Gun Laws, Culture, Justice & Crime In Foreign Countries

Posted on April 10, 2001

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Do other countries all have more restrictive gun laws and lower violent crime rates than the U.S.? How do U.S. and other countries` crime trends compare? What societal factors affect crime rates?

  • A recent report for Congress notes, "All countries have some form of firearms regulation, ranging from the very strictly regulated countries like Germany, Great Britain, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and Sweden to the less stringently controlled uses in the jurisdictions of Mexico and Switzerland, where the right to bear arms continues as a part of the national heritage up to the present time." However, "From available statistics, among (the 27) countries surveyed, it is difficult to find a correlation between the existence of strict firearms regulations and a lower incidence of gun-related crimes. . . . (I)n Canada a dramatic increase in the percentage of handguns used in all homicides was reported during a period in which handguns were most strictly regulated. And in strictly regulated Germany, gun-related crime is much higher than in countries such as Switzerland and Israel, that have simpler and/or less restrictive legislation." (Library of Congress, "Firearms Regulations in Various Foreign Countries, May 1998.")
  • Many foreign countries have less restrictive firearms laws, and lower crime rates, than parts of the U.S. that have more restrictions. And many have low crime rates, despite having very different firearms laws. Switzerland and Japan "stand out as intriguing models. . . . (T)hey have crime rates that are among the lowest in the industrialized world, and yet they have diametrically opposite gun policies." (Nicholas D. Kristof, "One Nation Bars, The Other Requires," New York Times, 3/10/96.) Swiss citizens are issued fully-automatic rifles to keep at home for national defense purposes, yet "abuse of military weapons is rare." The Swiss own two million firearms, including handguns and semi-automatic rifles, they shoot about 60 million rounds of ammunition per year, and "the rate of violent gun abuse is low." (Stephen P. Halbrook, Target Switzerland; Library of Congress, pp. 183-184.) In Japan, rifles and handguns are prohibited; shotguns are very strictly regulated. Japan`s Olympic shooters have had to practice out of the country because of their country`s gun laws. Yet, crime has been rising for about the last 15 years and the number of shooting crimes more than doubled between 1997-1998. Organized crime is on the rise and 12 people were killed and 5,500 injured in a nerve gas attack in a Japanese subway system in 1995. (Kristof, "Family and Peer Pressure Help Keep Crime Levels down in Japan," New York Times, 5/14/95.) Mostly without firearms, Japan`s suicide rate is at a record high, about 90 per day. (Stephanie Strom, "In Japan, Mired in Recession, Suicides Soar," New York Times, p. 1, 7/15/99.)
  • U.S. crime trends have been better than those in countries with restrictive firearms laws. Since 1991, with what HCI calls "weak gun laws" (Sarah Brady, "Our Country`s Claim to Shame," 5/5/97), the number of privately owned firearms has risen by perhaps 50 million. Americans bought 37 million new firearms in the 1993-1999 time frame alone. (BATF, Crime Gun Trace Reports, 1999, National Report, 11/00.) Meanwhile, America`s violent crime rate has decreased every year and is now at a 23- year low (FBI). In addition to Japan, other restrictive countries have experienced increases in crime:

England -- Licenses have been required for rifles and handguns since 1920, and for shotguns since 1967. A decade ago semi-automatic and pump-action center-fire rifles, and all handguns except single- shot .22s, were prohibited. The .22s were banned in 1997. Shotguns must be registered and semi-automatic shotguns that can hold more than two shells must be licensed. Despite a near ban on private ownership of firearms, "English crime rates as measured in both victim surveys and police statistics have all risen since 1981. . . . In 1995 the English robbery rate was 1.4 times higher than America`s. . . . the English assault rate was more than double America`s." All told, "Whether measured by surveys of crime victims or by police statistics, serious crime rates are not generally higher in the United States than England." (Bureau of Justice Statistics, "Crime and Justice in the United States and in England and in Wales, 1981-1996," 10/98.) An English doctor is suspected of murdering more than 200 people, many times the number killed in the gun-related crimes used to justify the most recent restrictions.

