By word and by deed, the leader of one of the smallest democracies is showing the world what it means to be prime minister. Within 10 days of the murder of 50 people in Christchurch, Jacinda Ardern’s government is moving to drastically tighten gun laws in New Zealand. By way of contrast, the US has failed for over a century to align the Second Amendment, which confers the right to bear arms, with the duty of the modern state to protect citizens from gun violence.
Ardern’s first response to the massacre was exemplary, too. Immediately after the shooting — even before the dead could be reliably counted — she had spoken up for immigrants: “They have chosen to make this their home. They are us. The person who perpetrated this is not us.” That statement immediately blunted the wedge that the incident was engineered to drive between natives and immigrants. She also declared that she would never take the name of the perpetrator and urged people to take the names of the victims instead, thereby depersonalising him. And while France continues to tie itself in Houdini-defying knots over the question of headscarves, Ardern did not hesitate to don one to visit the victims’ families. In politically confused times, this is extraordinary moral clarity.
New Zealand has a population of about 5 million, who own an estimated 1.5 million guns. Though Ardern has not elaborated on the forthcoming gun laws, she has appealed to citizens to surrender firearms. This was the route followed by Australia after the Port Arthur massacre in 1996, where 35 people were killed with an AR-15, the very rifle used in Christchurch. It was designed by ArmaLite for military use, was inducted into the US army as the M16, and is celebrated by the US National Rifle Association as “America’s rifle”. But other nations, unburdened by the romance of the Wild West, must wonder why civilians need military weapons when it is the duty of the state to protect them. Ardern believes that her people see the need for immediate change and will come forward to surrender their firearms.
At a time when democratic leaders the world over are repeatedly showing themselves to be puny, petty, opportunistic and eager to divide their people, Ardern stands out for her commitment to keeping New Zealand’s moral compass steady and its values intact. This is what prime ministers were supposed to be like, but have forgotten how to be.
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