A Global Comparison of Gun Policy

Allie Carter (CMC ’19)

Gun control in the United States has been a topic of discussion for years, inspired by waves of mass killings of civilians by gunmen. In the span of a month, there were two major rampages by gunmen–one at a Las Vegas music festival and the other at a Texan church service. The Las Vegas shooting is now the most deadly shooting in modern U.S. history, as 59 civilians were killed and 527 were injured. Legislation has been occasionally proposed and enacted to limit the availability of military-style weapons but has proven to be fairly ineffective. An analysis of gun policies in other countries, such as Australia, Israel, Norway, and Japan, could help legislators identify the best route to limiting the occurrences of fatal mass shootings.    

Americans own more guns per capita than residents of any other country. Advocates for access to firearms and numerous Supreme Court cases have cited the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution as means to justify the government’s right to regulate firearms. This amendment states, “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.” Gun zealots hold access to firearms a privilege fundamental to American tradition, which has inspired a vibrant gun culture in the U.S. There are existing laws that introduce standards for firearm regulation, such as the Gun Control Act of 1968 and the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act. The Gun Control Act of 1968 banned the sale of firearms to individuals under 18 years of age, the mentally ill, those with criminal records, and illegal aliens. The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, enacted in 1993, expanded the Gun Control Act of 1968 and necessitated background checks for unlicensed individuals purchasing firearms from licensed dealers.

President Obama’s time in office was characterized by increased measures to reduce gun violence. In January 2016, he announced a collection of executive actions intended to limit gun violence, including the requirement for dealers selling firearms to secure federal licenses and administer background checks of potential buyers, with the ambition of closing legal loopholes that have enabled criminals and others to purchase weapons without FBI screening. This is significant, as a study conducted by Harvard and Northeastern University approximates that 20% of gun purchases occur without a background check. President Obama justified his decision to enact legal change under his own authority because Congress had failed to pass “common-sense gun safety reforms.” Despite the strides made by President Obama, there are still no federal laws that prohibit semiautomatic assault weapons that are common to many mass shootings and are even more lethal than the typical firearm.

Stricter legislation and gun policy in other countries have controlled and largely prevented mass shootings from occurring as regularly as they do in the U.S. Before 1996, Australia had a gun culture arguably as vibrant as the U.S. However, the Port Arthur massacre that killed 35 individuals and wounded 23 others inspired crucial changes to the nation’s gun laws within two weeks of the massacre. The National Agreement on Firearms essentially banned automatic and semiautomatic assault rifles, initiated a short-term gun buyback program that bought back roughly 650,000 firearms, and necessitated potential buyers of firearms to illustrate a “genuine need” for his or her gun and to enroll in a firearm safety course. These regulations were implemented by a largely conservative federal government, whose political ideology came second place to the safety of their citizens. The measures taken by the Australian federal government were exceedingly successful, as there have not been any mass shootings in Australia since the Port Arthur massacre in 1996.

Another country with low incidences of gun-related deaths and mass shootings is Israel, despite being a highly militaristic society. As military service is required in Israel, guns are fairly commonplace. The 18 year-olds who are drafted in Israel are psychologically screened, undergo weapons training, and must comply with civilian gun laws upon completing their service. Civilian gun laws ban assault-weapons and require a license for gun ownership. To receive a license, one must be an Israeli citizen, speak Hebrew, and demonstrate a sincere need to own a gun.  

Gun culture in Norway is intriguing, as gun laws are stringent, but ownership rates are fairly high. Gun control had not been a topic of discussion in Norway until extremist Anders Behring Breivik killed 77 people when attacking an island summer camp in 2011. U.S. analysts reference this massacre as evidence that rigid gun laws can at times be ineffective. Analyst Charles C.W. Cooke wrote, “those who are willing to break the laws against murder do not care about the regulation of firearms, and will get a hold of weapons whether doing so is legal or not.” Uniquely, most Norwegian police do not carry firearms. Other analysts have asserted that had the Norwegian police been carrying firearms, Breivik could have been stopped earlier. However, Norway remains content with their rigid firearm regulations, as there have been no more shootings since the Breivik massacre.

Japan’s disclination towards firearms stems from the country’s demilitarization post World War II. Firearm regulations are rigid, as most guns are illegal. Under Japan’s firearm and sword law, only guns that have industrial purposes or those used for competitions are legal. Further, to be able to obtain a firearm, one must receive official instruction and be successful in a series of written, psychological, and drug tests and a meticulous background check. What’s more, owners must communicate to the Japanese government how the firearm and ammunition are stored and submit the firearm for a yearly examination. Japanese citizens are more inclined to consent to police searches and seizures than their American counterparts, which also make the firearms ban very enforceable.  

An international outlier, the United State’s gun culture and gun policy are starkly different than other countries. There is no perfect universal policy, as discrepancies exist between all countries, such culture, size, and historical context that determine how effective policy can be implemented. However, the stricter legislation and gun policy in all countries besides the United States may have largely controlled and prevented mass shootings from occurring regularly. While some overseas measures may be impractical, increased gun regulations may promise to yield results similar to those in countries with stricter regulations.   

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