|February 07, 2013||Gun Control: Japan Has It Right||no comments|
Gunfire rings through the hills at a shooting range at the foot of Mount Fuji. There are few other places in Japan where you'll hear it.
In this country, guns are few and far between. And so is gun violence. Guns were used in only seven murders in Japan - a nation of about 130 million - in all of 2011, the most recent year for official statistics. According to police, more people - nine - were murdered with scissors.
Though its gun ownership rates are tiny compared to the United States, Japan has more than 120,000 registered gun owners and more than 400,000 registered firearms. So why is there so little gun violence?
"We have a very different way of looking at guns in Japan than people in the United States," said Tsutomu Uchida, who runs the Kanagawa Ohi Shooting Range, an Olympic-style training center for rifle enthusiasts. "In the U.S., people believe they have a right to own a gun. In Japan, we don't have that right. So our point of departure is completely different."
Treating gun ownership as a privilege and not a right leads to some important policy differences.
First, anyone who wants to get a gun must demonstrate a valid reason why they should be allowed to do so. Under longstanding Japanese policy, there is no good reason why any civilian should have a handgun, so - aside from a few dozen accomplished competitive shooters - they are completely banned.
Virtually all handgun-related crime is attributable to gangsters, who obtain them on the black market. But such crime is extremely rare and when it does occur, police crack down hard on whatever gang is involved, so even gangsters see it as a last-ditch option.
Rifle ownership is allowed for the general public, but tightly controlled.
Applicants first must go to their local police station and declare their intent. After a lecture and a written test comes range training, then a background check. Police likely will even talk to the applicant's neighbors to see if he or she is known to have a temper, financial troubles or an unstable household. A doctor must sign a form saying the applicant has not been institutionalized and is not epileptic, depressed, schizophrenic, alcoholic or addicted to drugs.
Gun owners must tell the police where in the home the gun will be stored. It must be kept under lock and key, must be kept separate from ammunition, and preferably chained down. It's legal to transport a gun in the trunk of a car to get to one of the country's few shooting ranges, but if the driver steps away from the vehicle and gets caught, that's a violation.
Uchida said Japan's gun laws are frustrating, overly complicated and can seem capricious.
"It would be great if we had an organization like the National Rifle Association to stand up for us," he said, though he acknowledged that there is no significant movement in Japan to ease gun restrictions.
Even so, dedicated shooters like Uchida say they do not want the kind of freedoms Americans have and do not think Japan's system would work in the United States, citing the tendency for Japanese to defer to authority and place a very high premium on an ordered, low-crime society.
"We have our way of doing things, and Americans have theirs," said Yasuharu Watabe, 67, who has owned a gun for 40 years. "But there need to be regulations. Put a gun in the wrong hands, and it's a weapon."