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Opinion World

Jacinda Ardern’s Empathy

“We are ultimately here because 50 people died and they do not have a voice,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern declared to New Zealand’s Parliament on Wednesday, April 10. “We in this house are their voice. Today we can use that voice wisely.”

It was the final reading of Ardern’s bold new gun reform legislation, crafted in response to the worst mass shooting in New Zealand’s modern history. As Ardern reminded her fellow Members of Parliament, it had been only 26 days since a gunman fired upon worshippers attending Friday prayers at Christchurch’s Al Noor and Linwood Mosques, leaving 50 people dead and 50 more injured. After Ardern spoke, Parliament passed the bill by 119 to one.

In the hours and days after the attack, Ardern stressed that same sense of unity and shared responsibility. Addressing Parliament for the first time after the shootings, she opened her remarks with the Arabic greeting “As salaam Alaikum,meaning “peace be upon you.”

“One of the roles I never anticipated having, and hoped never to have, is to voice the grief of a nation,” she said.  

Yet in the aftermath of the Christchurch attack, Ardern has voiced her nation’s grief with admirable compassion and resolve. Her caring and authentic response, firmly rejecting racism and erasing the attacker from the national debate, demonstrated a deep empathy when matched with her swift actions to enact comprehensive reform. It is this pairing of compassion with immediate action that has proven each to be genuine.

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Empathy, honest and raw, has characterized Ardern’s leadership. Immediately following the shootings, she reached out to New Zealand’s Muslim community and focused on the victims of the crime, rather than its perpetrator. These choices have framed her country’s discourse surrounding the attack and shown her respect for Muslim New Zealanders as an integral part of the nation.

“We represent diversity, kindness, compassion,” she said on the day of the shootings. “And those values will not and cannot be shaken by this attack.”

As a sign of respect, Ardern wore a black hijab when she met with families of the victims in Christchurch the following day. In interviews since, she has described realizing how her decision to wear the hijab gave many Muslim women in New Zealand a sense of security in displaying their faith.  

Ardern’s actions have garnered praise from several Muslim leaders and commentators from around the world, including the Iranian American journalist Negar Mortazavi, London mayor Sadiq Khan, and the spokesman for Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry, Mohammad Faisal. On March 22, Emirati Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed tweeted his praise as Dubai’s Burj Khalifa skyscraper was lit up with an image of Ardern hugging a grieving Muslim woman while wearing the hijab.

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A week after the shootings, tens of thousands of non-Muslim New Zealanders joined Muslim worshippers in prayer and two minutes of silence in remembrance of the victims. Ardern attended prayers in Hagley Park, across the street from where investigators were still working at Al Noor Mosque.  

“According to the Prophet Muhammad…the believers in their mutual kindness, compassion and sympathy are just like one body,” Ardern told the congregants after Al Noor’s imam, Gamal Fouda, gave his sermon. “When any part of the body suffers, the whole body feels pain. New Zealand mourns with you, we are one.”

Ardern has worked to ensure that the deaths in Christchurch are understood as a profound loss for all of her nation, and many of New Zealand’s people have responded with signs of unity. In the days after the attack, memorials to the victims sprung up across the country and local citizens stood guard outside mosques during prayers. On March 29, an estimated 20,000 people joined Ardern at another service held in Hagley Park to honor the victims.

In her address to Parliament on March 16, Ardern vowed to never speak the name of the attacker. “[S]peak the names of those who were lost rather than the name of the man who took them. He may have sought notoriety but we, in New Zealand, will give nothing—not even his name.” Her eloquent and judicious decision to deny the attacker notoriety and the platform it would grant him have helped focus the world’s attention on the victims and the unity that New Zealand has expressed.

Beyond outward gestures of compassion, Ardern has demonstrated true empathy by displaying steely resolve and moving quickly to enact policy change. Within 24 hours of the attacks in Christchurch, she pledged to announce gun law reforms within the next ten days.

She did it in six. At a press conference on the following Thursday, Ardern announced several concrete policy reforms aimed at preventing a similar attack from happening ever again. She declared that assault rifles, military-style semi-automatic rifles (MSSAs), parts used to convert other guns into MSSAs, and high-capacity magazines that generate nearly automatic gunfire would all be banned under new legislation.

“In short,” she said, after listing the weapons and parts falling under the ban, “every semi-automatic weapon used in the terrorist attack on Friday will be banned in this country.”

Using authority granted to her under existing legislation, Ardern declared that sales of the banned weapons and parts were to cease immediately following the press conference, in order to prevent stockpiling before Parliament could make the ban permanent. She also announced that her government would develop an ambitious buyback scheme and pay “fair and reasonable compensation” to gun owners in order to remove the newly prohibited weapons from circulation.

Ardern’s actions were swift and decisive. Since the new legislation held the support of both her Labour Party and the Nationals, the main opposition party in Parliament, it was assured passage after its official introduction to Parliament this week.

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Nearly four years ago, U.S. President Barack Obama found himself expressing a grief similar to Ardern’s. On June 17, 2015, nine worshippers were killed at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina—and like the gunman in Christchurch, the terrorist in Charleston had published a manifesto online that espoused white supremacist views.

Obama gave one of his presidency’s most memorable speeches at Mother Emanuel, speaking to worshippers of how God’s grace had visited the victims. He used his eulogy for the church’s murdered pastor and parishioners to situate himself within Charleston’s black community, sharing his listeners’ deep pain and loss. In an unscripted moment, Obama bowed his head and began to sing “Amazing Grace.”  

