EDITORIAL: Overseas shootings hold lessons for U.S. lawmakers

York Dispatch Editorial Board

It didn’t take place in the United States, but the latest mass-casualty shooting nonetheless has reverberated throughout the nation, including in Pennsylvania, where a similar shooting at the Pittsburgh-area Tree of Life Synagogue last fall claimed 11 lives.

“Members of the Pittsburgh Jewish community on Friday relived the trauma of that late-October shooting when a gunman — described as a ‘right-wing extremist’ — attacked two mosques in New Zealand Friday and gunned down 49 people,” reported NBC News.

Citing the similarities — well-armed extremists attacking houses of worship — Tree of Life members held a unity rally in the wake of the Christchurch massacre, in which the death toll has climbed to 50.

The shock waves were similarly strong at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, where a shooting spree on Valentine’s Day 2018 left 18 students and teachers dead and 17 more wounded. Amazingly, 28 Stoneman Douglas students traveled to Christchurch last summer on a trip intended to help salve the emotional wounds of surviving their attack.

Stoneman Douglas students texted friends in Christchurch when word of the New Zealand shooting broke. At least one texted back that she was locked down in a library.

The pen pals of yesterday have become the shooting survivors of today — teenaged correspondents joined at the heart by the indescribable experience of coming under deadly attack in what should be a sanctuary of safety.

But if the experiences of the survivors are similar, the reactions of the governments are anything but.

A man rests on the ground as he speaks on his mobile phone across the road from mosque in central Christchurch, New Zealand, Friday, March 15, 2019. A witness says a number of people have been killed in a mass shooting at a mosque in the New Zealand city of Christchurch; police urge people to stay indoors. (AP Photo/Mark Baker)

Less than 24 hours after the deadliest shooting in her country’s history, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, citing the mini-arsenal of shotguns and semiautomatic weapons obtained legally by the suspect, told reporters emphatically, “our gun laws will change.”

Her vow echoes the response in neighboring Australia some 20 years earlier. Following a 1996 slaying in Tasmania that took 35 lives and injured another two dozen, Australia’s government moved quickly to pass major gun-control reforms.

The results speak for themselves: After suffering 13 mass-casualty shootings in the 17 years prior to the stricter controls, Australia had none in the 20 years following.

Great Britain similarly responded quickly and forcefully in 1996 after a gunman in Dunblane, Scotland, slaughtered 16 first-graders and their teacher.

Yet despite a decades-long pageant of such shootings in the United States — from Sandy Hook to Virginia Tech to Sutherland Springs to Las Vegas (the Columbine mass shooting is no longer even among the nation’s 20 worst in terms of casualties) — the government has responded with indolence.

Despite regular and repeated carnage at public schools, mosques, churches, workplaces, movie theaters, nightclubs, restaurants and concerts, the legislative response has been nil.

Despite a catalog of murdered and wounded that includes elementary school children, high school students, college students, clergy members, police officers, firefighters, teachers, blue-collar workers, white-collar workers, retirees, and congressional representatives of both parties, the nation’s leaders have sat mum.

Yes, there are other factors. The New Zealand shooting suspect, for example, posted a rambling manifesto that detailed white-supremacist views — views that are increasingly tied to violence and extremism domestically. According to NBC News, “The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security warned in a 2017 intelligence bulletin that white supremacist groups had carried out more attacks in the U.S. than any other domestic extremist group over the past 16 years.”

Yet President Trump cannot bring himself to even acknowledge this threat, let alone direct the federal resources at his disposal to make it a priority. 

Of course, the president — self-absorbed and conservative media-insulated — long ago abandoned any pretense of acting for the good of the nation.

Unfortunately, the rest of Congress, with few exceptions, has likewise ceded its obligation to protect the public by addressing the nation’s laughably lax gun laws.

There’s no reason to think a massacre 8,200 miles from U.S. shores is going to change any legislative minds — not when weekly shootings in our own backyard haven’t moved lawmakers. But those lawmakers should pay close attention to legislative actions in New Zealand: They might learn what a clear-eyed, courageous response to a mass-casualty shooting looks like.