The assassination of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Japan may look like a rebuke of the country’s famously stringent gun laws.
But there is another view: that the shooting is a reminder of, and maybe even underscores, those restrictions’ success.
Experts who research gun laws stress that even the most stringent measures cannot totally erase the human capacity for violence. Rather, restrictions, if successful, can reduce both the severity of that violence as well as impose hurdles that make it less frequent.
The details of the shooting in Japan seem to demonstrate precisely how.
The shooter apparently used a crude handmade weapon made with electrical tape and metal tubes. Such weapons, known as zip guns or pipe guns, can be assembled with materials from most hardware stores, making them functionally impossible to track or prevent.
If the shooter’s ability to build and use such a device shows that gun restrictions cannot completely eliminate violence from a society, then it also demonstrates that such measures tend to make that violence rarer and less deadly.
Contrast this attack with the recent mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, where the gunman’s high-capacity, rapid-firing AR-15-style rifle enabled him to kill 19 children and two teachers. Another attacker used a similar rifle to quickly kill 10 at a Buffalo grocery store. Last week, another still murdered seven at a parade in Highland Park, Ill.
All those shooters had acquired their guns legally. These were just some of the 300-plus mass shootings in the United States this year alone, according to one count.
But in Japan such weapons are impossible to purchase legally, and not much easier to acquire illegally. Even simpler weapons like handguns are effectively banned.
The few legally acquirable weapons, mostly hunting rifles, can only be purchased after a screening and a training process so onerous that Japan has one of the world’s lowest firearm ownership rates: one gun per every 330 residents.
This figure includes an estimate of illegally owned weapons in Japan, which are thought to be rare in part because restrictions have all but erased private firearms from the country, leaving criminals with fewer black market weapons to purchase. Even the country’s notorious organized crime syndicates largely forgo guns.
American ownership, by contrast, is 1.2 guns for every resident, or 400 times Japan’s rate.
As a result, a would-be gunman in Japan is all but forced to resort to unusual and difficult methods such as constructing a homemade weapon like the one apparently used to kill Mr. Abe.
Building such a weapon requires time and expertise. Smoke at the scene of the shooting suggests that the ammunition, which is also tightly controlled in Japan, may have been homemade as well. Tinkering with what is effectively a homemade explosive shoved into a metal pipe would bring personal risk to its maker as well.
These are substantial obstacles compared with the ease of walking into a gun store and purchasing a weapon that will reliably fire off many rounds and not detonate in the shooter’s hand. This may be one of the reasons that shootings are exceedingly rare in Japan. The country experiences fewer than 10 gun deaths nationwide in most years, compared to tens of thousands in the United States. Since 2017, Japan has recorded 14 gun-related deaths, in a country of 125 million people.
And an improvised gun is far less effective than a commercially manufactured weapon, in some ways more akin to a homemade bomb, or an 18th-century musket (but without the range), than to a modern gun. It can often fire only one shot, perhaps two, before requiring a cumbersome reloading process. And its accurate range may be as little as a few feet.
As a result, an American-style shooter can, virtually on a whim, readily arm themselves with the firepower to kill large numbers of people before police can respond, targeting victims even hundreds of yards away.
But a Japanese shooter may require long stretches of dangerous preparation to build their weapon. They then must secret it to within feet of their victim and squeeze off what may be their only shot before they become effectively defenseless, and a bystander overpowers them.
This appears to be just what happened in Nara, the Japanese city where Mr. Abe was killed.
Skeptics of gun restrictions often argue that other factors must explain Japan’s low rate of gun violence or its frequency in the United States.
But for all the cultural and political peculiarities of these two societies, both fit neatly within a consistent global trend, one that has been repeatedly established in independent research. Countries with tighter gun laws have fewer guns in circulation, legal or illegal. And the fewer guns in a country, the fewer gun murders, mass shootings or political killings it experiences.
Underscoring this link, the handful of countries that have significantly tightened once-liberal gun laws, like Britain, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Norway, have seen their rates of gun violence and mass shootings drop substantially.
Activists argue that tightening gun laws not only saves lives but also allows a society as a whole to live in greater comfort and security, even if the risk of violence can never be eliminated entirely.
The circumstances surrounding Mr. Abe’s killing seem to highlight the difference between operating in a society with frequent gun violence and one with virtually none.
Mr. Abe traveled with little security. As is common in Japanese campaign stops, he mingled freely with voters, keeping almost no distance between himself and the crowd.
The ease with which a lone gunman could carry a tape-covered device up to Mr. Abe, once one of the world’s most powerful leaders, may lead some in Japan to rethink that openness.
Japan experienced significant political violence during fascism’s rise there in the early years of the 20th century, showing that it is hardly immune. But since World War II’s end, it has seen only a dozen or so political attacks. Most involved knives. Few were fatal.
From today’s vantage point, that long record of relative safety might appear shattered. But, even if Mr. Abe’s stature may cause the impact of this killing to linger in Japanese society, perceptions of Japan as safe have recovered from past attacks. This includes the fatal stabbing of a lawmaker in 2002, by far-right extremists, or the gun murder of a mayor in 2007 by a criminal group. It also includes instances of mass violence, like a 2016 knife attack that killed 19 people and a 1995 sarin gas attack by an extremist cult that killed 13.
For those outside of Japan, the assassination may seem incongruous with claims that Japan has found special success against gun violence. If its gun measures worked, why was a former leader just gunned down in broad daylight?
In the early 2010s, as Americans engaged in a bitter gun control debate in the wake of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, the world provided a similar moment of seeming contradiction.
China, which also has strict gun laws, experienced a spate of seemingly random knife attacks on schoolchildren. The attacks, which have continued, claim about a dozen lives every year. Wasn’t this proof, some Americans asked, that gun restrictions, having failed to stop the attacks in China, were ineffective against such violence?
But zoom out, and the contrast between China and the United States becomes instructive. China’s gun restrictions hardly prevented individuals from turning to indiscriminate violence. But compared with American mass shootings, Chinese knife attacks appear to be, on average, about one-tenth as deadly.
And that is when they occur at all: International media record perhaps two or three such incidents per year in China, compared to hundreds of mass shootings in the United States. In this sense, the relative death toll is near 1,000 to one.
Mr. Abe’s killing may provide an even starker contrast: It was shocking — and, indeed, only possible for the shooter to carry out — precisely because even the fear of gun violence is so rare.
It is an exception that may rock Japan for years to come, but it is also one that serves as a reminder of the thousands of gun murders that, compared to American rates, never take place there at all.