In response to the tragic news of the fatal shooting of Shinzo Abe, Iain Overton of Action On Armed Violence outlines a brief history of Japan’s strict approach to gun control

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First it should be noted that there is a very low firearm homicide rate in Japan. In 2017, there were 14,532 homicides by firearm in America, but just one in Japan.

In 2018 (the latest figures published by the World Health Organisation), the total number of people killed by guns in Japan – including accidents and suicides – was nine. In the US, it was 39,740.

The murder of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is an absolute aberration in a country with a very low firearm death rate of just 0.01 per 100,000 and a homicide rate of even lower.

The shooting and killing of a major politician is a rare enough event globally – for this to happen in Japan will be almost incomprehensible to many people living there.

But how are such low gun death numbers explained? To answer, we have to look at Japan’s history of gun control.

The first gun control measure in Japan can be traced back to 1588, when the ruler of Japan, Hideyoshi Toyotomi, announced the Sword Hunt, which banned possession of swords and firearms by civilians. From the 1600s to the 1800s, a number of decrees were passed trying to address the spread of guns that had occurred ever since Western traders and missionaries had alighted on Japan’s shores. For example, in 1685, people who gave information on firearms would be rewarded. By the late 19th Century in Japan, guns were effectively limited to hunters and, in 1910, the manufacture and sale of guns and explosives were subject to a government license.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, the government introduced an Imperial Ordinance which banned the possession of firearms and swords by citizens (although hunting guns were allowed under license). The Imperial Ordinance was then replaced by the Law Controlling the Possession of Firearms and Swords in 1958, which is still in effect today, subject to some amendments.

With such an entrenched tradition of gun control, trying to buy a gun is difficult, as Dave Kopel set out in his 1993 study on Japanese gun control. Prospective gun owners have to attend classes and pass a written test, then it’s off to the shooting range, followed by the hospital for a medical test to detect mental illnesses, as well as a drug test. The police then investigate the prospective gun owner’s background, including their relatives’ backgrounds.

The police also have the discretion to deny licenses if there are reasonable grounds to suspect a prospective gun owner may endanger the lives of others.

All of this means that Japan is very much a country where the gun is the exception, not the rule. It should also be noted that homicides themselves are rare in Japan. In 2018, there were just 334 homicides in the country – a rate of 0.26 per 100,000.

As of 2019, the total number of guns kept by civilians (illicit and licit) was 310,400 (in that year, the Japanese population was around 126 million). This has dropped from 710,000 in 2007.

According to the law, you cannot possess a gun if you have declared bankruptcy. The minimum age limit to own a gun is 18, though there are some exemptions for gun athletes.

Kopel, a member of the National Rifle Association, has noted that “the Japanese police are given broad search and seizure powers”. He observed that “because the police are so esteemed, the Japanese people co-operate with their police more than Americans do. Co-operation with the police also extends to obeying the laws that almost everyone believes in. The Japanese people, and even the large majority of Japanese criminals, voluntarily obey the gun controls.”

An example of forthright police action on guns can be found in an article by investigative journalist Jake Adelstein. In an interview with a detective from the Kanto region, they recounted the following anecdote:  

“A few years ago, an officer on duty used his gun to kill himself — clearly non-designated usage, so that’s a crime. He was charged posthumously to publicly show that even the dead can’t get away with breaking the firearms laws, and to shame his family. It may seem like overkill but it drives home the point.”

With stringent measures and a decline in gun ownership, it’s not surprising that there is a low rate of homicides by firearm. Unlike America in recent times, Japan has not seen many massacres that involve guns.

High profile massacres have tended to involve bladed weapons, such as the Akihabara massacre in 2008, the Osaka School Massacre in 2001, and the Shimonoseki Station massacre in 1999.     

With its long tradition of gun control measures, and low levels of homicide by firearm , this shooting will not only rock Japan because of the high profile of the victim, but also because of the rarity of the event.

The thoughts of Byline Times and AOAV are with Mr Abe’s family and those impacted by this terrible murder.

Iain Overton, executive director of AOAV, also leads the Byline Intelligence Team.

This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.

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