Friday’s shooting of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Japan – a country known for its strict gun regulations and low rates of gun violence – sent shockwaves around the world. Other countries with strict gun laws have also experienced high-profile incidents of gun violence recently. DW examines the laws in a handful of countries where gun violence is rare, but real.
“No one shall possess a gun or guns or a sword or swords” is the wording of Japan’s gun law. The country has some of the strictest regulations in the world on private possession of firearms. Aside from the police and military, no one is allowed to own a handgun. Only shotguns and air rifles are available to civilians.
Even buying these weapons from Japan is a long and difficult process. A prospective firearm owner must take mandatory all-day classes and pass a written test and a shooting range test with at least 95% accuracy.
Applicants must also undergo a mental health assessment followed by a police background check – including the background of their relatives – to ensure that neither the applicant nor those in their immediate circle have a criminal record.
The assassination of Shinzo Abe shocked Japan, where gun violence is rare
The license is valid for three years. After obtaining a firearm, the owner must retake the course and exam every three years to renew their license. The weapon must be registered and inspected by the police once a year.
Japan saw the last time a politician was shot in 2007, when Iccho Itoh, the mayor of Nagasaki, was killed by a yakuza member. After the assassination, the country further tightened restrictions and increased penalties for illegal possession of firearms.
Gun violence is extremely rare in Japan. According to the national police, there were only 10 shootings in 2021. In the United States, by comparison, 321 people are slaughtered every daywith 111 killed, according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
After seven people were killed in Highland Park, Illinois, on July 4, American conservatives seized on a July 3 shooting that killed three people at a mall in Copenhagen, Denmark, to claim that strict gun laws fail to prevent such tragedies. Opponents of this argument point out that Denmark has seen only three mass shootings since 1994, while the United States has already seen more than 300 mass shootings in 2022.
GunPolicy.org, an international database run by the University of Sydney, classifies gun regulations in the Scandinavian country as “restrictive”. Firearms in Denmark are regulated by the Ministry of Justice.
The shooting in Copenhagen on July 3 was a rare incident of gun violence in Denmark
Civilians cannot possess fully automatic firearms; semi-automatic weapons and handguns (pistols and revolvers) are only permitted with special permission. Individuals wishing to purchase firearms must provide a reason such as collecting, hunting, or target shooting. Police conduct background checks to determine if it is safe to grant an applicant a licence. A record of the acquisition, possession and transfer of each firearm held by individuals is kept in an official registry.
According to GunPolicy.org, the estimated rate of private gun ownership in Denmark was 9.9 guns per 100 people in 2017.
A white supremacist gunman killed 51 people and injured at least 50 others in a 2019 mosque shooting in Christchurch. The government took action within a month, introducing a nationwide ban on semi-automatic weapons and assault rifles. Parliament voted almost unanimously in favor of the change, with only one dissenting vote.
This quick reaction to the mass shooting was unique. During a visit to the United States in May 2022, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told ‘The Late Show’ host Stephen Colbert that the change was a “pragmatic” response: “We’ve seen something something that was wrong, and we acted on it.”
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern acted quickly after Christchurch shooting
Following the Paris terrorist attacks in 2015, the European Commission drafted a reform that became part of German weapons laws in 2020. Since then, authorities have had to check with national intelligence agencies whether the claimant is known to be an extremist before issuing a firearms license.
Authorities must also check every five years whether a registered gun owner has a “legitimate need” to own a gun. This usually means that the police check whether the owner of a gun is a member of a shooting club or has a hunting license.
Whether this measure would be sufficient to prevent extremist attacks has been debated.
Tobias R., the attacker from Hanau, who killed 9 people in 2020, and the neo-Nazi Stephan E., who murdered a local governor Walter Lübcke in 2019, were both members of shooting clubs.
The German Interior Ministry revealed that as of December 2021, 1,561 right-wing extremists still legally possessed weapons in Germany. This shows a significant increase of nearly 30% from 2020, when authorities registered 1,203 right-wing extremists with legally owned weapons.
The Home Office is preparing a new bill to expand the scope of background checks authorities must carry out before granting or renewing a firearms license.
Switzerland has one of the most heavily armed populations in the world, with more than 2.3 million private guns out of a population of 8.5 million.
The culture of weapons in Switzerland is essentially linked to its army. Military service is compulsory for all male citizens, who after completing their service can keep their assigned weapon at home.
The high number of weapons does not come without regulation. To own a firearm, you must obtain a license from the local authorities, which means undergoing several background checks.
Switzerland is not a member of the European Union, but is part of the Schengen area and maintains close relations with the EU, governed by a series of bilateral agreements. Therefore, a referendum was held in 2019 to strengthen the country’s gun laws to comply with new EU regulations. Nearly 64% of voters agreed to tighter restrictions on semi-automatic and automatic weapons.
Although Switzerland’s strong gun culture and gun ownership rates bear similarities to those of the United States, the number of mass shootings is unmatched. The last mass shooting in Switzerland took place in 2001, while Gun Violence Archive recorded 692 mass shootings in the United States in 2021 alone. It’s the highest figure since the nonprofit research group began tracking shootings in 2014.
Most police in the UK do not carry arms
UK and Norway
The UK has come a long way in restricting gun ownership, now having some of the strictest gun laws in the world. Shortly after the devastating Hungerford massacre in 1987, which left 16 people dead, the government took a big step by banning the possession of semi-automatic rifles and introducing new restrictions on the use of shotguns.
The 1996 Dunblane massacre, in which 16 children and a teacher were killed at a primary school, led to further reforms to gun laws in the UK. The Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997 banned civilians from owning all but the smallest handguns, which were later also banned under Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Labor government the following year.
According to GunPolicy.org, the UK has one of the lowest rates of gun ownership (five guns per 100 people). The majority of British police also do not carry firearms.
The situation is slightly different in Norway, where 77 people were killed in a terrorist attack in 2011. In 2021, a decade after the attack, semi-automatic weapons, which had been used in the attack, were banned. . Norway still has a high gun ownership rate compared to other European countries (28.8 guns per 100 people, according to the Switzerland-based Small Arms Survey), but gun-related violence is very weak.