"A June 2000 CBS News report proclaimed Great Britain `one of the most violent urban societies in the Western world.` Declared Dan Rather: `This summer, thousands of Americans will travel to Britain expecting a civilized island free from crime and ugliness. . . (But now) the U.K. has a crime problem . . . worse than ours.`" (David Kopel, Paul Gallant, and Joanne Eisen, "Britain: From Bad to Worse," America`s First Freedom, 3/01, p. 26.) Street crime increased 47% between 1999 and 2000 (John Steele, "Crime on streets of London doubles," London Daily Telegraph, Feb. 29, 2000.) See also www.2ndlawlib.org/journals/okslip.html, www.nationalreview.com/comment/comment071800c.html, and www.nraila.org/research/19990716-BillofRightsCivilRights-030.html.

Australia -- Licensing of gun owners was imposed in 1973, each handgun requires a separate license, and self-defense is not considered a legitimate reason to have a firearm. Registration of firearms was imposed in 1985. In May 1996 semi-automatic center-fire rifles and many semi-automatic and pump-action shotguns were prohibited. As of Oct. 2000, about 660,000 privately owned firearms had been confiscated and destroyed. However, according to the Australian Institute of Criminology, between 1996-1998 assaults rose 16 percent, armed robberies rose 73 percent, and unlawful entries rose eight percent. Murders increased slightly in 1997 and decreased slightly in 1998. (Jacob Sullum, "Guns down under," Reason, Australia, p. 10, 10/1/00) For more information on Australian crime trends, see www.nraila.org/research/20000329-BanningGuns-001.shtml.

Canada -- A 1934 law required registration of handguns. A 1977 law (Bill C-51) required a "Firearms Acquisition Certificate" for acquiring a firearm, eliminated protection of property as a reason for acquiring a handgun, and required registration of "restricted weapons," defined to include semi- automatic rifles legislatively attacked in this country under the slang and confusing misnomer, "assault weapon." The 1995 Canadian Firearms Act (C-68) prohibited compact handguns and all handguns in .32 or .25 caliber -- half of privately owned handguns. It required all gun owners to be licensed by Jan. 1, 2000, and to register all rifles and shotguns by Jan. 1, 2003. C-68 broadened the police powers of "search and seizure" and allowed the police to enter homes without search warrants, to "inspect" gun storage and look for unregistered guns. Canada has no American "Fifth Amendment;" C-68 requires suspected gun owners to testify against themselves. Because armed self-defense is considered inappropriate by the government, "Prohibited Weapons Orders" have prohibited private possession and use of Mace and similar, non-firearm means of protection. (For more information, see www.cfc- ccaf.gc.ca and www.nraila.org/research/20010215-InternationalGunControl-001.shtml.

From 1978 to 1988, Canada`s burglary rate increased 25%, surpassing the U.S. rate. Half of burglaries in Canada are of occupied homes, compared to only 10% in the U.S. From 1976 to 1980, ethnically and economically similar areas of the U.S. and Canada had virtually identical homicide rates, despite significantly different firearm laws. See also www.nationalreview.com/kopel/kopel120700.shtml

Germany -- Described in the Library of Congress report as "among the most stringent in Europe," Germany`s laws are almost as restrictive as those which HCI wants imposed in the U.S. Licenses are required to buy or own a firearm, and to get a license a German must prove his or her "need" and pass a government test. Different licenses are required for hunters, recreational shooters, and collectors. As is the case in Washington, D.C., it is illegal to have a gun ready for defensive use in your own home. Before being allowed to have a firearm for protection, a German must again prove "need." Yet the annual number of firearm-related murders in Germany rose 76% between 1992-1995. (Library of Congress, p. 69.) It should be noted, HCI goes further than the Germans, believing "there is no constitutional right to self-defense" (HCI Chair Sarah Brady, quoted in Tom Jackson, "Keeping the Battle Alive," Tampa Tribune, 10/21/93) and "the only reason for guns in civilian hands is sporting purposes" (HCI`s Center to Prevent Handgun Violence Director, Dennis Henigan, quoted in USA Today, 11/20/91).

Italy -- There are limits on the number of firearms and the quantity of ammunition a person may own. To be issued a permit to carry a firearm, a person must prove an established need, such as a dangerous occupation. Firearms which use the same ammunition as firearms used by the military -- which in America would include countless millions of rifles, shotguns, and handguns -- and ammunition for them are prohibited. Yet, "Italy`s gun law, `the most restrictive in Europe,` had left her southern provinces alone with a thousand firearm murders a year, thirty times Switzerland`s total." (Richard A. I. Munday, Most Armed & Most Free?, Brightlingsea, Essex: Piedmont Publishing, 1996.)

