Connecticut Shootings and Japanese Firearm Law

I’m going to express what is likely to be a very unpopular opinion: legislation-based gun control in the US will not work. The reasons other countries have lower crime rates have far more to do with differences in their societies and culture than any laws against firearms that are in place. The most wrong-headed “comparison” I’ve yet seen in the wake of the Connecticut shooting is looking to Japan as a positive example of a complete firearm ban that works. The first problem I have is in pointing to Japan’s minuscule double-digit firearm death figure as if it means something. Japan’s overall violent crime rate is about one tenth of that of the US’s, so even if you were just counting fistfights, Japan would look like a Sunday bingo game in a Florida rest home compared to complementary beer-and-crank night at a biker bar. It doesn’t mean anything in this context.

Is gun crime nearly non-existent in Japan? Yes. Is overall violent crime and murder lower in Japan? Dramatically yes. Does Japan still have shootings? Yes. Does Japan still have murders? Yes. Do they have some particularly grisly murders? You betcha.

If you really wanted Japan-style gun control to work, first you’d have to go back in time and subject Americans to a couple of hundred years under a repressive military regime that forcibly disarmed the entire populace, and kept everyone in line through brutal collective capital punishment if even one person in an area showed signs of resistance. Then you’d have to be willing to substantially change Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Amendment rights, along with completely repealing the Second Amendment.

You’d also have to be willing to live in a police state. Lefties, if you thought the Patriot Act was an affront to civil rights, you haven’t really seen anything. Righties … well, better hope God helps you, because you would really not like Japan-style centralized and standardized homogeneity. Japan is a police state — an ostensibly friendly and community-oriented police state, but don’t fool yourself, the police are centrally organized, they have broad powers, and they explicitly function as a tool of the central government.

The social cost would be high, probably higher than any American would be willing to pay. One of trade offs the Japanese made for a peaceful society was a stifling level of social control on top of the strong, centrally organized police force. One side-effect of these social pressures is an adult suicide rate higher than virtually any other industrial country, usually at least double that of the US annual rate in any given year.

Associative guilt is part of the cultural landscape. If someone is accused of doing something wrong, everyone they know is automatically suspect of wrongdoing. It’s normal for parents to apologize publicly for crimes their children may be accused of, prior to any conviction. In fact, sufficiently abject apologies and expressions of remorse can lead to lenient sentences if convicted, or even dismissal of charges in some cases.

Friends and acquaintances will disassociate themselves from the accused. Just being accused of a crime — even without being convicted — can be grounds for dismissal from your job, and unlike the US, you will have few grounds for disputing it or collecting any civil damages. In some cases (like mine) your contract explicitly stipulates that an arrest will result in termination without recourse.

You don’t need to be guilty of anything to be arrested. This is why most people in Japanese society don’t even want to appear to be doing anything wrong. You don’t have to be convicted to destroy your life, you just have to look guilty enough to be arrested. You don’t bear the burden of an actual crime on your own, you affect your family, friends, and anyone who was known to be associated with you.

Youth crime is very low partly due to the school system, which has tiers of institutions. This means that almost everyone in their teens attends some kind of school, and they’re heavily supervised and controlled at school. Semi-mandatory involvement in club activities mean that school hours extend well into the evening. The universal use of school uniforms means that trouble-makers can often be quickly identified in the scant time the kids might have between school and home. Police involvement in the community is high, which also has a curbing effect on crime of any sort.

Conviction rates for prosecutions are disturbingly high. So, if you are actually prosecuted for a crime, you are going to prison. If you receive the death penalty, you will be hanged at some undetermined point in the future, and your family will be informed after the fact.

According to Article 38 of the post-War constitution, a criminal prosecution should not have a confession as its primary or only evidence. In practice, confessions are still key, and the lengths that police will go to in the extraction of a confession can be abusive, in contravention of international law, and bordering on actual torture in some cases. People have been deprived of food, beaten, deprived of sleep, questioned for hours or even days by shifts of interrogators, and forced to assume stress positions, just as a few examples. There were a couple of publicly embarrassing cases that may lead to reforms that will finally end these kinds of abuses. Eventually.

Even in the absence of actual abuse, you have very few rights if you’re being held by the police. In the most benign of circumstances, you will at least be isolated and subjected to prolonged and repeated interrogation without any advocate to support you. You probably will not be allowed to contact anyone at all to inform them of your whereabouts. You do have a right to counsel, but don’t have a right to have a lawyer present during questioning. Foreigners have complained of incompetent or inadequate translation from third-party translators — or of the complete absence of a neutral translator, having only one of the police officers serving as a translator — among other treatment that is frankly shocking to most Westerners.

You will be heavily pressured to sign a confession and will probably be told that signing a confession of guilt can expedite your release, even if you maintain that you are innocent. You can be held for up to two days without being charged with anything at all. Charges must be offered after this time, and this is usually when the person under arrest actually finds out what he or she was arrested for, and also when they are informed of the right to counsel. An optional petition to a judge for an extra 10 to 20 days is nearly always granted. The justice system is not an adversarial one like the US.

You are not presumed innocent.

The nitty-gritty of the actual steps you need to take to obtain a firearm seem almost lenient when you think about it in the background of the justice system. Dave Kopel did a full report on the rules in the 90s that is still probably the best English resource. First, you have to provide a reason for wanting a gun. Some of the things you must do to own a gun in Japan are: fill out volumes of paperwork, pass repeated interviews with police, provide proof positive that you’re not crazy, give a detailed map of where you store the guns, a key to the mandatory safe, and carte blanche to police to enter your home and search to confirm the presence of the guns and even count the ammunition at any time the police feel like it. In effect, you waive what Americans would consider your Fourth Amendment rights.

Gun violence is very low in Japan because no one but the government ever really had access to guns in the first place — a tradition that has continued for centuries. In theory, the Japanese Constitution provides protection of most of the same rights Americans are used to thinking of as the Bill of Rights. But because there is no tradition at all of personal rights, the Japanese people accept laws and customs that effectively contravene their constitutional rights, and that place restrictions on personal freedoms and privacy that Americans would never willingly live under.

And they still have shootings.

They also have incidents like:

  • A 12 year old girl who cut up another girl with a utility knife.
  • A teenager who cut off his mother’s head and carried it around with him until he was arrested at an internet cafe.
  • Various other stabbings and bludgeonings, including the infamous case of a 14 year old who cut off his 11 year old victim’s head and stuck it on the school gates.
  • A knife attack at a school in Osaka that left 8 children dead and 13 children and teachers wounded.
  • A combination truck and knife attack in Akihabara that killed 7 and injured 10.

No matter what you do, you’re not going to stop any and all massacres. Nothing, not even universal disarmament, broad police powers, and oppressive social control does. Not even in Japan. Would you be willing to make the necessary changes to American society and the legal system in addition to the feel-good band-aid of “banning” certain classes of firearms in order to actually make it work?

Personally, I think that if enough public sentiment pushes legislation through the system, we’ll end up with either severely curtailed rights — not just gun rights — or a level of civil disobedience and an associated crime boom the likes of which we haven’t seen since Prohibition.

Further reading on the police and justice system in Japan:

U.S. Police Walk Different Beat in Japan (PDF)

The Enigma of Japanese Power (Book)

Comparative Criminology: Japan

A couple of relatively recent articles on Japanese confessions, connected to the cases that led to calls for reforms, which have still largely not been implemented:

BBC News: ‘Forced Confessions’ in Japan

Japan Times: Court acquits man but kept lid on forced confession