The Japan lesson: Can America learn from the country that has almost zero gun deaths?

December 14, 2012

Japanese museum-goers look at displays of old North Korean rifles in Tokyo. (Chiaki Tsukumo -- Associated Press)

On Friday, 27 Americans, including 18 children, joined the casualties making up the highest gun-related death rate in the developed world. Those who died Friday at Sandy Hook Elementary School are, statistically speaking, a drop in the bucket. So was the .223-caliber rifle that killed them. The United States of America has the highest rate of gun ownership in the world, followed by Yemen, where it is about half.

In July, after a horrific shooting at a Colorado movie theater, as journalists and others began asking whether America's unique and extraordinary gun laws had anything to do with its unique and extraordinary rate of gun-related deaths, I looked into Japan's gun laws in an article for TheAtlantic.com.

The contrast between the United States and Japan could not be starker. If the United States has the loosest gun laws in the developed world, then Japan has the strictest. Most guns are illegal, with onerous restrictions on the few that are legal. Police also have far broader search-and-seizure powers. But the country also has a remarkably low rate of firearm deaths. In 2008, when the United States experienced over 12,000 gun-related homicides, Japan had only 11, or fewer than half as many killed Friday in Newtown, Conn. That same year in the United States, 587 were killed just by accidental gun discharges. In 2006 in Japan, a nation of 128 million people, only two were killed by guns.

Here are some excerpts from what I wrote in July about the lessons of Japan's remarkably strict, but breathtakingly effective, gun control laws.

The only guns that Japanese citizens can legally buy and use are shotguns and air rifles, and it's not easy to do. ...

First, you have to attend an all-day class and pass a written test, which are held only once per month. You also must take and pass a shooting range class. Then, head over to a hospital for a mental test and drug test (Japan is unusual in that potential gun owners must affirmatively prove their mental fitness), which you'll file with the police. Finally, pass a rigorous background check for any criminal record or association with criminal or extremist groups, and you will be the proud new owner of your shotgun or air rifle. Just don't forget to provide police with documentation on the specific location of the gun in your home, as well as the ammo, both of which must be locked and stored separately. And remember to have the police inspect the gun once per year and to re-take the class and exam every three years. ...

Japanese law, however, starts with the 1958 act stating that "No person shall possess a firearm or firearms or a sword or swords," later adding a few exceptions. In other words, American law is designed to enshrine access to guns, while Japan starts with the premise of forbidding it. The history of that is complicated, but it's worth noting that U.S. gun law has its roots in resistance to British gun restrictions, whereas some academic literature links the Japanese law to the national campaign to forcibly disarm the samurai, which may partially explain why the 1958 mentions firearms and swords side-by-side. ...

Even the police did not carry firearms themselves until, in 1946, the American occupation authority ordered them to. Now, Japanese police receive more hours of training than their American counterparts, are forbidden from carrying off-duty, and invest hours in studying martial arts. ...

The Japanese and American ways of thinking about crime, privacy, and police powers are so different -- and Japan is such a generally peaceful country -- that it's functionally impossible to fully isolate and compare the two gun control regiments. It's not much easier to balance the costs and benefits of Japan's unusual approach, which helps keep its murder rate at the second-lowest in the world, though at the cost of restrictions that [an historian] calls a "police state," a worrying suggestion that it hands the government too much power over its citizens.

The lessons for the United States here are potentially quite thorny. Japan's ultra-strict gun laws, and its police powers to enforce them, require substantial sacrifices in an area that American political culture, and indeed American culture, consider sacrosanct: individual liberty. That U.S. firearm law developed to protect gun rights first and public safety second, whereas Japan privileged public safety, is both telling and reflects feelings and priorities that go much deeper than just this one issue. That's not something that can be reversed with a single bill or news conference, not that I'm arguing it should be. The individual liberty vs. public safety trade-off is not an easy one to make, and though Japan's policy does appear to save thousands of lives when compared to America's, it comes at real costs.

What is perhaps most revealing about looking at Japan's gun laws, and seeing what makes them the most extreme gun restrictions in the developed world, is that it gives you a sense, for better or worse, of what American gun laws look like to everyone else.

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Max Fisher · December 14, 2012