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Why It's More Difficult To Change Gun Policy In The U.S. Than In New Zealand


Ban them. There is no place for them. We have heard very similar sentiments from people here in the U.S. after mass shootings, but it's not nearly as easy to change gun laws in this country. To talk about why that is, we reached out to Adam Winkler. He's a law professor at UCLA. Welcome.

ADAM WINKLER: Thanks so much for having me.

CHANG: As we just heard a few minutes ago, the prime minister of New Zealand announces this ban on military-style semiautomatic weapons less than one week after the mass shooting that left 50 people dead. And when Ardern made the announcement, she emphasized that in New Zealand, gun ownership is a privilege, not a right, which is obviously not the case here. So let's just start with that very important difference between the two countries.

WINKLER: Well, I don't think that is the difference that explains why America is not moving on gun control. The difference is really the political power of the gun rights movement in America. The Second Amendment certainly plays an important role in shaping cultural attitudes about guns and forming American politics about guns. But the courts haven't used the Second Amendment to strike down lots of laws. And most courts have upheld the kinds of laws that New Zealand is considering, such as bans on high-capacity magazines and bans on military-style rifles. The problem is the NRA won't let those laws be passed in America.

CHANG: I'm curious. Can you talk about a couple of recent examples where it seemed like there was substantial momentum in this country to change gun laws but then nothing ended up happening?

WINKLER: Well, right after the Newtown shooting, President Obama put the weight of the presidency behind gun control efforts to get universal background checks.


BARACK OBAMA: There's no reason why we can't get that done. That is not a liberal idea or a conservative idea. It's not a Democratic or Republican idea. That is a smart idea. We want to keep those guns out of hands of folks who shouldn't have them.

WINKLER: And that failed in the Senate.


OBAMA: I'm going to speak plainly and honestly about what's happened here because the American people are trying to figure out, how can something have 90 percent support and yet not happen?

WINKLER: And that really put a damper on future federal gun control efforts. We've also seen, after Las Vegas, that there was a move to pass a federal law banning bump stocks.


DIANNE FEINSTEIN: We have now witnessed the deadliest mass shooting in United States history - nearly 60 killed and more than 500 injured. Those numbers are simply stunning.

WINKLER: But members of Congress didn't want to be on record voting in favor of gun control, and so Congress kicked it to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

CHANG: Let's talk about the NRA - the National Rifle Association - which obviously has tremendous influence here in the U.S. New Zealand has groups like the NRA, but they don't have nearly the same kind of power. Can you explain - how does the NRA exert its tremendous influence here?

WINKLER: Well, everyone thinks the NRA is so powerful because it's so rich and it does so much lobbying. And those are important aspects of the NRA's power, but we shouldn't underestimate how the NRA brings voters out on Election Day. And in a democracy, if you can sway voters - and there are a lot of single-issue, pro-gun voters that follow the NRA - you're going to be a powerful political force in elections.

CHANG: Now, both the U.S. and New Zealand have robust gun cultures, but why do you think gun owners here seem more resistant to changes in gun control laws?

WINKLER: Well, it could be the role of the Second Amendment in shaping cultural attitudes and opinions about gun rights. For the last 40 years or so, the NRA has been very active in promoting a vision of the Second Amendment that suggests that any law that restricts guns is a violation of that right, almost the kind of way that we sometimes - First Amendment rights - that any restriction on speech is a fundamental affront to the First Amendment. That kind of absolutist approach, though, doesn't create a lot of space for reform or compromise.

CHANG: Do you feel like the American gun culture is unique?

WINKLER: The American gun culture is pretty unique. I mean, it comes out of the unique circumstances of America and our federalist system, which has also, historically, prevented a lot of gun legislation from being adopted. But the NRA is busy exporting its idea of gun rights and has been active in New Zealand. But it hasn't really taken hold, as evidenced by the fact that even the main opposition groups in New Zealand have already signaled that they're going to support this new gun reform.

CHANG: Adam Winkler is a law professor at UCLA. Thanks very much for joining us today.

WINKLER: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.