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Gun Control or Self Control? A Comparison of Countries’ Gun Control Laws
Gun Control or Self Control? A Comparison of Countries’ Gun Control Laws

On Sunday October 1st, the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history took place in Las Vegas where 59 people were killed and over 500 people were injured. This was the 273rd mass shooting to take place in 2017. The question that everyone seems to ask after a horrific tragedy like this is why aren’t there better gun control laws in place that could prevent such a thing from happening?

Washington DC Mayor Vincent Gray (4th L) helps lead the March on Washington for Gun Control on the National Mall in Washington, January 26, 2013.

March on Washington for Gun Control on the National Mall in Washington, January 26, 2013.

This question can be answered in part by examining the National Rifle Association of America. The NRA has more than five million members and calls itself a civil rights organization. Its purpose is to defend every American’s Second Amendment right to bear arms. The NRA not only strives and succeeds to enact pro-gun legislation in Congress, but it also hampers any effort for much needed gun reform and control. The organization has proven to be a powerful player in politics, giving significant donations to members of Congress to ensure the protection of the Second Amendment right. The New York Times recently compiled a list of the top 10 politicians to receive the most amount of funding from the NRA. Included in this list are Senator John McCain who received $7,740,521, Senator Richard Burr who received $6,986,620, Senator Marco Rubio who received $3,303,355 and Representative French Hill who received $1,089,477. It is no surprise that these politicians, and the many others on this list, are members of the Republican Party. The NRA has historically donated to Republicans, who are generally responsible for the lack of legislation passed regarding gun control. Now that the Republican Party has majority control in Congress, there is even less hope that progress will be made towards gun control.

While the United States does have gun control laws, they vary considerably between states and can be vastly improved. Below we focus on assault weapons and related legislation for two reasons; first of all, assault weapons were the weapons of choice used in the recent Las Vegas massacre, and secondly, assault weapons are considered the deadliest type of firearm.

While there was a Federal Assault Weapons Ban in the United States adopted in 1994, it expired in 2004 and hasn't been renewed. Attempts to renew this ban, or to create a new ban, such as the 2013 Assault Weapons Ban, have failed. Out of the 50 states, 43 states have no law pertaining to assault weapons. Out of those 43 states, only 11 require a background check for the private sale of all guns. With these loose regulations, this makes the likelihood of a shooting incident even greater. A ban on assault weapons has been enacted in seven states: California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York. In addition, some local governments such as Washington D.C., Chicago, Boston, and Gary and East Chicago, Indiana have passed laws that ban or restrict the possession of assault weapons. These state and local governments have made an important step towards gun reform, however with the varying legislation across states, weapon transfers, trades, and sales are still easy to achieve, no matter differing state restrictions.

A statue of a knotted gun stands in front of United Nations Headquarters in New York City

The "Knotted Gun" sculpture stands outside the United Nations Headquarters in New York City as a symbol promoting disarmament.

The only way to prevent tragic mass shootings in the United States is to pass laws regarding gun reform and control. In the aftermath of the Las Vegas shooting, Congress considered banning bump stocks, the firearm accessory that allows semiautomatic weapons to be fired as rapidly as machine guns and other assault weapons. However, this legislation effort is not enough. We must have legislation that places rigorous restrictions on all forms of firearms, not just firearm accessories. Laws must also be uniform throughout the entire country so that there can be no loopholes when someone tries to get a gun. Lastly, this gun reform must include standardized laws on assault weapons, which have proven to be increasingly deadly in the U.S. and the most popular weapon used in the numerous devastating mass shootings that have taken place throughout modern U.S. history. After reading about the five countries listed below and their differing gun legislation, it is clear that the United States can learn a lot from them regarding gun regulation, reform, and control.

Canada

Compared the the United States, Canada’s gun laws are more strict and rigid. In order to own a gun, federal restrictions require a multitude of background checks and public safety courses. Weapons are split up into three classes consisting of: non restricted, restricted, and prohibited. Rifles and shotguns are placed under non restricted and entail less regulation than restricted guns like handguns and semiautomatics. Automatics are completely prohibited from the public. These strict laws were put into place in 1989 when a student killed fourteen students with a semiautomatic rifle. The incident drove gun legislation that pushed for registration of all long guns and the banning of more than half of all registered guns. Although the U.S. has had worse gun incidents than Canada, they have taken a much different route to gun control.

