Tag Archives: gun control

What 21st century Americans can learn from Tokugawa-era Japan on guns

19th century Edo-period painting of Kiso Kaido highway with a view of Mt. Fuji.
19th century Edo-period painting of Kiso Kaido highway with a view of Mt. Fuji.

The horrific massacre at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, early Sunday morning has, not unpredictably, set off a new round of calls for more stringent gun control, especially on the American left.USflagJapan

As Chris Murphy, the Democratic senator from Connecticut, held a filibuster on the floor of the US Senate Wednesday and Thursday to demand that Senate Republicans agree to hold a vote on gun control, the one measure that both sides seems even potentially likely to agree is a bill to deny (or delay) gun purchases to individuals on the national ‘terrorist watch list.’

Even that bill is controversial. On both the left and the right, critics rightly argue that the terrorist watch list and the related ‘no fly list’ are compiled in a way that violates basic due process. To use these as a proxy to restrict additional rights, such as 2nd amendment freedoms, only magnifies the due process problem with these secret lists. It’s hard to imagine that the US Supreme Court would uphold as fully constitutional a new law that ties gun restrictions to the terrorist watch/no fly lists, at least in their current forms. Imagine, too, what could happen if a president Donald Trump decided to list all of his domestic political opponents on a ‘watch list.’

But put that aside for a moment. Imagine a world where Republicans and the National Rifle Association agreed, for instance, to re-introduce the ‘assault weapons’ ban that was initially passed in 1994 and that phased out in 2004.

As Dylan Matthews has written at Vox, however, it is not clear that the measures that most Democrats support, including president Barack Obama and presumptive presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, would accomplish significant reductions in mass shootings or gun homicides.

He argues that the United States would have to go much, much farther, including the kind of mandatory confiscation and widespread bans on firearms that Australia’s conservative government (at the time) introduced after the 1996 Port Arthur massacre, which left 35 people dead and 23 people wounded:

Realistically, a gun control plan that has any hope of getting us down to European levels of violence is going to mean taking a huge number of guns away from a huge number of gun owners.

Other countries have done exactly that. Australia, for example, enacted a mandatory gun buyback that achieved that goal, and saw firearm suicides fall as a result. But the reforms those countries enacted are far more dramatic than anything US politicians are calling for — and even they wouldn’t get us to where many other developed countries are.

As Matthews notes, there’s only so much that American politicians can do in the current political climate. Moreover, the 2nd Amendment potentially places real constitutional limits on gun control. After the Supreme Court’s 2008 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, I’m not so sure that even the current Court, deadlocked with four generally conservative justices and four generally liberal justices, would necessarily give its blessing to an Australia-style reform.

But the fundamental problem isn’t necessarily constitutional or legislative. It’s culture. Americans have a gun culture unlike anywhere else in the developed world. Until and unless Americans eliminate that culture (not likely anytime soon), it’s going to prove impossible to enact the kind of gun control legislation that could show dramatic reductions in gun violence.

As a Millennial gay man living in downtown Washington, I don’t really care for guns. Hunting bored me, even when I was a kid in rural Ohio. But I’m not everyone in the United States, and many law-abiding Americans love their guns — as a means of protecting their homes, as a principled symbol of individual liberty, for the sport of hunting or just for the love of firearms in its own right. I would personally love an American culture that looks more like European culture or Japanese culture. But no one could make that happen unilaterally, even if he or she were elected president tomorrow with a majority in both the House and the Senate.

Any effort to eradicate the number of guns in circulation in the United States would be most successful if you went back in time to the middle of the 20th century. It’s hard, frankly, to think of a single policy issue that suffers more from path determination (including rail and public transportation). Even more, if you’re a leftist and you care anything about civil liberties, you should also be worried about the kind of police power you would need to round up the vast majority of guns in the United States, because it would rival the kind of force you would need to, say, round up 11 million Mexican immigrants for deportation.

