As President Joe Biden sat with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in the Oval Office on Tuesday, the juxtaposition was hard to miss: a leader of one country who had robustly tackled gun control after one horrible mass shooting, beside another who remained incapable of such action after hundreds.
It was a little over three years ago when a white supremacist gunman armed with AR-15 style semi-automatic rifles and shotguns murdered 51 people and injured 40 at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, and live-streamed the killings on Facebook. Within a month of the massacre, Ardern led an overhaul of New Zealand’s gun laws that included banning most semi-automatic and military-style weapons and starting a buyback program that brought in 50,000 weapons. Only one New Zealand lawmaker voted against the legislation.
Such a national response remains the stuff of political fantasy in the U.S., even a week after the massacre of school children in Uvalde, Texas, which came about just 10 days after racist killings in a supermarket in Buffalo, N.Y., two of hundreds of mass shootings in the U.S. over the past year. “I want to talk to you about what those conversations were like, if you’re willing,” Biden told Ardern, who was seated next to him in one of the Oval Office’s pale yellow arm chairs.
The president then gave voice to a growing anxiety that the sheer number of mass shootings in the U.S., and the cycle of inaction, has made too many in power numb to the devastation. As he often does, Biden paraphrased an Irish poet; this time, it was William Butler Yeats. “Too long a suffering makes a stone of the heart,” Biden said. “Well, there’s an awful lot of suffering,” he continued, adding, “much of it is preventable.”
Biden described his experience just two days earlier, spending hours in Uvalde, Texas, as grieving families waited for time to speak to him about the tragedy. “The pain is palpable,” he told Ardern.
After reporters filed out of Biden’s office, the two world leaders talked for nearly an hour and a half, on the rise of China’s influence in the Pacific Rim and on trade initiatives. At one point, Biden asked Ardern to share with him how she rallied her fellow New Zealanders to take forceful action to reign in assault weapons after the Christchurch shooting.
After the meeting, Ardern told reporters outside the West Wing that she “reflected on our experience with gun reform, but it is just that, it is our experience.”
The American experience is proving to be quite different.
Congress won’t be back in session until next week. A group of five Republican and five Democratic senators were in talks over the weekend about whether any new gun restrictions could draw the support in the Senate of at least 10 Republicans and all 50 members of the Democratic caucus, the most plausible path to reaching the votes needed to overcome a filibuster.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell tasked Sen. John Cornyn, Republican of Texas and the minority whip, with bringing together some Republicans for the talks. On Friday, Cornyn canceled a scheduled appearance at the National Rifle Association convention in Houston. He told reporters in San Antonio on Monday that he was discussing with Democrats a “basic framework about how we go forward.” The group was scheduled to video chat on Tuesday.
There is some bipartisan interest in a few efforts to address the mass shooting epidemic, including passing a so-called red flag law that would allow courts to impose restrictions on the purchase of firearms by people believed to be a danger to themselves or others, Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut who is helping organize the talks, said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.” There has also been discussion about expanding background checks, increasing mental health resources, and putting more funds toward school safety, he said.
But Murphy tamped down expectations for Congress advancing a broad assault weapons ban or a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s gun laws. He said he hoped to put together a package of provisions that could “break the logjam” on gun control legislation. “Maybe that’s the most important thing we could do is just show that progress is possible and that the sky doesn’t fall for Republicans if they support some of these common sense measures,” Murphy said.
In the meantime, Democrats who control the House are moving forward with a raft of gun control measures they hope to bring to a vote next week. On Thursday, the House Judiciary Committee will consider revising and voting out the “Protecting Our Kids Act,” a bill that could include provisions to raise the age limit for buying semi-automatic rifles from 18 to 21, and ban the sale of high-capacity ammunition magazines.
Those measures are likely to face stiff resistance, prompting lawmakers to not even seriously broach more restrictive measures such as banning assault weapons like the AR-15, the main weapon used by the gunmen in both the Buffalo and Uvalde shootings. The last time Congress approved such a ban was 1994, when Joe Biden was a crucial senator in the discussions. Lawmakers allowed those provisions to expire in 2004. American politics has become even more “dysfunctional” since then, says Timothy Naftali, a historian at New York University.
“There is no reason to be hopeful at the national level now about the possibility of any gun control,” Naftali says. “The pandemic showed that issues of life and death are politicized now in a way that would have been hard to imagine 10 years ago.”
The current political environment, Naftali says, undermines the American political tradition of lawmakers being problem solvers. “Right now our political class is incapable of solving major domestic challenges at the national level,” he says, leaving any possible efforts to curb access to guns to state and local leaders. But that response will be inherently uneven and less effective than sweeping, national measures.
On Tuesday, as White House aides ushered the press from Biden’s Oval Office meeting with Ardern, one reporter shouted a question to Biden about whether he would meet with McConnell about guns. “I will meet with the Congress on guns, I promise you,” Biden said. He didn’t say when.
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