An Open Letter to the Japanese People

By David B. Kopel

Liberty magazine, May 2000 issue, pp. 19-20. More by Kopel on gun control in Japan.

In the past several years, the Japanese government has worked very hard in the United Nations, and in nations around the world, to spread its gun prohibition policies all over the globe. From funding gun-buybacks in South Africa, to presenting petitions against gun possession by Americans, to pushing for major United Nations policies against private gun ownership, Japan has turned gun prohibition into one of the nation's major exports. But this aggressive export campaign, as applied to the United States, is premised on a deep misunderstanding, and a failure to understand the important differences between Japan and many other nations the United States.

In Japan, there is little need to own a firearm for protection against crime, but in America, although crime has declined in recent years, the violent crime rate remains very high -- in large part as a result of mistakes made by Americans in the past. Unlike the Japanese, white Americans kidnapped slaves from Africa, and, after the slaves were freed, kept black people in miserably poor conditions. Much of America's current crime is a direct result of prior racist mistreatment of black people.

In addition, the American police spend an enormous amount of their resources enforcing the drug laws; consequently, there are fewer police resources to fight violent crime.

And, of course, America's government-run schools are a disaster. Many students graduate from American high schools unable to read; such people often find that they cannot find a job which will pay as well as does a life of crime.

With so much crime, police are simply unable to protect all people at all times. In fact, under the legal doctrine of "sovereign immunity," American police forces have no legal obligation to protect people before a crime is committed; police only have the legal duty to investigate crime after it has taken place.

If the government in Japan failed to supply clean drinking water, people would find their own water. In the United States, where the government cannot provide personal security, people provide their own.

Firearms are an option that many people choose for security. On the whole, firearms in the hands of law-abiding people make America safer than it would otherwise be. According to criminologist Gary Kleck of Florida State University, Americans use firearms over two million times a year to defend themselves against criminal attack. (Most of the time, crime victims do not need to fire the gun; simply displaying the gun is enough to frighten the criminal away.)

About half of all American homes contain a gun, and the prevalence of guns in American households plays a major role in reducing burglary. An American burglar's chance of getting shot is about equal to his chance of getting caught and going to jail. In countries such as Great Britain, Canada, or Australia, where people are not allowed to own guns for protection, the burglary rate is much higher than in the United States.

Burglars in America generally break in during the daytime. They take the extra risk of daylight entry because they realize that if they break in at night, people are more likely to be at home, and the burglar stands a good chance of getting shot.

Burglars in other English-speaking countries, in contrast, are much more willing to attack a home when people are present.

Another reason so many Americans choose to own guns is the example set by government. The Japanese police almost never draw their revolvers, and instead use their expertise in judo and other martial arts to subdue criminals. In America, on the other hand, about one person a day is fatally shot by the police. The frequent use of guns by American police legitimates the use of guns in general.

Although hundreds of thousands of Japanese have signed petitions demanding that the American government ban the possession of guns in the home, such a measure would be unlikely to succeed. Whenever American cities or states have enacted laws forbidding the possession of particular types of guns, or simply requiring that people tell the government what kinds of guns they own, most Americans have refused to obey such laws. Depending on the law and the region, disobedience rates range from 75% to 98%. In the case of a prohibition against owning guns in the home, at least 50-60 million Americans in at least 38-50 million households would refuse to comply.

The American criminal justice system, which cannot even control a few hundred thousand violent criminals at present, would simply collapse under the weight of 50 million new "criminals."

And, incredible as it may sound to Japanese, many Americans would shoot a policeman who came to confiscate their guns. And perhaps even more incredibly(from a Japanese viewpoint), the American Constitution implicitly endorses such behavior. Americans are, in their hearts, deeply afraid of the dangers of government abuse.

The Second Amendment of the American Constitution guarantees the right to own and carry firearms. The historical record shows that the core purpose of the Second Amendment was to ensure that if the central government ever became dictatorial, the American people would be able to overpower it. The people who wrote the American Constitution presumed that any government that would confiscate guns would be doing so as a first step toward enslaving or murdering the people.

Indeed, the Japanese historical experience validates the importance of an armed populace. As the Japanese historian Hidehiro Sonada explains, the military was able to dominate Japan in the 1920s, 30s, and early 40s partly because "The army and the navy were vast organizations with a monopoly on physical violence. There was no force in Japan that could offer any resistance."

Many Americans would not be surprised that when the dictator Hidéyoshi disarmed Japan in 1588 with the Sword Hunt, he did so because, as he put it, the possession of weapons by peasants "makes difficult the collection of taxes and tends to foment uprisings."

And once the peasantry had been disarmed, it became increasingly oppressed. American historian Stephen Turnbull notes that after the Sword Hunt was completed, "The growing social mobility of peasants was thus flung suddenly into reverse." Having once enjoyed the freedom to choose jobs as they pleased, the disarmed peasants were forbidden to leave their land without their superior's permission.

To many Japanese (and to the American lobbies which advocate disarming the people) the idea that an armed populace could resist a powerful army seems preposterous. But as America learned in Vietnam, Russia learned in Afghanistan, and Japan learned in Manchuria, an armed population can wear down even the mightiest imperial army. Indeed, the United States won its own independence in 1783 after armed citizens using their own muskets, rifles, and handguns, fought an eight-year war against the mighty British Empire.

The American ownership of guns is deeply tied to American concepts of individualism, self-protection and freedom from oppressive government. To Japanese, whose orientation tends to focus on the group rather than the individual, the American attitude may seem absurd or even barbaric. But just as Japanese would resent and reject Americans who gathered petitions telling the Japanese how to run their own affairs, Americans will not change their ways based on pressure from abroad. Perhaps the best path to international harmony between America and Japan is for each nation to respect the other nation's basic values, and not attempt to force one country to become like the other.

David B. Kopel is the author of "The Samurai, the Mountie, and the Cowboy: Should America Adopt the Gun Controls of Other Democracies?" He is a scholar at the Independence Institute, a public policy research organization,

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