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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

What can the internal gun politics of other countries teach the United States?


Certainly, today’s sad news from Newtown, Connecticut — the site of a gun massacre that left, so far, 18 children and nine adults dead, will once again ignite a debate over the proper role of gun laws in the United States. USflag

The reality is that, despite the efforts of officials such as New York mayor Michael Bloomberg (pictured above) in favor of stricter gun control, after the horrific headlines fade, Newtown will join a growing pile of similar incidents — Columbine in 1999, Virginia Tech in 2007, Aurora just earlier this summer — each one more numbing than the last, with no appreciable change to U.S. federal policy on firearm control.  The last major effort was the federal assault weapons ban prohibiting certain kinds of semi-automatic weapons, in effect from 1994 to 2004.  The ban hasn’t been subsequently renewed, not even in 2009 and 2010 when the relatively pro-gun control Democratic Party controlled Congress and the White House.

But the fact remains that the United States has one of the world’s highest firearm-related death rates in the world at 9 persons per 100,000 annually, which puts it in company with South Africa, the Philippines and Mexico.  The United Kingdom’s rate, by contrast, is 0.22.  That, Americans should agree, is a problem, although Americans remain split over gun control laws — even after the Aurora shooting, 50% of Americans said in an August CNN poll that they oppose significantly more restrictions on gun ownership.

The Second Amendment, part of the Bill of Rights ratified in 1791, is a one-sentence guarantee to the right to bear arms:

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

The amendment is informed by the precedent of the English Bill of Rights of 1689 that protected the right of Protestants against disarmament by the English monarch (at the time, the Catholic James II).

Since that time, the American devotion to the right to bear arms has become a peculiarly American sensibility, especially since the 1980s saw a rise in pro-gun activism among the American right and especially within the Republican Party — the National Rifle Association is now one of the most powerful interest groups in U.S. politics (as recently as 1969, the NRA was so relatively weak that Republican U.S president Richard Nixon disavowed an ‘honorary life membership’).

In recent years, the U.S. Supreme Court has strengthened Second Amendment rights.  In 2008, the Supreme Court in its landmark District of Columbia v. Heller that the Second Amendment extends to the right to possess firearms for self-defense within the home, and in 2010, the Supreme Court ruled in McDonald v. Chicago that the Second Amendment is ‘incorporated’ by the 14th Amendment to extend not only federally but within the individual states.

Despite the efforts of officials like Bloomberg, who have argued that, at minimum, the federal government should tighten up and enforce loopholes in existing gun laws, just today, Michigan governor Rick Snyder was set to sign into law a bill that would allow concealed weapons in gun-free zones.

Indeed, most pro-gun advocates argue that concealed-carry laws — allowing anyone to carry concealed weapons — provide disincentives to potential gunmen.  Such state-level concealed-carry laws have become increasingly popular since the 1990s, and the vast majority of U.S. states now feature some form of concealed-carry permit law.  Pro-gun advocates also argue that free-gun zone laws that designate schools, hospitals and other areas as firearm-free have inadvertently made those areas ever more tantalizing targets for would-be assailants.

But certainly there are lessons from gun policy in countries outside the United States that can inform a reasoned statistics-based policy debate in the United States, right? Maybe not.

What’s most astonishing is that throughout the world, even among the closest U.S. allies, gun control remains relatively uncontroversial.  That makes the example of other countries fairly inapposite.

The general trend seems to be that in countries with relatively stricter gun laws, gun-related homicides are relatively lower, but pro-gun advocates note that there are essentially too many other cultural and political factors about the United States and crime in the United States to draw a straightforward line between the two.  As Ezra Klein noted earlier this year, the United States –and the U.S. south where pro-gun sentiment runs strong — is generally a more violent place than much of the rest of the developed world, generally (with or without guns).

The other trend worth noting is that many countries have adopted stricter gun laws in the wake of a horrific shooting spree or gun violence incident, but despite a worrying proliferation of such mass shootings in the United States, such incidents have failed to dent a political consensus against major gun control reforms.

In the United Kingdom, the closest thing to a ‘pro-gun’ position is the silly House of Lords showdown with Tony Blair’s government in the early 2000s over the 2004 ban on hunting with dogs — the hopeless cause of a fox-hunting aristocracy that was more about farce than force.  Otherwise, the United Kingdom has some of the world’s most rigorous anti-gun laws — if you want to own a firearm in the United Kingdom, you need to be prepared for a lengthy and bureaucratic process during which police determine whether you’re fit to own a weapon, and once you’ve obtained a permit, it can be easily revoked by the police.  Continue reading What can the internal gun politics of other countries teach the United States?