. This is an interim measure to ensure the trade of these weapons ceases from 3 p.m. today.
As a government, we acknowledge that there will be gun owners who have legitimately purchased weapons we have now moved to ban. Some, for instance, will use them for large scale culling, such as dog. We will as a cabinet work through legalized exemptions for these purposes, but they will be tightly-regulated. For others, these guns will now come out of circulation. I acknowledge and thank those retailers who have voluntarily ceased to sell military-style semi-automatic and assault rifles. You have seen the collective issues we face as a country and I thank you for that. For other dealers, sales should essentially now cease. My expectation is that these weapons will be returned to their suppliers, and never enter into the New Zealand market again.
For current owners of the weapons we have moved to ban, I acknowledge that many of you will have acted within the law. In recognition of that, and to incentivize their return, we will be establishing a buy-back scheme. The details of the scheme are being developed in parallel to the drafting of the legislation to enforce the ban.
In the meantime, we are asking all current holders of military-style semi-automatic weapons and assault rifles to visit www.police.govt.nz. There they will find details of the weapons included in this ban. In the next 48 hours, a form will be available on this site that we are asking these gun owners to complete, identifying what banned guns they hold. The police will then arrange for these weapons to be handed over, and eventually destroyed. Details of the weapons handed back by owners that are covered by the ban will also be taken to ensure that fair and reasonable compensation is paid once the buyback is in place. If owners are unable to complete the online form, they are able to contact the police on the phone to arrange the handover of these now-banned guns. I do want to emphasize, to manage the flow of information to the police, online is the best way to arrange the return of your weapons. Do not arrive at the police station unannounced with these weapons in your possession.
As the legislation is developed, we will determine the time available for the return of military-style semi-automatic weapons and assault rifles, and the duration of the buyback scheme. I can assure people that there will be time for the returns to be made, and that they will not be criminalized overnight. After a reasonable period for returns, those who continue to possess these guns will be in contravention of the law. Currently, the penalties for this range from fines of up to $4,000 and or three years in prison. The draft legislation will look to increase these penalties.
I want to acknowledge that the weapons available in New Zealand are only part of the problem, and loopholes with our current law continue to exist. On Monday, Cabinet will receive and consider further amendment to our gun laws. These proposals will however go through a more fulsome process. But be assured, this is just the beginning of the work we need to do.
Finally, I want to repeat a message I have consistently shared since announcing our laws would change. We do have guns in New Zealand that are used for legitimate purposes by responsible owners every single day, and that includes our rural community. They manage pests, they’re used for animal welfare, and also for recreation. I’ve been steadfast in my belief that the vast majority of these owners will support what we are doing here today, because it’s about all of us, it’s in the national interest, and it’s about safety. I will work hard to retain that support as we work on the remaining tranches of reform that we must make to prevent an act of terror happening in our country ever again. I will now hand over to the Minister of Police.