What’s fascinating is to chart the trajectory of gun culture in Japan. An early adopter, Japan was one of the first countries to experiment with the gunpowder invented in nearby China, and it might have started using very primitive firearms as early as the middle of the 13th century. Throughout the 16th century, however, Japan was a country divided and at war, among various daimyo (feudual lords) across the islands we today recognize as Japan. Firearms, imported from traders in Portugal and the rest of Europe, played an important and lethal role in those civil wars. In particular, firearms played a pivotal role in Oda Nobunaga’s victories in the 1570s and early 1580s that largely unified the island of Honchu. Continue reading What 21st century Americans can learn from Tokugawa-era Japan on guns

Why gun control legislation is a non-starter in Honduras


I write today in The New Republic about the role that firearms play in Honduras’s security issue — the country has the world’s highest homicide rate, and nearly 80% of those homicides are committed by means of small arms, such as pistols, revolvers, shotguns, and rifles.honduras flag icon

Despite some changes to Honduran gun laws in the early and mid-2000s, however, gun laws remain relative lax in Honduras.  Each person is permitted to own up to five firearms and while open and concealed carry, and the ownership of assault weapons, are both technically illegal, enforcement of gun laws is sporadic at best.  Even more troubling is a corrupt police force that’s been reported to prey on some of the weakest groups in — labor activists, LGBT activists, indigenous activists and just the downright impoverished.

You might expect each of Honduras’s top presidential candidates — perhaps, most especially, leftist Xiomara Castro de Zelaya — would be in support of a strong push to restrict gun ownership, but it’s just not the case — even though security is the top issue, by far, in the Honduran election.  In many ways, the chances for significant gun control laws in Honduras are even more pessimistic than in the United States, where even a bipartisan push earlier this year failed to enact even mild background checks in the aftermath of the December 2012 Newtown elementary school shooting.

Rasel Tomé, an activist who joined with the Zelayas to found Honduras’s new leftist party, Libre (the Party of Liberty and Refoundation), has high hopes for a wide array of progressive legislation if Zelaya wins Sunday’s election. But even Tomé doesn’t dare to list gun-control legislation on his wish list of potential policy highlights for the next four years—he argues that in a country where the government has so thoroughly and historically failed to respect human rights, the state can hardly be trusted to ask its citizens to disarm. “If the people were disarmed, they would feel vulnerable to abuses and infringements,” Tomé said. “Right now, when there’s such a culture of suspicion, what has [outgoing president Porfirio] Lobo Sosa’s government done so that people feel their human rights can be respected? Can you go to the public forces and feel that they will protect you? They won’t because there’s so much impunity. So it’s not the right moment to bring that topic to the forefront of the debate.”

The Honduran constitution doesn’t enshrine a “right to bear arms” like the 2nd Amendment does, but gun laws have been historically lax in Honduras. The chief restriction is a law that limits an individual to owning just five firearms, but that’s lightly enforced at best. Successive governments in the 2000s theoretically tightened Honduran gun laws—a national registry was created in 2002, assault weapons were banned in 2003, and it’s been technically illegal to carry guns (openly or concealed) in public since 2007. But in a country where officials lack the power even to investigate every murder, and where many citizens carry weapons for personal protection, those restrictions aren’t rigorously enforced. Moreover, those laws don’t apply to the police, who have been accused of perpetrating a troubling amount of the violence directed at Hondurans, especially the most vulnerable groups. But many Hondurans today believe that the U.S. is partially responsible for Honduras’s gun problem. They attribute the high rate of firearm ownership to the glut of weapons that flooded the country in the 1980s when the Reagan administration armed the Contras from within Honduras in an attempt to push the Soviet-backed Sandinistas out of power in Nicaragua to the south. Just as the United States gave its blessing to the transfer of weapons from Qatar to anti-regime Libyans in 2011 that may have subsequently found their way into the hands of Tuareg separatists (or worse) in northern Mali in 2012, U.S.-sourced firearms in the 1980s intended for the Contras have now found their way into the hands of the gangs that control the most dangerous parts of Honduras’s capital, Tegucigalpa, its industrial center of San Pedro Sula, and its Caribbean coast. But in recent years, a swarm of illicit arms have also entered Honduras from Mexico and other parts of Central America as part of the illegal drug trade.