Japan Can Teach the US About Gun Control
New York Dr. César Chelala
A deadly epidemic is hitting the US and ordinary citizens are unable to stop it. The reason is simple: the laws protect the killers. And those responsible for making the laws have abdicated their responsibility. They do so even when the victims could be their children or grandchildren, engulfed in a wave of violence and death that is increasingly targeting schools. The Gun Violence Archive reports that mass shootings have increased from 269 in 2014 to 693 in 2021.
Lawmakers –mostly Republican—systematically refuse to enact effective legislation to control arms sales. This is frustrating to most Americans, who support stricter gun controls. In the meantime, kids go to school in constant fear that they will be the next victims of a mass shooting spree. According to Education Week, which has been tracking school shootings since 2018, there have been 27 school shootings from the beginning of this year until May 25.
“Most young shooters have been the victims of ACE—Adverse Childhood Experiences. These are the result of situational issues, the main ones being parental abuse, violent community life, problems at school, poverty. While these issues may surface at schools, there are severe limitations on what school personnel can do. Parental consent is always needed for interventions. Self-referral is unusual and unlikely in cases with familial problems. Many schools do not have psychological or social work services at all,” says Dr. Barbara Kantz, a retired college professor who taught Human Services at the State University of New York (SUNY).
About 40,000 Americans die each year of gun homicides, suicides or accidental shootings. In contrast, in Japan, a country of 127 million people, authorities report approximately 10 gun-deaths a year. One reason is that Japan has more effective gun control laws. While buying guns in the US is as easy as buying chewing gum, in Japan applicants must pass a long list of tests. They comprise a background check that includes interviews with friends and family and a thorough mental health evaluation which takes place at a hospital.
In addition, while guns don’t play a role in Japan’s civilian society, gun ownership (and accompanying violence) has become ingrained in the US mental outlook. Proud of his popularity, Donald Trump, the former TV personality and former US president, declared in Iowa during his presidential campaign, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” He said this as he continuously advocates for less control on the sale of guns, and for arming teachers as a way to curb school violence. Such a proposal would only institutionalize violence.
One cannot disregard the role of gender on the issue of gun violence in the US, since practically all mass shootings are carried out by males. This should be urgently addressed, particularly by teachers in the schools. They should put renewed emphasis on the value of compassion, kindness and solidarity in interpersonal relations.
The young men who commit these acts of violence are suffering sometimes from overt trauma including childhood neglect which can manifest as depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts and attempts; social isolation despite a desire to belong to a community of peers or others; and a feeling of powerlessness like suicide bombers - they have nothing to lose and these violent acts which are meant to be witnessed - in addition to being motivated by racism and hate - can be understood as manifestations of self-hate and a desire to appropriate power.
Local authorities often feel powerless at the lack of federal guidance to curb the universal accessibility of guns. Americans bought almost 20 million guns in 2021, the second busiest year on record. The Small Arms Survey of 2017 estimated that there were more guns than people in the US; in round figures 393 million firearms in a country of 326,474,000 inhabitants. Since not every person in the U.S. owns a gun, it means that many people own more than one.
President Biden has proposed several common-sense measures including a ban on assault weapons; expansion of background checks; obligatory safe storage of weapons; a “red-flag” law; and a repeal of the liability clause that shelters gun manufacturers from being sued. These are important measures.
They should be complemented, however, by enacting federal legislation aimed at stricter enforcement of gun registration; effective control of the manufacture, sale and import of firearms, and harsher penalties for violating these rules. In addition, severe penalties should be imposed on parents and other adults whose children have access to firearms owned legally and registered, or who give them as presents to their children.
Dr. Manuel Orlando García, a New York psychiatrist says about those legislators who are unwilling to pass any meaningful gun control legislation, “By defending freedom and life they get elected --noble aims-- but for them the life of an embryo counts more than the life of a child and the unrestricted freedom to buy weapons counts more than the freedom to be safe in a park or a school. They claim guns do not kill omitting to say that any person with a gun could become a killer when affected by intense emotions. No need to suffer a mental illness.”
Gun violence is a cultural and an economic problem, since lack of employment opportunities increases the risk of gun violence. As Rev. Gregory Boyle who works on this issue in East Los Angeles has said, “Nothing stops a bullet like a job.” One Summer Chicago Plus, a jobs program designed to prepare youth from some of the city’s most violent neighborhoods, saw a 43 percent drop in violent-crime arrests among its participants.
Japan has almost no deaths due to gun violence. Why cannot the US, the most powerful country in the world, do the same? Although recent measures to control gun ownership are useful, what is truly needed is an effective ban on gun sales, and education efforts to change a culture of violence to a culture of peace in the country.
Dr. César Chelala is an international public health consultant and an award-wining writer on human rights issues. He is the author of “Violence in the Americas”, a publication of the Pan American Health Organization.