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News Brief: Gun Ban, Trump Criticizes McCain, Fentanyl Deaths


Gun control advocates in the United States sometimes ask, how many mass shootings will it take before the country acts? New Zealand's government has now given its own answer to that question.


It took one - one mass shooting, an attack on two mosques that killed 50 people. It was the first such event in New Zealand in many years. The prime minister there, Jacinda Ardern, says her cabinet has now worked out new gun laws that will be moved swiftly through the parliament.


PRIME MINISTER JACINDA ARDERN: New Zealand will ban all military-style semi-automatic weapons. We will also ban all assault rifles. We will ban all high-capacity magazines.

MARTIN: Ardern also announced a gun amnesty and a buyback program so owners can hand in their weapons.

INSKEEP: NPR's Rob Schmitz has been in Christchurch, New Zealand, covering this story and is on the line.

Hi, Rob.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: When she says semi-automatic weapons, assault rifles, how are they defining the weapons to be banned?

SCHMITZ: Well, they're banning the weapons that are capable of being used with a detachable magazine that can hold more than five cartridges. And so these include what are known as military-style semi-automatics, guns like the AR-15, which was used in the Christchurch attack, and semi-automatic shotguns that are also used with a detachable magazine, which was used also in the attack on the two mosques here. New Zealand also banned, as you mentioned, high-capacity magazines, which can hold up to 30 rounds of ammunition. Up to now, it was legal for anyone with or without a gun license to buy and sell high-capacity magazines in New Zealand.

INSKEEP: Well, Rob, I'm thinking. Just the other day, you brought us the story of someone at a gun shop in New Zealand who had just bought, I think, an AR-15. So what happens to the people who currently own these weapons?

SCHMITZ: Yes. That gentleman and others are going to have to hand in those guns pretty soon. According to the government, among the 1.5 million guns in New Zealand, there are 13,500 guns that are now banned. And for the folks who own them, they'll be required to go online, register with the police to set up a time when they can come back into their police station and hand their guns in. In return, they're going to get money back. If they do not comply, they could face up to a few years in prison. So this buyback program is estimated to cost the government up to around $140 million. And what's interesting about today's news is that the government announced this is just the first step. Later this month, the government will announce new rules for obtaining a gun license, storing your gun and more severe penalties for not complying with gun regulations inside New Zealand.

INSKEEP: Now, it's a democracy, of course. So we should just check this. Is this correct? The cabinet has approved this. It goes to the parliament. They still have to vote, but there doesn't seem to be any doubt that parliament's going to vote on this stuff, right?

SCHMITZ: The main opposition party has completely signed off on this verbally today.

INSKEEP: And how are other people responding across the country?

SCHMITZ: Well, by and large, the people I've spoken to today after the ban was announced were in complete agreement with their government and their prime minister. I spent some time this afternoon at the makeshift shrine at the Christchurch botanical gardens for the victims of the attack. I spoke to John Overend, who had driven here from the countryside to show his support. He's a gun owner. And I asked him what he thought of the semi-automatic weapons ban.

JOHN OVEREND: Good idea - I'm a farmer. And I've got guns but just for pests and things like that. But semi-automatics aren't what you use for shooting pests. They're for killing people.

SCHMITZ: And I've been asking questions about guns to folks here all week. And I've been struck by how many people here in the gun industry also agree that semi-automatics should be banned. One gun owner I spoke to had taken all his weapons off the shelves the day of the attack, and he stopped selling high-capacity magazines. The manager of the rifle range the alleged attacker was a member of also told me that he shut down his gun club to show respect for the victims.

INSKEEP: Rob, thanks very much.

SCHMITZ: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Rob Schmitz.


INSKEEP: In this country, Donald Trump, who did not serve in Vietnam, has spent years now heckling John McCain, who did.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: He's a war hero 'cause he was captured. I like people that weren't captured, OK? I hate to tell you.


TRUMP: And I'm a loyalist. I'm a person that, like - if somebody is with me, I'm with that person. And John McCain was very disloyal to me.

MARTIN: Those remarks by Trump dating back years - it is increasingly clear that President Trump is unable to stop talking about John McCain, even now that the war hero is dead. The president spoke yesterday at a defense manufacturing plant in Ohio. He complained that McCain's family never thanked him for approving the details of McCain's memorial service.


TRUMP: So I have to be honest. I've never liked him much - hasn't been for me. I've really - probably never will.

INSKEEP: NPR lead political editor Domenico Montanaro is covering this story.

Domenico, good morning.


INSKEEP: I guess it's not a surprise the president would go on in this way. He doesn't - he holds onto grievances. We know that from his behavior for years. But why would there be this eruption about John McCain just now?

MONTANARO: Right. Well, there were court filings unsealed last week that detailed McCain's role during the 2016 campaign, distributing what's known as the Steele dossier. That's the compilation of salacious accusations against Trump that linked him to Russia. It was paid for by political opponents. Once those details came out, the president went on a Twitter attack. Over the weekend, he hit McCain. That led to his daughter, Meghan McCain, firing back at the president and the president continuing his attacks even yesterday against McCain. And remember. McCain has acknowledged his role in turning the dossier over to the FBI - he said to verify it. He wrote a book last year that said he had an obligation to do so because he could not assess what was true or not. He would do it again and said, quote, "anyone who doesn't like it can go to h*ll."

