WASHINGTON – New Zealand moved with political urgency to ban military-style semiautomatic weapons in the wake of Friday's massacre at two Christchurch mosques, sparking a discussion in Washington: If a ban could happen there, could it also happen here?
Democrats looking for a similar path will face different obstacles in a country where gun rights enshrined in the Constitution have been impervious to a row of mass killings. New Zealand has a tradition of hunting and shooting as sport similar to the United States, but there is no legal provision to own weapons for self-defense.
But the velocity of change in New Zealand — less than a week for political winds to find their course after 50 people were killed — has become a rallying point for U.S. lawmakers who have failed to impose stricter gun regulations.
"Sandy Hook happened 6 years ago and we can't even get the Senate to hold a vote on universal background checks w/ #HR8," Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., wrote Wednesday on Twitter, referring to a bill requiring background checks on all gun purchases. "Christchurch happened, and within days New Zealand acted to get weapons of war out of the consumer market. This is what leadership looks like."
Rep. Brendan Boyle, D-Pa., assailed Republicans for a common reaction to gun massacres in the United States. "See GOP — turns out you can respond with thoughts and prayers — AND ACTION," he wrote.
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., became a leading Democrat on proposals for ramped-up gun laws after a gunman killed 26 children and educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in his home state. "See. It's not that hard," Murphy wrote on Twitter following the gun law announcement from New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., made similar remarks. "We must follow New Zealand's lead, take on the NRA and ban the sale and distribution of assault weapons in the United States," he wrote on Twitter, referring to the powerful gun lobby group.
In New Zealand, a buyback program will be launched to take weapons out of circulation, and those who do not comply will be subject to fines or jail time, Ardern said.
"What we're banning today are the things used in last Friday's attack," she said Thursday. "It's about all of us; it's in the national interest, and it's about safety."
Yet, to put the difficulty of similar action in the United States into perspective, there are an estimated 1.5 million guns in New Zealand among 5 million people, the Associated Press reported. There are 393 million in the United States — one for every person and a 67 million surplus.
NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch criticized the embrace of New Zealand's ban among U.S. lawmakers in a reply to Ocasio-Cortez's tweet. "That's also what an entirely different country that doesn't have the right to bear arms as a cornerstone of its constitution, in addition to numerous state laws," she said. "It's also what confiscation and banning most semi-auto looks like, too."
And in reply to Sanders, Loesch said: "the US isn't NZ. While they do not have an inalienable right to bear arms and to self defense, we do."
Other lawmakers directly targeted the NRA's influence on American gun law policy.
Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., asked rhetorically how New Zealand moved so fast from tragedy to action. "Their politicians aren't bought and paid for by the gun lobby," he wrote on Twitter, tagging Republican accounts and the NRA.