Foreign Country Cultures, Law Enforcement Policies, and Criminal Justice Systems

While America is quite different from certain countries in terms of firearms laws, we are just as different from those countries in other respects which have a much greater influence on crime rates. Attorney David Kopel explains, "There is little evidence that foreign gun statutes, with at best a mixed record in their own countries, would succeed in the United States. Contrary to the claims of the American gun-control movement, gun control does not deserve credit for the low crime rates in Britain, Japan, or other nations. Despite strict and sometimes draconian gun controls in other nations, guns remain readily available on the criminal black market. . . . The experiences of (England, Japan, Canada, and the United States) point to social control as far more important than gun control. Gun control (in foreign countries) validates other authoritarian features of the society. Exaltation of the police and submission to authority are values, which, when internally adopted by the citizenry, keep people out of trouble with the law. The most important effect of gun control in Japan and the Commonwealth is that it reinforces the message that citizens must be obedient to the government." (The Samurai, The Mountie, and The Cowboy: Should America adopt the gun controls of other democracies?, Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1992, pp. 431.)

Kopel notes that crime is also suppressed in some foreign countries by law enforcement and criminal justice policies that would run afoul of civil rights protections in the U.S. Constitution and which the American people would not accept. "Foreign gun control comes along with searches and seizures, and with many other restrictions on civil liberties too intrusive for America," Kopel observes. "Foreign gun control . . . postulates an authoritarian philosophy of government and society fundamentally at odds with the individualist and egalitarian American ethos. In the United States, the people give the law to government, not, as in almost every other country, the other way around." Following are details for two countries which anti-gun activists often compare to the U.S.:

Britain -- Parliament increasingly has given the police power to stop and search vehicles as well as pedestrians. Police may arrest any person they "reasonably" suspect supports an illegal organization. The grand jury, an ancient common law institution, was abolished in 1933. Civil jury trials have been abolished in all cases except libel, and criminal jury trials are rare. . . . While America has the Miranda rules, Britain allows police to interrogate suspects who have asked that interrogation stop, and allows the police to keep defense lawyers away from suspects under interrogation for limited periods. Britain allows evidence which has been derived from a coerced confession to be used in court. Wiretaps do not need judicial approval and it is unlawful in a British court to point out the fact that a police wiretap was illegal." (Kopel, 1992, pp. 101-102.)

Recently, London law enforcement authorities began installing cameras overlooking selected intersections in the city`s business district, to observe passers-by on the sidewalks. The British Home Office has introduced "`Anti-Social Behaviour Orders` -- special court orders intended to deal with people who cannot be proven to have committed a crime, but whom the police want to restrict anyway. Behaviour Orders can, among other things, prohibit a person from visiting a particular street or premises, set a curfew or lead to a person`s eviction from his home. Violation of a Behaviour Order can carry a prison sentence of up to five years. Prime Minister Tony Blair is now proposing that the government be allowed to confine people proactively, based on fears of their potential danger to society." (Kopel, et al., 2001, p. 27.)

"The British government frequently bans books on national security grounds. In addition, England`s libel laws tend to favor those who bring suit against a free press. Prior restraint of speech in the United States is allowed only in the most urgent of circumstances. In England, the government may apply for a prior restraint of speech ex parte, asking a court to censor a newspaper without the newspaper even having notice or the opportunity to present an argument. . . . Free speech in Great Britain is also constrained by the Official Secrets Act, which outlaws the unauthorized receipt of information from any government agency, and allows the government to forbid publication of any `secret` it pleases. . . . The act was expanded in 1920 and again in 1989 -- times when gun controls were also expanded." (Kopel, 1991, pp. 99-102.)

Japan -- Citizens have fewer protections of the right to privacy, and fewer rights for criminal suspects, than in America. Every person is the subject of a police dossier. Japanese police routinely search citizens at will and twice a year pay "home visits" to citizens` residences. Suspect confession rate is 95% and trial conviction rate is more than 99.9%. The Tokyo Bar Assn. has said that the Japanese police routinely engage in torture or illegal treatment. Even in cases where suspects claimed to have been tortured and their bodies bore the physical traces to back their claims, courts have still accepted their confessions. Amnesty International calls Japan`s police custody system "a flagrant violation of United Nations human rights principles." Suspects can be held and interrogated for 28 days without being brought before a judge, compared with no more than two days in many other nations. They aren`t allowed legal counsel during interrogation, when in custody may be visited by only criminal defense lawyers, are not allowed to read confessions before they sign them, and have no right to trial by jury. (Kopel, 1991, pp. 23-26.)

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