INSKEEP: Well - so when the president, who got out of service in Vietnam because of, I think, bone spurs, criticizes a man who was tortured in prison after being shot down over Vietnam, how do his fellow Republicans respond?

MONTANARO: Well, most notably, what triggered Trump yesterday was Georgia Senator Johnny Isakson. He's the chairman of the Armed Services Committee in the Senate. He jumped to McCain's defense. And here he is speaking to Georgia Public Broadcasting.


JOHNNY ISAKSON: It's deplorable what he said. That's what I called it from the floor of the Senate seven months ago. It will be deplorable seven months from now if he says it again. And I will continue to speak out.

MONTANARO: So he's not mincing words there. He even used that word deplorable.


MONTANARO: And that's not unintentional, you know? That's to get the president's attention. That's that word that Hillary Clinton used during the campaign, you might remember, to describe half of Trump's supporters. And other top Republicans came to McCain's defense, although not all were as hotly critical of the president himself.

INSKEEP: Some, like Mitch McConnell, praised McCain without mentioning Trump at all, If I'm...


INSKEEP: ...Not mistaken. But those supporters, is it likely that he would lose any supporters at all, even some of the senators who criticize him?

MONTANARO: Well, you know, it's really been a fool's errand to try and predict when, if or how the president's base would abandon him, you know? Remember; though, you know, attacks against McCain were the first big thing that people thought would derail his campaign. You played that clip at the top earlier. It's been four years since that...


MONTANARO: ...Since he lashed out against McCain. And after the election, Trump's campaign manager Corey Lewandowski said he thought when he heard that - when he heard what Trump said, he thought the campaign was over. Of course, it wasn't. Trump won the election. I think the big question people are wondering is if there's some kind of fatigue because it'll set the backdrop for 2020.

INSKEEP: Domenico, thanks.

MONTANARO: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: NPR's Domenico Montanaro.


INSKEEP: Some new numbers released overnight are painting an even darker picture of the opioid epidemic.

MARTIN: The data comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And it highlights how one particularly destructive drug, the synthetic opioid fentanyl, is killing Americans at an unprecedented rate. Overdose deaths involving fentanyl have increased exponentially. It's taking a toll on specific communities. The new report shows that men and people of color are being hit hardest.

INSKEEP: Martha Bebinger is a reporter for NPR's member station WBUR in Boston. She covers health care, and she's on the line.

Good morning.

MARTHA BEBINGER, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So I'm thinking about specific communities - we just heard people of color. The opioid epidemic has been portrayed in the media as something striking mostly white, mostly rural communities. Is this something different?

BEBINGER: This is different. This is not what we are seeing with fentanyl. With fentanyl, it is blacks who are seeing the fastest rates of death increase. Latinos are second and then whites.

INSKEEP: So we're talking about different demographic groups. Is this also affecting different areas of the country? Is this rural problem being redefined as an urban problem?

BEBINGER: Well, there are - the fast - everywhere - the fastest rate of increase is New England. And so that mixes both rural and urban areas. The reason that some researchers think New England has been hardest hit is - well, there's a couple of things. One is that it has a long-standing problem with opioid use. And maybe drug dealers were sort of targeting this market to test fentanyl early on. Another thought is that the powdered form of heroin that fentanyl started to replace, it's easier to miss - mix those white crystals into the powdered form than it is into the black tar heroin that's more common in the western part of the country.

INSKEEP: Not to get too tied up in the details and the technicalities, but you're telling me that people are blending drugs together, like putting ethanol in your gasoline, and that is one of the ways that fentanyl has been spreading here?

BEBINGER: Yes. Fentanyl is so powerful, Steve, that just a few crystals mixed into what might have been a bag of heroin can be enough to stop breathing within just a few seconds.

INSKEEP: OK. Let's look at another demographic trend that you see in these numbers - far more men than women affected. Why would that be?

BEBINGER: Well, there are a couple of theories. One is that men are more likely to use drugs alone. And when you use drugs alone with fentanyl, because it's so powerful, your risk of death rises greatly. Another reason, Steve, is that women are more likely to see doctors. They're more likely to ask for help. They're more likely to call 911 and seek treatment. So the public health people who've reviewed this data say that means we need to be careful to get men connected with somebody who will get them into treatment, whether it's an outreach worker, a needle exchange program. Any touchpoint in the health care system will help this problem specifically for men.

INSKEEP: So we have more information about the opioid epidemic. We also have different information about the opioid epidemic. It challenges us to think about this epidemic in different ways. Does it challenge health experts to think about solutions differently?

BEBINGER: Many health experts say this data points to the need for some fairly radical changes, like supervised consumption sites. Those are rooms where medical personnel oversee people who are using drugs. That's way too radical for many people in the country. But public health experts will tell you that's the direction we need to head.

INSKEEP: Martha Bebinger of WBUR, thanks.

BEBINGER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.