In recent years, the vigorous debate over gun control in the U.S. has been sparked by increasingly distressing reports of senseless deaths. Two countries might offer new perspectives from which to reassess our dilemma. A recent article by Erik Kirschbaum in the Los Angeles Times reports that deaths from gun-violence in Germany fell from 106 in 2002 to 51 deaths in 2010. According to the Gun Violence Archive (GVA), the number of gun-related deaths in America so far this year is currently at 8,370. Indeed, Kirschbaum notes that 66 gun-related deaths occurred in Chicago alone this past May. Death-rates in Japan contrast similarly with the U.S. In an article from The Atlantic, Max Fisher reports, “In 2008, the U.S. had over 12 thousand firearm-related homicides. All of Japan experienced only 11.” Germany and Japan, thus, suffer strikingly far less gun-violence than America. What can be learned from Japanese and German approaches to regulating firearms that could mitigate the loss of life from guns in America?
The legal foundations of gun control policies in Germany and Japan are in contradistinction to how American discussions tend to navigate the topic. As Fisher describes, “U.S. gun law begins with the second amendment's affirmation of the ‘right of the people to keep and bear arms’ and narrows it down from there.” In other words, the framework of American gun-policy is founded on the interpretation of this amendment that every person has the right to a gun. Particular exceptions for restrictions, in turn, must be justified vigorously.
Neither Germany nor Japan shares this outlook. Rather, citizens of these countries accept that gun ownership should generally be forbidden for citizens. Particular exemptions from restrictions, in turn, must be justified vigorously. Japan’s present-day gun-policy has roots in the 1958 Swords and Firearms Possession Control Law, which prohibits possession of guns and swords, defines the broadly pertaining terms, and then outlines procedures for obtaining special permissions to own restricted weapons in specific cases. German gun-policy is founded on a similar of approach of guns not being allowed generally but only in particular cases. NPR’s Amanda Peacher reported in 2013:
In Germany, you have to have a good reason for owning a gun, like if you’re a sport shooter, hunter, or in rare cases, a gun collector. You can’t buy a firearm simply for personal protection; self-defense doesn’t count as a necessity. The yearlong licensing process involves written tests and shooting practice, and costs several thousand euros. Every applicant is background checked. And starting this year, every gun owner is tracked on a national register.
In Germany, not only is the right to a gun not a given, as it is in America, but the threshold for justification is much higher. Self-defense does not, in and of itself, imply need of a firearm. Rather, gun-ownership must be founded on high standards of need and responsibility (relative to America).
Nevertheless, gun-restrictions need not necessarily mean that gun-ownership be uncommon or impossible. Kirschbaum notes that Germany is currently ranked 14th in the world in gun-ownership, with 2.31 million people owning 5.83 million registered guns.
Some might resist the mindset that the government’s default position ought to be to withhold firearms from citizens and argue instead that starting from the premise that citizens are not entitled to gun-ownership may lead to the dire consequence of an overly powerful state. Researcher and gun rights advocate David B. Kopel argues this point with respect to Japanese gun control in his book The Samurai, the Mountie and the Cowboy. He observes, “Gun control underscores the pervasive cultural theme that the individual is subordinate to society and to the Government. The same theme is reflected in the absence of protection against Government searches and prosecutions.” Thus, it seems, gun control could be conducive to a hegemonic government.
Proponents of stricter gun-restrictions ought to contend with such concerns regarding unintended consequences and implications of granting the state such power. However, given the disturbingly pervasive loss of life due to guns in America, a shift in consciousness about guns needs to come first. Kirschbaum notes that in Germany in response to a school shooting in Erfurt in 2002 and Winnenden in 2009 in which 31 victims died, a prerogative to clamp down on gun-use pervaded virtually unconditionally throughout the country. He describes, “Fed up with gun violence, Germany didn’t spend time on philosophical discussions about the rights of hunters or gun collectors in the wake of the last major school slaying in Winnenden.” While gun restrictions, like any laws, ought to be scrutinized, Germany’s and Japan’s success with keeping gun-related violence low suggests that a necessary first step toward responding to the high rates of gun-related tragedies in America is to think of gun-ownership as a highly scrutinized privileged rather than a natural right.