The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The rarity of the Abe assassination, in two charts

Police officers at the scene where former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe was shot while making a speech in Nara, Japan, on July 8, 2022. (Kosuke Okahara/Bloomberg News)
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The last time an American president was shot was 1981. Ronald Reagan, barely two months into office, was struck by a bullet that ricocheted off his limousine, part of a volley of shots fired by would-be assassin John Hinckley. Reagan’s wound was serious enough to warrant an extended hospital stay, but he survived. Since then, despite the increase in political vitriol and in the number of firearms owned in the United States, no similar incident has occurred.

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Assassination of world leaders was once far more common than it is today. That’s one reason that the killing of former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe on Friday is so shocking: Assassination of high-ranking politicians is rare in the world’s most-developed countries. From 1920 to 1970, there were 13 assassinations of actively serving or former world leaders in those nations. From 1971 to today, there were seven, with none in the past 20 years.

It has been more than 80 years since there was a similar assassination in Japan. The period shortly before World War II saw a flurry of killings of top political leaders in the nation, but, in the years since, no similar events have occurred.

The sole U.S. dot on that graph was the assassination of John F. Kennedy. He was shot by Lee Harvey Oswald in 1963; Oswald was shot to death two days later by Jack Ruby. President Gerald Ford survived an assassination attempt in 1975, when Sara Jane Moore fired at him twice, missing both times. Then, six years later, came the attempt on Reagan.

In each case, you’ll notice, the weapon was a firearm — as was the case with Abe. The shooter used a homemade gun to kill the former prime minister, a function in part of the stringency of Japan’s gun laws. As The Washington Post’s Tokyo bureau chief Michelle Ye Hee Lee noted, the country had one shooting death in 2021 — a smaller number than the United States sees every half-hour. The United States has more people but not so many as to make up the difference: There are 2.6 Americans for every resident of Japan.

One obvious factor in the difference is that the United States has far, far laxer gun laws than Japan’s. The rates of gun homicide and gun ownership between the countries couldn’t be more disparate.

What occurred in Japan, then, was unusual for two reasons: Such killings of national leaders occur less frequently than they used to in developed countries; and, in general, gun homicides in Japan are rare. The shock experienced following Abe’s death is understandable.

These figures also raise another useful point: Another component of the lack of assassination attempts on American presidents is almost certainly good luck.

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