- Japan is a country of more than 127 million people, but it rarely sees more than 10 gun deaths a year.
- Culture is one reason for the low rate, but gun control is a major one, too.
- Japan has a long list of tests that applicants must pass before gaining access to a small pool of guns.
A recent spate of mass shootings have prompted intensified discussions around gun control in the US.
A 28-year-old woman opened fire at The Covenant School in Nashville, Tennessee, on Monday, killing three elementary school students and three adult staff members, according to police. The attack comes on the heels of several other mass shootings in the past year, including at a Fourth of July parade in Illinois, in a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, and at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.
One of the biggest questions being asked: How does the US prevent this from happening over and over again?
Although the US has no exact counterpart elsewhere in the world, some countries have taken steps that can provide a window into what successful gun control looks like. Japan, a country of 127 million people and yearly gun deaths rarely totaling more than 10, is one such country.
“Ever since guns entered the country, Japan has always had strict gun laws,” Iain Overton, executive director of Action on Armed Violence, a British advocacy group, told the BBC. “They are the first nation to impose gun laws in the whole world, and I think it laid down a bedrock saying that guns really don’t play a part in civilian society.”
Japan is a country with regulations upon regulations
Japan’s success in curbing gun deaths is intimately linked with its history. Following World War II, pacifism emerged as one of the dominant philosophies in the country. Police only started carrying firearms after American troops made them, in 1946, for the sake of security. It’s also written into Japanese law, as of 1958, that “no person shall possess a firearm or firearms or a sword or swords.”
The government has since loosened the law, but the fact Japan enacted gun control from the stance of prohibition is important. (It’s also one of the main factors separating Japan from the US, where the Second Amendment broadly permits people to own guns.)
If Japanese people want to own a gun, they must attend an all-day class, pass a written test, and achieve at least 95% accuracy during a shooting-range test. Then they have to pass a mental-health evaluation, which takes place at a hospital, and pass a background check, in which the government digs into their criminal record and interviews friends and family. They can only buy shotguns and air rifles — no handguns — and every three years they must retake the class and initial exam.
Japan has also embraced the idea that fewer guns in circulation will result in fewer deaths. Each prefecture — which ranges in size from half a million people to 12 million, in Tokyo — can operate a maximum of three gun shops; new magazines can only be purchased by trading in empty ones; and when gun owners die, their relatives must surrender the deceased member’s firearms.
The role of trust can’t be overstated
The result is a situation where citizens and police seldom wield or use guns.
Off-duty police aren’t allowed to carry firearms, and most encounters with suspects involve some combination of martial arts or striking weapons. When Japanese attacks do turn deadly, they generally involve fatal stabbings. In July of 2016, an assailant killed 19 people in an assisted living facility. Japan rarely sees so many fatalities from guns in an entire year.
Yet even Japan is not immune to gun violence. The assassination of former the county’s former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on July 8, 2022, shocked the nation. Abe was shot and killed by a shooting suspect wielding what appeared to be a homemade firearm constructed of metal barrels attached to wood with black tape.
Video from the moments before Abe was shot show the suspect standing close behind him with little visible security around him.
Nancy Snow, Japan director of the International Security Industrial Council, told Insider that Japan will be “forever changed” by Abe’s death.
“When I talk about Japan changing forever — the Japanese people, it’s hard to even have a conversation with them about the gun culture in the United States, without people getting viscerally upset thinking about it because they say, we’re not that country,” Snow said.
Gun control in Japan, combined with the prevailing respect for authority, has led to a more harmonious relationship between civilians and the police than in the US. It’s something of a chicken-egg problem: The police, in choosing to use sub-lethal force on people, generate less widespread fear among the public that they’ll be shot. In turn, people feel less of a need to arm themselves.
The US, meanwhile, has a more militarized police force that uses automatic weapons and armored cars. There is also less widespread trust between people (and between people and institutions). The factors combine to produce a much fearful culture that can seem to be always on-edge.
Japan’s approach would be a tough sell in the face of American gun culture, but it can provide a starting point for reining in the senseless violence that has become a hallmark of life in the US.