Japan

Compared to the United States, Japan has almost no gun-related crimes. According to the BBC, in 2014 there were just six gun deaths, compared to 33,599 in the US. That is a drastic difference. According to the same source, “if you want to buy a gun in Japan you have to attend an all-day class, take a written exam and pass a shooting-range test with a mark of at least 95%.” There are also extensive background tests one must go through, including criminal, mental health, and substance abuse tests. The police have the ultimate authority over gun ownership among the population, meaning that they can deny a person’s request to have a gun for any reason, and they are required to inspect a person’s gun once a year. According to the Atlantic, you must also provide police with your gun’s proper documentation, including the location of your gun and ammunition. These two items must also be stored separately. One very important thing to note is that handguns are completely banned in Japan. Only shotguns and rifles are allowed. After three years, your license to own a gun expires and you must attend the class and take the required tests again. In combination, these gun control laws certainly decrease the number of shootings the country faces, whether it be purposeful or accidental shootings.

Norway

Although gun ownership is high, Norway has one of the lowest gun homicide rates. According to Seierstad, the reason behind this is because the culture of gun ownership in Norway is completely different than in the U.S. Guns are used only one week during the year during elk season and for the rest of the year the guns are locked away. No one is otherwise armed -- including the police. Despite Norway having witnessed a massive attack that led to the murder of 77 people, Norway did not change their existing gun laws. The laws that are in place mostly deal with safety regarding the storage of guns, like mandatory gun safes and separating integral parts of the gun. Norway did not change its laws after the attack because they felt that changing laws would be the wrong response to their problem because “gun laws do not hit their target.” The argument in Norway is that those who are willing to break the law would not care about the regulations surrounding guns -- they would be able to obtain a firearm outside of the law. Nevertheless, the United States can still take away a valuable lesson from Norway about safe gun storage. During a study from 2005-2010, 3,800 people in the United States died from unintentional firearm injuries. Out of these 3,800 people, 1,300 were under the age of 25. This number would decrease if there were mandatory storage laws that kept young people and children from accidentally harming themselves or others.

Palau

Out of all the above-mentioned countries, Palau has the most restrictive gun control laws in place. According to GunPolicy.org, the right to private gun ownership among citizens of the country is not guaranteed by law. Civilians may not, in any way, transfer, possess, or lawfully acquire a firearm. Palau goes as far as punishing someone for up to 15 years in prison for illegally possessing a firearm. The only people who are allowed to have guns and ammunition are police and military personnel. Palau is a member of many international and regional arms treaties and agreements, such as the Pacific Islands Forum, which aims to harmonize small arms related legislation across Oceania. These agreements, in combination with the country’s strict domestic gun control laws make Palau one of the few countries with the lowest rate of gun ownership in the world.

While the replication of Palau’s gun control legislation in the United States would be ideal, it is not likely to happen. Instead, the U.S. could realistically improve their gun control laws by taking elements from each of the above countries’ gun legislation limiting civilian access to guns and ammunition. Like Canada, the U.S. could improve their legislation by requiring potential gun owners to go through a series of thorough background checks and public safety courses. The U.S. could require potential gun owners to take an all-day firearms class, a written exam, and a shooting range test, as Japan has done. With these in mind, the U.S. should also follow Japan’s lead in requiring gun owners to repeat this process every three years. The U.S. could follow Norway’s rules regarding the safekeeping of guns. The U.S. should specifically require gun owners to keep their firearms in a safe. This would drastically reduce the number of accidental firearm deaths in the U.S. While the United States will likely require more gun control policies than the ones mentioned above, these suggestions are a good place to start.

Learn More About Gun Control in Australia

You can learn about Australia’s approach to gun control, and how their country has adapted, in a recent post on our blog, “Almost No One Here Is Armed” by Rev. Rob MacPherson, Minister of the Unitarian Church of South Australia

About the Authors

  • Samantha Hussey is an intern with the NGO Committee on Disarmament, Peace, and Security (NGOCDPS) and is working closely with the Unitarian Universalist Association’s United Nations Office. She is also a student at the SUNY (State University of New York) Global Center studying...
  • Katia Altern is the Racial Justice Intern at the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office. She started at the UU-UNO in late June and will continue till December 2017. She is currently a sophomore studying Public Policy and Social Work at New York University. She is third...

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