The assassination of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is sending shockwaves around the world and especially through Japan, a country where gun regulations are strict and shootings are exceedingly rare.
Abe, who resigned due to health issues in 2020, was fatally shot in broad daylight on Friday while speaking at a campaign rally in the city of Nara. The police detained a suspect and retrieved a gun at the scene that appears to be homemade, broadcaster NHK reports.
Rates of gun ownership and gun violence in Japan are among the lowest in the world, and stand in stark contrast to those of the U.S.
For example: Just one person was killed by gun violence in Japan in 2021, according to the country’s National Police Agency. The Gun Violence Archive recorded 45,034 U.S. firearm deaths that same year.
Abe’s killing is “almost incomprehensible” in a country with a firearm death rate of 0.01 per 100,000 and an even lower homicide rate, wrote Iain Overton, the executive director of British NGO Action on Armed Violence, in a blog post on Friday.
“With its long tradition of gun control measures, and low homicides by firearm rates, this shooting will then not only rock Japan because of the high profile of the victim, but also because of the rarity of the event,” he wrote.
In Japan guns are “the exception, not the rule”
Japan was the first nation in the world to impose gun laws, according to Overton.
He traces those back to a 1588 measure banning civilians from owning swords and firearms. That was followed by centuries of decrees aimed at limiting the spread of guns that Western traders and missionaries had brought to the country, culminating in a 1958 federal law that banned almost all gun ownership and is still on the books today.
“The weapons law begins by stating ‘No-one shall possess a fire-arm or firearms or a sword or swords’, and very few exceptions are allowed,” wrote David Kopel in a 1993 paper published in Asia-Pacific Law Review. Kopel, a constitutional law professor at Denver University Sturm College of Law and adjunct scholar at the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute, described Japan’s gun control measures the “most stringent in the democratic world.”
Japan prohibits private citizens from owning handguns, and only allows licensed hunters and target shooters to purchase shotguns or air rifles.
A person must be 18 to own a firearm, though there are exceptions for gun athletes over the age of 14. The law prohibits people from possessing a gun if they have declared bankruptcy.
And police in Japan have unlimited discretion to deny licenses to anyone who they have reasonable cause to suspect may present a danger to “other persons’ lives or properties or to the public peace,” according to Kopel. He also noted the public’s high level of voluntary cooperation with gun control measures and police enforcement of them.
“All of this means Japan is very much a country where the gun is the exception, not the rule,” Action on Armed Violence’s Overton wrote.
According to a tracker from the University of Sydney, Japanese civilians held an estimated 310,400 legal and illegal guns in 2019, per a population of 126.9 million — or about 0.25 guns per 100 people.
The same researchers found that the total number of guns in the U.S. ranges between 265 million to 393 million, and as of 2017 amounted to an estimated 120.5 firearms per 100 people.
Just as very few people own guns in Japan, very few are involved in shootings.
Homicides in general are rare in Japan, Overton notes, with a rate of 0.26 per 100,000 during that same year. (The U.S. rate was 7.5 per 100,000 as of 2020).
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It takes roughly 12 steps to buy a gun, and doesn’t end there
Buying a gun is a long and involved process with more than a dozen steps. Those include:
- Join hunting or shooting club
- Take a firearm class
- Pass a written exam, as well as a shooting-range test with at least 95% accuracy
- Get a doctor’s note stating you are mentally fit and have no history of drug dependency
- Apply to take a full-day course in how to safely fire and store a gun
- Complete a police interview explaining why you want a firearm
- Pass a rigorous background check in which police review your criminal record, employment history, financial status and relationships with family, friends and neighbors
- Apply for a gunpowder permit
- Obtain a certificate from a gun dealer describing the gun you want
- Buy a gun safe and ammunition locker that meet safety regulations
- Allow the police to inspect your gun storage and conduct another background check
Notably, many of Japan’s more than 40 prefectures have limits on the number of gun shops that can operate within each jurisdiction. Most are limited to no more than three gun stores, and only allow people to buy fresh rounds after returning the used ones they bought at their last visit.
Once someone is finally able to buy a gun, they must register it with the police and provide them with details of how they will store both their weapon and ammunition in separate, locked compartments. Going forward, police must inspect the gun annually and the owner must retake the class and a license renewal exam every three years. And not only are the regulations strict, they are strictly enforced.
In America, it’s possible for someone to buy a gun in less than an hour once they pass an instant background check.
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Violent incidents in Japan are rare but not unprecedented
There have been several mass killings in Japan in recent years, but most did not involve guns. Those include a 2008 stabbing rampage that killed seven people in Tokyo, a knife attack that killed 19 people at an assisted care facility in 2016 and a 2019 arson attack on an animation studio that killed 34.
Political violence is rare in postwar Japan, though there have been some high-profile incidents over the course of the last century, as Reuters notes.
Among them: The head of the Japan Socialist Party was killed during a 1960 speech by a right-wing youth with a samurai short sword, and a yakuza gangster fatally shot the mayor of Nagasaki in 2007. Two prime ministers and one deputy prime minister survived either attacks or shootings in 1975, 1992 and 1994 respectively, reports the Japan Times.
The last time a Japanese prime minister was assassinated was in 1932, when Inukai Tsuyoshi was shot in a coup d’état by ultranationalist naval officers in what is now called “the May 15th incident.”
Abe’s own grandfather, who served as prime minister from 1957 to 1960, survived an assassination attempt at the end of his tenure. Nobusuke Kishi was stabbed in the thigh and severely injured during a reception at the Prime Minister’s Office.
Abe himself also had been the target of an arson attack earlier in his political career. Members of a yakuza group threw Molotov cocktails into his home and supporters’ office on several occasions in 2000.