Some of the world’s toughest gun-control laws are posing unusual problems at the Tokyo Olympics, from the coach who can’t touch a firearm to strict limits on ammunition.
For national team coach Goran Maksimovic, the extent of Japan’s restrictions only became clear when he arrived to work with the team and found he couldn’t lay a finger on a gun, let alone fire one.
“I was very surprised in the beginning,” said the Serb, a 10-meter air rifle gold medalist at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
“It’s very difficult for the coach because sometimes you need to check that the trigger is clear, or check the weight of the trigger or help the shooter to adjust some parts,” he added.
Only 500 people can own an air pistol in Japan, which has a history of controlling guns and other weapons that dates back hundreds of years.
Japan’s gun laws are currently among the most strict in the world. In a country of 125 million people, annual deaths from firearms are regularly in single figures.
Getting a gun license is a long and complicated process even for Japanese citizens, who must first get a recommendation from a shooting association and then undergo strict police checks.
It is even more difficult for foreigners, with Maksimovic having to use Japanese assistants as intermediaries when coaching the shooting team.
Officials have moved to address the worst the problems by coming up with a series of workarounds with the coronavirus-delayed Olympics looming.
During the games, coaches will be able to help with “minor repairs” as long as the athlete is holding the weapon.
Other rules have been relaxed so that technical officials can handle firearms and inspect ammunition under International Shooting Sport Federation rules.
It’s been a complicated process, National Rifle Association of Japan president Kiichiro Matsumaru told AFP.
“We were involved in negotiations with the police and government so that teams coming here wouldn’t have any complaints,” he said.
But despite their efforts, he fears “if they come here and feel it’s inconvenient, they might complain afterwards.”
Other obstacles required more complicated solutions.
Japan has a limit of 800 rounds of ammunition per shooter at any one time, fewer than at previous Olympics and other international competitions.
Organizers had to come up with a “complex plan” to stop competitors from potentially running out of bullets, Tokyo Games shooting sport manager Peter Underhill told AFP.
“This has been introduced specifically for Tokyo 2020, in order to help mitigate the effects of this particular piece of legislation,” he said.
There will be a few options, including shipping bullets to Japan through a designated contractor, but the rounds must be stored outside the shooting venue and brought in to replenish supplies.
Teams will also be able to buy ammunition at the Olympic shooting range, though they’ll have to settle for whatever is available, which may differ from their usual specifications.
National Rifle Association of India executive Ajay Singh said his shooters were happy with the solution.
“It’s top-quality ammo,” he told AFP.
“They specify the quality standards, so it’s pretty much on track.”
A 16-page guide for teams warns of “very strict legal regulations,” and Matsumaru said Japan’s gun laws make it difficult to host international shooting events.
They also hold back Japan compared to Asian heavyweight shooting nations China, South Korea and India, and getting youngsters into the sport is a particular challenge, he said.
Children must be 10 before they can start using an air gun, and minors are subject to strict checks.
“Before a child is given permission, a detective will go around their neighborhood gathering information to find out what kind of kid they are,” Matsumaru said.
“Neighbors will tell the parents that a detective was around asking questions, and the mother will tell the kid to quit the rifle club. It’s excessively strict, and we’d like that to stop.”
Still, he’s proud that Japanese shooters have won six Olympic medals so far, and is hopeful the Tokyo Games could help change minds about the sport.
“Japanese people aren’t really familiar with shooting sports, so if Japanese shooters do well at the Olympics, it will really put it in the spotlight,” he said.
“That could give it the momentum to really become established.”
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