..OOI, Japan (AP) — After a tragedy like the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the statistic is always trotted out. Compared to just about anywhere else with a stable, developed government — and many countries without even that — the more than 11,000 gun-related killings each year in the United States are simply off the charts.
To be sure, there are nations that are worse. But others see fewer gun homicide deaths in one year than the 27 people killed Dec. 14 in Newtown, Connecticut.
As Americans debate gun laws, people on both sides point to the experiences of other countries to support their arguments. Here's a look at two success stories — with two very different ways of thinking about gun ownership — and one cautionary tale.
JAPAN — THE NANNY STATE
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."
Gun-rights advocates in the United States often cite Switzerland as an example of relatively liberal regulation going hand-in-hand with low gun crime.
The country's 8 million people own about 2.3 million firearms. But firearms were used in just 24 Swiss homicides in 2009, a rate of about 0.3 per 100,000 inhabitants. The U.S. rate that year was about 11 times higher.
Unlike in the United States, where guns are used in the majority of murders, in Switzerland only a quarter of murders involve firearms. The most high-profile case in recent years occurred when a disgruntled petitioner shot dead 14 people at a city council meeting in 2001.
Experts say Switzerland's low gun-crime figures are influenced by the fact that most firearms are military rifles issued to men when they join the country's conscript army . Criminologist Martin Killias at the University of Zurich notes that as Switzerland cut the size of its army in recent decades, gun violence — particularly domestic killings and suicides — dropped too.
The key issue is how many people have access to a weapon, not the total number of weapons owned in a country, Killias said. "Switzerland's criminals, for example, aren't very well armed compared with street criminals in the United States."
Critics of gun ownership in Switzerland have pointed out that the country's rate of firearms suicide is higher than anywhere else in Europe. But efforts to tighten the law further and force conscripts to give their guns back after training have failed at the ballot box — most recently in a 2012 referendum.
Gun enthusiasts — many of whom are members of Switzerland's 3,000 gun clubs — argue that limiting the right to bear arms in the home of William Tell would destroy a cherished tradition and undermine the militia army's preparedness against possible invasion.
BRAZIL — BEYOND REPAIR?
So how about a country that actually bans guns?
Since 2003, Brazil has come close to fitting that description. Only police, people in high-risk professions and those who can prove their lives are threatened are eligible to receive gun permits. Anyone caught carrying a weapon without a permit faces up to four years on prison.
But Brazil also tops the global list for gun murders.
According to a 2011 study by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, 34,678 people were murdered by firearms in Brazil in 2008, compared to 34,147 in 2007. The numbers for both years represent a homicide-by-firearm rate of 18 per 100,000 inhabitants — more than five times higher than the U.S. rate.
Violence is so endemic in Brazil that few civilians would even consider trying to arm themselves for self-defense. Vast swaths of cities like Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro are slums dominated by powerful drug gangs, who are often better armed than the police. Brazilian officials admit guns flow easily over the nation's long, porous Amazon jungle border.
Still, Guaracy Mingardi, a crime and public safety expert and researcher at Brazil's top think tank, Fundacao Getulio Vargas, said the 2003 law helped make a dent in homicides by firearms in some areas.
According to the Sao Paulo State Public Safety Department, the homicide rate there was 28.29 per 100,000 in 2003 and dropped to 10.02 per 100,000 in 2011.
Brazil wants more powerful guns in the hands of police. This month, the army authorized law enforcement officers to carry heavy caliber weapons for personal use.
Ligia Rechenberg, coordinator of the Sou da Paz, or "I am for Peace," violence prevention group, thinks that could make things worse. She said police will buy weapons that "they don't know how to handle, and that puts them and the population at risk."
Associated Press writers Frank Jordans in Berlin and Stan Lehman and Bradley Brooks in Sao Paulo contributed to this report.
REALLY good article. I think it demonstrates that there is an awful lot more that contributes to gun violence, and that the situation varies greatly. Some places with a high gun ownership sees very little gun violence, others, where guns are basically banned, sees some of the highest numbers of gun-related homicides.
Good stuff.... More people killed with scissors in Japan than guns, eh? This is akin to what "gun control" can provide for us?
Better than that, the stats on Brazil are wonderful. Brazil actively bans guns and they are shooting and killing people at a rate 5 times higher. That is wonderful gun control.
Just a word to the wise to anybody taking the time to read my response. Take a good look at the wording in Feinstein's (CA) bill. At first glance, some of the language is very vague leaving far too much room for them to do whatever they want. The language is not direct enough. Look at it and expose it as it is written.
You know, here we have very very few gun crimes. We actually have a very low violent crime rate and murder rate in general. We do have gun control, but it is pretty easy to buy one. We have lot's of hunters (big big tradition here). Where the control comes in is that you can't carry one without a special permit. You can't even transport it in your vehicle without a special permit. And truthfully, unless they are headed out hunting, I don't know a single person that it would even occur to to carry a gun. Doesn't even cross our minds. I can't figure out what the difference is, I honestly can't. We have crime, just hardly anything violent.
In 2011, we had 598 murders. So 1.73 per 100,000 population. 35% were stabbings, 27% firearms, 22% beatings and 7% strangulation. But we do have guns...lots of them. So why the difference? I can't figure it out.
Our population for one.... them you look at what we are talking about in a previous post with kids and them having no guidance or parenting in the home. These kids resort to gangs for "family" and have to fend for themselves on the streets. Sure most have some kind of shelter, but as for the rest of the essentials? Forget about it.
I think your stat pertaining to stabbings is tell tale. Guns and their permits are harder to get. Knives, everyone has at least 1 in the house. (Stabbing is an more intimate crime. Its close and personal.....) I also find it interesting that beatings were that high... that too is very intimate and in my eyes says more about rage....
Oh yeah, I agree, elminating guns won't stop violence. I've agreed with you on that for a really long time. There is just so much more too it. We just seem to have a much lower incidence of violent crime in general. I mean, we had less murders in our country in a year then you get in LA or New York. Our countries are very similar in most ways and we do have our fair share of social problems. So it's perplexing to me to try to sort out what that difference is.
I think the reasoning behind you guys having less violence is still directly related to population. You don't have the magnitude of gang problems. You don't have the magnitude of drug addicts desperate for a fix.
Perhaps its the fact that your relatively low population is spread out over such a giant area.
Do farms typically stay in the family in your neck of the woods? For eons, farming was generational and always kept in the family. Now, even in our little state, kids go to college and get the hell out of dodge. They don't want the rural lifestyle anymore, so then farms sell or they have to downsize. I don't know... wandering around in my head trying to figure that out.
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