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Shinzo Abe assassination shocks Japan, where gun deaths are extremely rare

·Senior Writer
·3-min read
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The assassination of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Friday sent shock waves around the globe and especially in Japan — a country with some of the world’s strictest gun ownership laws and where gun deaths are extremely rare.

Just how rare? Despite having a population of 125 million, Japan rarely sees more than 10 gun deaths a year.

In 2018, for instance, there were nine gun deaths reported in Japan, according to data compiled by the University of Sydney School of Public Health. There were nearly 40,000 in the United States that year.

In 2021, Japan had 10 gun-related criminal cases and just one death, per the Associated Press, compared to about 45,000 in the United States.

The recent spate of deadly U.S. mass shootings has renewed the national debate over gun control. Such discussions don’t happen in Japan.

“It really is unheard of,” Shihoko Goto, director for geoeconomics at the Wilson Center, said on CNN. “This whole debate about gun violence — it simply does not exist in Japan.”

Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe lies faceup on the ground, his shirt stained with blood, after being shot.
Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe after he was shot in Nara, Japan, on Friday. (Kyodo via Reuters)

That may change in the wake of Abe’s slaying.

“This serves as a wake-up call that gun violence can happen in Japan,” Shiro Kawamoto, a professor at the College of Risk Management at Nihon University in Tokyo, told the AP. “To assume this kind of attack will never happen would be a big mistake.”

Abe, 67, was shot on a street in Nara, Japan, by a gunman who opened fire on him from behind as he delivered a campaign speech. He was airlifted to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Police at the scene arrested the suspect, Tetsuya Yamagami, a 41-year-old unemployed former member of Japan’s navy.

Photographers captured what appeared to be a handmade gun, and police say they confiscated similar weapons during a raid of the suspect’s apartment.

Security officers arrest the suspect in the fatal shooting of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Nara, Japan, on Friday; inset shows a close-up image of the apparent weapon used in the killing. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)
Security officers arrest the suspect in the fatal shooting of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Nara, Japan, on Friday; inset shows a close-up image of the apparent weapon used in the killing. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)

Under current Japanese law, the only guns permitted for sale are shotguns and air guns. In order to obtain a license to buy one, would-be gun owners must attend an all-day class; pass a written test and a shooting-range test with at least 95% accuracy; and undergo a mental health evaluation and drug tests (which take place at a hospital) as well as a rigorous background check that according to CNN includes “a review of their criminal record, personal debt, involvement in organized crime and relationships with family and friends.”

Licenses must be renewed every three years through the same process.

And after obtaining a gun, the owner must register the weapon with police, provide details of where and how it is stored and allow it to be inspected by police once a year.

As a result, gun ownership in Japan is rare too.

A person prays next to dozens of bouquets laid on the street.
A person prays next to flowers laid at the site where Abe was fatally shot. (Issei Kato/Reuters)

According to a 2017 survey by the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, the country had roughly 0.25 guns per 100 people. In the United States, there were about 120 guns per 100 people.

Gun ownership in Japan is relatively new, as well. In 1958, after World War II, the country passed a law stating “no person shall possess a firearm or firearms or a sword or swords.”

“They [were] the first nation to impose gun laws in the whole world,” Iain Overton, the executive director of Action on Armed Violence, a British advocacy group, told the BBC in 2017. “I think it laid down a bedrock saying that guns really don’t play a part in civilian society.”

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