Headline-grabbing gun crimes mar safe image


Japan, whose strict gun controls have long helped its image as the safest industrialized nation, has recently seen its reputation slip in the wake of headline-making shootings.

Nagasaki Mayor Itcho Ito was gunned down by a yakuza during his re-election campaign on April 17; a mobster holed himself up April 20 in an apartment in Machida, western Tokyo, after fatally shooting a fellow yakuza; a former gangster in Nagakute, Aichi Prefecture, shot and wounded his two children and a police officer May 17 and fatally shot an assault squad officer the next day.

These incidents have fueled concerns that gun crimes, previously considered mainly to be in the realm of the underworld, may pose a more widespread threat to the general public. Here are some questions and answers about the issue:

Who are allowed to possess guns?

The Firearms and Sword Control Law, which was legislated in 1958, bans possessing, importing, trading and discharging firearms. Model guns modified to have lethal capabilities have also been banned.

The first group allowed to possess firearms are public servants whose duties may require weapons, including police officers and Self-Defense Forces members.

They have to obey tight rules on carrying and using guns.

The second group is private citizens who use rifles and shotguns for hunting and target shooting. They must be licensed by prefectural police after undergoing thorough screening to ensure they satisfy requirements and training. They must renew their license every three years.

According to the National Police Agency, 388,856 rifles and shotguns were legally possessed by citizens as of the end of 2005.

How many illegal guns are circulating in Japan?

There are no official estimates, said Okinobu Hirai, chief superintendent of police at the NPA’s drugs and firearms division.

But if every yakuza in the underworld, led by the Yamaguchi-gumi, was in possession of one firearm, media estimates suggest there could be up to 100,000 illegal guns in circulation.

The estimates are roughly based on police head counts of yakuza last year. The NPA says underworld syndicate members totaled 84,700 — 41,500 full-time and 43,200 semiregular members — as of the end of December.

But Tetsuya Tsuda, a journalist who has covered gun control issues, indicated the number may be less than 50,000, because shootings involving gangsters are on the decline and the punishment for illegally discharging firearms has been toughened since the 1990s.

How does the mob get guns?

The primary route is smuggling. Of 407 handguns seized last year, excluding 51 illegally modified model guns, a combined 265 were produced in the United States, the Philippines, Belgium, Russia, China, Brazil, Germany, Italy and Spain, and 68 were made in Japan. Police could not identify the origin of the remaining 74.

According to the NPA’s Hirai, some guns get into Japan via international mail. Mobsters can also easily rendezvous with gunrunners at sea, aided by technological advances, including the Global Positioning System and mobile phones, he said.

Is it easy for ordinary citizens to get their hands on illegal guns?

As more people shop on the Internet and go abroad, they have more chances to purchase guns, but most illegal firearms in Japan are possessed by yakuza, Hirai said.

In 2006, police confiscated 28 guns that were traded on the Internet. None of the cases involved mobsters, however.

How many illegal firearms are seized annually?

Including illegally modified model weapons, police seized 458 handguns last year. The number has been declining from a postwar record 1,880 confiscated in 1995.

But the NPA’s Hirai said the decrease does not mean police have successfully eradicated illegal guns. On the contrary, mobsters have become more sophisticated in concealing firearms after the gun control law was revised in 1995 to impose tougher punishment for discharging illegal firearms, he said, citing cases in which yakuza stashed guns under toilets in vacant houses that were watched over by people not directly in the mob.

Journalist Tsuda pointed out that more illegal guns are evading crackdowns because police are more reluctant to employ strong-arm tactics than in the past, after revelations in 1995 that they occasionally resorted to illegal tactics to seize weapons.

Police in Nagasaki, Ehime and Gunma prefectures were arrested that year for financing mobsters’ gun purchases or acquiring firearms for yakuza, apparently in a bid to boost firearm seizure statistics.

The officers would first nab mobsters for petty crimes and then persuade them to acquire guns under the impression that they would receive leniency. The firearms would then later be seized, according to media reports.

How many shootings took place in Japan last year and how many people were killed and wounded?

2006 saw 53 shooting cases, including 36 involving mobsters. Two people were killed and 17 wounded. In 1992, when the revised antigang law took effect, there were 222 shootings, causing 21 fatalities.

Hirai of the NPA said tougher penalties have curbed gang wars. Under the antigang law, for instance, local public safety commissions can order underworld syndicates to vacate their office properties if a gang war erupts.

But other than an underworld turf battle, which may involve some organization, rogue yakuza bent on violence are still a threat, as witnessed by the April assassination of Nagasaki Mayor Ito by a mob figure bearing a grudge.

Given the recent shootings, does the government plan further preventive measures?

More action is currently being planned, with an announcement expected in July.

The NPA is encouraging the public to inform police of people possessing illegal guns. It is also trying to investigate gunrunning jointly with other nations.