Possession -- and use -- of firearms is far more limited and regulation far more stringent in other major industrial societies than in the United States, according to an informal survey by Washington Post correspondents.
In West Germany, to purchase a weapon a buyer must prove a specific need, prove experience or training in the use of firearms and take an examination in the presence of a police officer and a licensed civilian.
In Japan, a nation of 115 million people, only 171 crimes involving use of a gun were committed in 1979.
Even in Britain, which faces racial and economic problems similar to those in the United States, crimes occur with strikingly less frequency than in America. London, with a population of 7 million, had 179 homicides last year compared to 1,557 in Los Angeles and 1,733 in New York.
With attention in the United States focusing again on the vexing issues of use and regulation of firearms following recent, widely publicized murders involving handguns, comparisons inevitably will be drawn to other industrialized, urban societies.
The comparison will be drawn against a backdrop of head-shaking editorials and screaming hadlines abroad about guns and violence in the United States.
In an editorial headlined "Murderous America" Tuesday, the Times of London said, "There is something profoundly disturbing even for foreigners in the fast rise of the murder rate in the United States. It suggests some kind of inner failure that is both more difficult to identify and more difficult to cure than aberrations of policy."
The comparisons, already being drawn by foreigners as they view American life and U.S. attitudes toward guns and violence, will show a tradition abroad that varies markedly from that of the United States, one that accepts strict governmental control over possession of guns.
The laws are national in scope, strictly enforced and generally considered effective, although experts also admit that illegal use of guns has been on the increase in countries such as Italy and Britain.
In contrast to the United States, where limited federal regulations governing sales of firearms are supplemented by a crazy quilt of state laws, most of the other major industrial societies have uniform national laws administered by local officials.
This practice reflects general legal traditions in much of the rest of the world, but a significant difference is that the laws not only are much more strict but that officials are assiduous in carrying them out, including prosecuting offenders.
Under the U.S. Gun Control Act of 1968, for example, the prevailing federal legislation, a person who abuses alcohol cannot be sold a gun. Yet, the federal laws do not require a firearms dealer to check information given by a person trying to buy a gun. In short, the buyer's word is simply accepted.
In Japan, the prospective buyer must get permission to own the weapon from the public safety commission in his prefecture (state), and this is granted only after a strict background check. In Spain, where controls are even stricter, the licenses must be renewed each year.
While in France almost any reason is accepted for granting a gun license, there is still an elaborate background check on every applicant. Even Italy, which may have Europe's most chronic crime problem, imposes severe controls on those who are licensed to own a gun.
British laws are perhaps the most Draconian, with almost no licenses given for private possession of handgun or rifle.The few licenses granted generally are limited to farmers for use on their own property or to persons using gun clubs or ranges, and they must keep their weapons at the club premises.
Government officials state flatly that self-protection or protection of property is not sufficient reason for a license to be granted -- an attitude vastly different from that prevailing in the United States. Those licenses that are given come only after thorough background checks by local constables.
Such conditions are not limited to Britain, however. In 1977, Canada removed protection of property as one of the reasons for granting a license to carry a handgun.
The Japanese go one step farther than others -- they also control possession of swords with blades longer than 15 centimeters, no small step for a country with a martial tradition involving the sword that goes back many centuries.
The flip side of regulations limiting and controlling possession is the range of penalties. Again, major industrial societies provide for stiff sanctions. In countries in which rulings by the courts have been lenient, such as France, police have pressed vigorously for stricter controls. In France last week, a new law designed to eliminate suspended sentences for repeaters was passed.
Moreover, some countries -- such as Japan, Canada and Israel -- control the manufacture of firearms through various statutes and rigorous inspection procedures by authorities.
In almost every countyr surveyed, illegal possession of a weapon is punishable by a minimum one-to-three year sentence and in some cases as much as six years. In Spain, for example, illegal possession carries mandatory prison sentence of between six months and six years. Illegal sales of guns carry even stricter penalties, ranging to five years imprisonment.
One exception to the strict-enforcement trend is Canada, where judges rarely impose jail sentences for unauthorized possession unless a crime was attempted with the weapon. The Canadians have moved toward stricter controls of firearms, however, adding rifles and shotguns in 1977 to a five-decade-old tradition of licensing handguns.
While hesitating to draw an immediate correlation, officials in Canada have noted a decrease in shooting homicides since the new regulations came into force. In 1975, with a population of 22.7 million, Canada had 292 homicides involving guns. By last year, although the population had grown to 24.1 million, shooting deaths had fallen by 29 percent, to 207.
The figures for crimes involving guns elsewhere are strikingly low.
In the United States, 21,456 murders were reported in 1979 in a population of just more than 200 million, or approximately one murder for every 10,000 people. Half of those murders involved handguns and another 13 percent rifles or shotguns. In France, there were 1,645 homicides, just over half involving firearms, in a population of 53 million, and in Britain one person in every 100,000 is a murder victim -- one-tenth the ratio in the United States.
Other countries have almost negligible incidence of violent crime. In Israel, where only 42 people are even licensed to sell guns, there were 145 crimes of all sorts last year involving weapons. In Japan, iwht a population of 115 million, the comparable figure was 171. And in West Germany, with a population of 60 million, 69 crimes in 1979 involved murder or robbery with a firearm.
While far stricter in their laws, most of these countries do have their share of illegal possession of firearms and violent crimes. The surge of bank robberies and kidnapings in Italy, most involving guns, offers ample evidence of this. And even in West Germany, with its low crime figures, authorities estimate that the 3.5 million registered weapons are only one-third of the total. The French fret about illegal importing of handguns from Belgium and Italy and the Israelis about thefts from armories.
It is Britain that offers the most interesting point of contrast. Serious crime and homicide have doubled in the past decade as the country came under the influence of persistent economic decline, racial friction and regional differences. Youth crime is on the increase, and the country's non-white immigrant population has become the target for some particularly violent incidents. Muggings are on the increase in the country's major cities, and criminals with guns are no longer unheard of.
For all this litany of violence, however, police in London found it necessary to fire a gun only eight times in all of 1979.