Over the past 25 years I have visited Japan on a regular basis. I’ve been asked the same question many times: What kind of gun do you own?
Because I’m an American, many Japanese simply assume that I must have a gun — all Americans have guns, don’t they? Along with this sentiment, I also have often had people tell me that they would like to visit the United States, but it’s just too scary. So much violence; so many guns.
I have always responded by telling my friends that for the most part the U.S. is a very safe place. It’s not like the movies, I tell them, and the only time I have ever see a gun is when I happen to run across a police officer. In fact, one of the only places I have seen a gun (well a gun-case, as the gun cannot be shown in public) in the hands of a non-police officer is in Japan, when I encountered a group of men in my neighborhood heading out on a hunting trip early one morning.
With the horrors that occurred recently in Newtown, CT, I’m really not sure what to tell my friends in Japan these days. At times, I have tried to explain the 2nd Amendment, but it really doesn’t make a great deal of sense to many of them. What they don’t understand is why it is necessary to have guns in order to preserve freedom — the argument so many gun advocates profess.
From a Japanese perspective, such ideas make little sense. They live in a free society in which guns are very tightly controlled in general.
I must admit, I’m having a great deal of trouble with this myself. How do guns make a society free?
Of course, the answer is that they don’t.
Guns don’t ensure freedom, people do.
Countries like Japan (and many others including Australia, England, etc.) have done quite well as democracies without an equivalent to the 2nd Amendment. Part of the difficulty in comparing these countries is that the notion of freedom is somewhat different as compared with the U.S. For many in Japan, freedom is not simply about free speech, freedom of the press, and voting, it is also about having a society that is safe and in which people support each other. Many Americans tend to construct a concept of freedom as being associated with a lack of interference from government and other members of society.
These different ideas about the nature of freedom contribute to the generation of distinct cultural attitudes about guns and gun control. I am not going to argue in favor of one view of freedom over another, but I will make a simple point: the idea that guns are necessary to preserve freedom is empirically wrong. Countries like Japan make it very clear that it is possible to have a free society while also maintaining strict control over guns. In fact, the Japanese recognize that widespread gun ownership decreases safety and security and, in turn, makes for a less free society.
John W. Traphagan is a professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.