TOKYO (AP) — News that former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had been shot in broad daylight Friday shocked not only Japan but the entire world, which has come to associate the relatively low-crime nation with strict gun control.
Japan, with a population of 125 million, had just 10 gun-related criminal cases last year, resulting in one death and four injuries, according to police. Eight of those cases were gang-related. Tokyo had zero gun incidents, injuries or deaths during that same year, although 61 guns were seized there.
Much remains unclear about the motive and identity of the suspect in Friday’s attack, who was taken into custody at the scene. Abe, Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, was shot while campaigning in Nara in western Japan for candidates for his ruling party and died later in a hospital. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for Sunday.
Although major universities in Japan have riflery clubs and Japanese police are armed, most Japanese go through life without ever handling, or even seeing, a real gun.
Stabbings are more common as a fatal crime. And so the debate over the right to bear arms is a distant issue in Japan and has been for decades.
“Japanese people are in a state of shock,” said Shiro Kawamoto, professor at the College of Risk Management at Nihon University in Tokyo.
The campaign event where the attack occurred drew a huge crowd of people, making security a challenge, Kawamoto said.
“This serves as a wake-up call that gun violence can happen in Japan, and security to protect Japanese politicians must be re-examined,” he said. “To assume this kind of attack will never happen would be a big mistake.”
Adding to the complexity were reports that the weapon used in the shooting may have been homemade, meaning that existing gun controls could be ineffectual.
Speculation is already rife that Abe’s security personnel may face serious questions. But such an attack is extraordinary in Japan, making relatively light security the norm, even for former prime ministers.
The last time a high-profile shooting occurred was in 2019, when a former gang member was shot at a karaoke venue in Tokyo.
Under Japanese law, possession of firearms, as well as certain kinds of knives and other weapons, like bowguns, is illegal without a special license. Importing them is also illegal.
Those who wish to own firearms must go through a stringent background check, including clearance by a medical doctor, and declare information about family members. They must also pass tests to show they know how to use firearms correctly. Those who pass and purchase a gun must also buy a special locking system for the weapon at the same time.
Passing all those hurdles will allow that person to shoot at clay targets. Hunting requires an additional special license. Even police officers rarely resort to firing their pistols.
The weapon used in the attack on Abe likely was a “craft-made” firearm, according to N.R. Jenzen-Jones, the director of Armament Research Services, a specialist arms investigations firm.
He compared the likely weapon to a Civil War-era musket, in which the gunpowder or the propellant is loaded separately to the bullet projectile.
“Firearms legislation in Japan is very restrictive, so I think what we’re seeing here, with what’s probably a muzzle-loading weapon, is not just an attempt to circumvent the control of firearms, but also the strict control of ammunition in Japan,” he said.
Associated Press Writer Jon Gambrell in Lviv, Ukraine contributed to this report.
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