A post circulates on Twitter after most mass shootings in this country: “In retrospect Sandy Hook marked the end of the U.S. gun control debate. Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over.”
Of course, saying “most mass shootings” is a problem in itself, but the tweet makes the rounds because it still rings true. The United States has done almost nothing to address its gun problem, aside from the now-rote repetition of copy-and-paste “My thoughts and prayers are with the victims of [insert shooting here].” That did not change after an elementary school shooting. It did not change after a high school shooting. It feels like “thoughts and prayers” remarks are almost a joke at this point.
But thoughts and prayers, especially from politicians and public figures, are not enough. They will never be enough, because they’re shallow and meaningless. Offering up those statements is just a way for politicians to say “See? I care,” when, ultimately nothing is more revelatory about the lack of caring than offering up a shallow tweet or press release. Action needs to be taken, and our government officials should look to New Zealand for inspiration.
Last month, a white supremacist terrorist inspired by far-right extremist ideals opened fire on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, murdering nearly 50 innocent Muslims, all of whom were just spending time in a space that should have been safe for them. He used a two semi-automatic weapons and two shotguns, all purchased legally. It cruelly echoed the 2015 mass shooting during a prayer service at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina, which left nine black worshippers dead. There were three survivors of the South Carolina shooting, and all they received were thoughts and prayers.
But instead of following the script that has become standard in America, New Zealanders did something in the immediate days following the shooting. They condemned the violent rhetoric that led the shooter to act. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern took swift action, pledging to ban military-style semi-automatic weapons in the wake of the attack. She spoke out against Islamophobia and the demonization of Muslims (also prominent here, especially after 9/11), which only continues to grow more extreme.
These are the kinds of tangible changes that need to be made here, too, instead of superficial statements and shallow expressions of grief. We need to press our officials to do something that means something. And this country’s government can start by addressing racism and white supremacy for what they truly are: terrorism.
And that starts at the top. If officials are borderline encouraging this behavior and providing little dog whistle jokes to their most extreme supporters, where does that leave the average American? When we have people in office like Iowa congressman Steve King, who has repeatedly asked the “Is white supremacy all that bad?” question, others will undoubtedly follow suit. Representatives in this country’s highest offices allow this rhetoric to fester by not taking it seriously.
This comes in the form of Donald Trump’s “very fine people” comments, or conveniently ignoring in the rush to sanctify him that John McCain sang the words “bomb, bomb Iran” to the tune of the song “Barbara Ann” in 2007 during his presidential campaign. Making light of of these ideals or turning them into silly jokes can have dire consequences. How many times have we seen a racially motivated attack, even in the last year or two? It’s these kinds of seemingly inconsequential deeds that lead to major acts of violence.
We all learn some variation of “racism is bad” at some point in our lives, and that is an extremely basic tenet of existence on a diverse planet that we should have equipped at all times. It should be implanted in our heads. But it obviously escapes some of us, and it shouldn’t.
Maybe it’s the lack of public figures speaking out against racism in a consequential way. Maybe it’s school curricula in certain parts of the country that simply gloss over activists like Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks during Black History Month so school boards can say “We did our part, what more do you want?” The deep, lasting, terroristic effects of racism need to be ingrained in all of brains. We’ve seen the effect words can have on inciting violence. It needs to be at the forefront of this conversation.
Perhaps even more crucial is introducing and passing meaningful legislation like Ardern’s weapons ban. She declared that New Zealand’s gun laws would change almost immediately after the shooting, and instituted a buyback program to get things started. Buybacks are not always successful, but when paired with specific weapon bans, it’s a recipe for meaningful change.
But when senators and congresspeople are financially beholden to organizations like the National Rifle Association, it becomes complicated. Steps have been taken, like last month’s bump stock ban, but it’s simply not enough. Three hundred and seven current congressional lawmakers have received NRA money over the course of their careers. Thirty-nine have received $100,000 or more. Eight have gotten upwards of $1 million. That is the kind of money that buys votes—or at the very least puts a persuasive little voice in the back of your head.
If anything is going to change in this country, it will not happen overnight. Decades and decades of societal racism and the expectation that Americans can and should have all types of firearms will need to be undone, and that would not be a simple process even if every single person in the United States agreed on the need for change.
But, like New Zealand has demonstrated, the process must start somewhere. I hope our country can follow their lead.