Such grief is not isolated in a nation that continuously suffers from mass shootings. Obama had already given eight national addresses following such attacks, and it had been less than three years since he had shed tears as he spoke about the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Further high-profile massacres would follow in Orlando, Las Vegas, and Parkland, closing Obama’s and beginning Donald Trump’s term. And thousands of shootings lacking their infamy have taken place in between.

Ardern, however, has accomplished what Obama could not. By passing sweeping gun law reforms in the immediate wake of the Christchurch massacre, she has taken bold and unapologetic action to address the shooting. It is her coupling of authentic compassion with targeted, immediate action that makes her empathy resonate and her leadership after the tragedy so powerful.

Before the Christchurch attack, New Zealand’s gun regulations shared more in common with American laws than with those of many other Western nations. Like the U.S., New Zealand lacks universal gun registration rules and has a gun lobby that has succeeded in limiting gun control legislation in the past. Some of these organizations and their members even use materials from the American National Rifle Association (NRA) in their lobbying efforts.

Yet there are important differences between the two nations’ political climates.

With a population of 4.9 million, New Zealand is estimated to have approximately 250,000 gun owners with a total of 1.4 to 1.5 million firearms. This pales in comparison to the 393 million firearms estimated to be held between America’s 326 million people.

Though it has influenced public policy in the past, New Zealand’s gun lobby does not wield power as extensive as that of the NRA. In addition, many New Zealand groups that advocate for gun owners are not nearly as absolutist as the NRA, avoiding the American group’s slippery slope argument that any new regulations presage complete confiscation.

The group Federated Farmers serves as an example. In New Zealand, firearms are often used for pest control on farms, but Federated Farmers has announced its support of Ardern’s new legislation. In particular, its leadership noted that its members will still be able to use sporting rifles for pest control.

New Zealand’s Council of Licensed Firearm Owners (COLFO) began lobbying and supporting an online petition against Ardern’s new legislation once it was announced. But the group Fish and Game NZ readily voiced its support of both the assault weapons ban and the buyback scheme.

Similarly to the NRA, New Zealand’s gun lobby draws some of its strongest support from rural areas. Unlike the United States’ electoral system, however, New Zealand’s electoral system does not give the same outsize power to rural voters as the U.S. Senate and the Electoral College. Instead, party membership in Parliament reflects the proportion of votes that each party receives nationally. And while in the U.S. the NRA has proven adept at mobilizing its supporters for low-turnout primary elections, New Zealand’s electoral system lacks primaries entirely.

What’s more, New Zealand’s Parliament is unicameral, and new legislation can pass with only a simple majority. In comparison, the U.S.’s convoluted legislative process gives powerful lobbying groups such as the NRA multiple entry points from which to attempt to stymie a bill’s progress.

In spite of these contrasts, however, perception and public opinion are crucial—and can be guided by a leader such as Ardern.

At her initial press conference announcing the reforms, Ardern unequivocally stated that the goal of her new legislation is “to prevent an act of terror from happening in our country ever again.” She has taken deliberate steps to connect the new policies to the prevention of further violence, a connection that is key to public support for the changes. Even groups that advocate for New Zealand’s gun owners have now recognized that there is no need for the public to have access to the military-style assault weapons often used in mass shootings.

In the U.S., however, many people don’t believe in the connection between such legislation and reduced gun violence. In 2018, Gallup estimated that only about four in ten Americans believe that tightening gun regulations would significantly reduce mass shootings.

This perception is not helped by the piecemeal and scattered manner in which U.S. lawmakers have attempted to pass gun control measures.

The two pieces of gun control legislation that passed in the House of Representatives in February were the chamber’s first in over twenty years. These bills would require universal background checks on gun purchases and extend the period of time that the FBI is allotted for completing such reviews, increasing it from three to ten business days. Though requiring universal background checks would prevent people who fail the checks from purchasing guns online or at gun shows, many mass shootings are carried out by gun owners who have passed their background checks.

Although these bills are limited, the Senate has refused to bring them to the floor. Similar bills failed in the Senate in 2013 and 2015.

Laws that have actually passed have also had limitations. In 1994, Congress enacted a ban on 18 firearm models, but the specificity of the ban allowed similar models to be developed and sold. The ban also did nothing to limit weapons or high-capacity magazines that were already in circulation, and it expired in 2004 due to a built-in sunset provision.

State legislatures successfully passed dozens of gun control measures in 2018. Many were in direct response to the February 2018 shooting which left 17 high school students and teachers dead in Parkland, Florida. Yet these state-level measures are also generally narrow in scope, targeting specific topics such as bump stocks, concealed-carry, or domestic abusers seeking to buy guns. And by their very definition, these laws are limited to the states that pass them.  

Compared against sporadic and narrowly-focused American laws, Ardern’s assault weapons ban is comprehensive and ambitious. The immediate, assertive way in which she moved to enact reforms drew a clear connection between the massacre and the need for such legislation.

“It’s about all of us,” she said in her announcement of the new weapons ban. “It’s in the national interest. It’s about safety.”

By matching her compassion with substantive policy proposals, Ardern has proved her empathy to be genuine, and she has created an understanding of the attack that can effect change. She has framed her nation’s response not around the perpetrator of the crime—their motives, background, or mental state—but on the people that it harmed and on her nation’s capacity to prevent such harm from occurring again. This is what we should be watching.  

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