The Texas shooting and gun control debates have largely overshadowed Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s visits to Senators at the United States Capitol.
Fresh from appearing on The Late Show and musing on New Zealand’s own ongoing gun control efforts the night before, Ardern spent much of the second full day of her US trade in Washington DC meeting with Senators and members of Congress.
The morning kicked off a series of face-to-face meetings with six politicians, and in the afternoon a bipartisan senate leadership meeting with another eight.
While they may otherwise have been largely focused on geo-politics and trade, much of the attention was on the tragedy in Texas the day before: 19 primary school-aged children and three adults killed by an 18-year-old.
Ardern maintained her position on the matter was unchanged throughout her engagements.
“As a leader, I can only reflect on our experience but if there is any message that I can share from that.
“Take what you will from it: I believe change is possible – I do, even on the most difficult of political issues – when you have will amongst your people then change is possible and we saw that in New Zealand.”
“I think had we not made the changes we did, the New Zealand public would have called for it and would have called for us to move … everyone’s circumstances are different, everyone’s histories are different, their experiences are different – but regardless of all of that I still believe change is possible.”
From Democrat senate majority leader Chuck Schumer to Republican former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, the politicians each expressed their devastation at the previous day’s events.
Romney, the Republican Senator for Utah, has reportedly received about $US13 million from gun lobby group the National Rifle Association – said little but offered an olive branch on the contentious issue of gun control.
“There are some gun reforms that I support, I think the red flag laws that a number of states have put in place are good ideas and we’ll be pursuing those.”
Those laws, widely supported and active in at least 19 states, permit police or family members to seek a court order for the temporary removal of firearms from a person who may pose a present danger to themselves or others.
Congressman Rick Larsen, an advocate of gun reform, was not so optimistic about the prospect of real change.
“If I’ve got my numbers right we’ve experienced 212 mass shootings in the 144 days of 2022, and in the US the FBI defines a mass shooting as any shooting where four people are injured or killed, so we have a gun problem in this country,” he said.
“There’s a lot of talk about thoughts and prayers – I’ll save those for church because Congress needs to take action on gun safety legislation.”
He said getting opponents of gun safety reform to understand there were limitations on rights, was particularly difficult in the context of the US Constitution.
“The 2nd amendment was never envisioned as a pathway for people to gun other people down in literal cold blood,” he said.
“The old classic is we have free speech but you can’t yell ‘fire’ in a crowded movie house … that puts people at risk. So there are limitations that we put on the rights that are embedded in our Bill of Rights. My view is that we can put limits on the use and ownership of guns that would impinge upon the rights of others – especially their lives.”
There was no single solution to the problem and it would require gun safety reform, improved availability of behavioural health and school councillors funding, and greater social media monitoring, he said.
It was upsetting and frustrating to see the lack of progress so far, he said, and he sadly did not expect the latest attack to result in movement.
Earlier, Democrat for Georgia Jon Ossoff – the youngest member of the senate, who recently became a father – reflected at Ardern’s first photo op of the day on the effect of the gunman’s actions on parents, and urged action on gun laws.
“The agony of parents of children slaughtered in their school in Texas must be feeling right now is unfathomable and the cruelty and the barbarity of an attack on beautiful little children like this is unspeakable.
“We need to change. We have to reform our laws to keep weapons out of the hands of killers and we have to heal our national soul so that this doesn’t keep happening and can never feel routine. This is not routine and I know the Prime Minister after the tragic massacre in Christchurch demonstrated the kind of leadership that we need to see in this country right now.”