Nations Around World Try to Get A Grip on Guns

By , Mark Clayton, Cameron Barr, and Sheila Tefft, Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor and Michael Perry, Jack Epstein, Wendy Sloane, and Cathryn Prince

In once-peaceful parts of the world, gun violence against civilians is forcing governments to put a squeeze on gun owners.

Both Australia and Britain are moving to tighten their gun laws in the wake of recent massacres by lone gunmen in Tasmania and Dunblane, Scotland. Around the world, gun ownership by citizens and criminals alike is growing. Weapons from countries at war are spilling over borders into quieter countries. In response, many nations are taking steps to control guns, such as requiring permits and limiting ownership to hunters or members of gun clubs.

The United States, with the most guns and the highest rate of gun homicides, has some of the weakest regulations. The Brady law requires a five-day waiting period and background check before a hand gun can be purchased. Some assault weapons are banned. Most states don't require registration of guns.

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"This country ... has decided not to go down the American path," said Prime Minister John Howard, announcing a weapons ban in Australia May 10. "This represents an enormous shift in the culture on the use and ownership of guns."

Inside, the Monitor takes a look at how gun-control efforts fare in seven countries.

AUSTRALIA

Australia is moving to ban automatic and semiautomatic rifles and pump-action shotguns as a wave of antigun sentiment continues to sweep the nation in the wake of the April 28 shooting massacre of 35 people in the southern island state of Tasmania.

The bans were agreed to at a special meeting of police ministers from states and territories in the capital, Canberra, on May 10.

Australians will be given a 12-month amnesty to hand in their firearms. Gun groups estimate there are about 3.5 million firearms, in a population of 17.5 million. Gun owners forfeiting their weapons would be compensated, a plan expected to cost in excess of A$100 million (US$80 million).

"This is a historic moment for all Australians still reeling from the fatal shootings at Port Arthur," said Prime Minister John Howard.

Gun control in Australia is the responsibility of the country's six states, not the national government, but Mr. Howard called the police ministers' meeting in the aftermath of the massacre, vowing to toughen gun laws. Some of the ministers were opposed to the bans.

The national crackdown will cover importation, ownership, sale, manufacture, and use of such weapons. Only low-powered semiautomatic rifles will be allowed in rural areas if farmers can prove to police they are necessary to control pests, such as kangaroos.

Australia has previously failed to crack down on automatic firearms following shooting massacres because state governments have been unable to reach consensus.

Even now the police ministers must now get the bans, licensing, and registration passed into law in their own states. But public-opinion polls show overwhelming support for tougher gun laws. The Port Arthur massacre has affected all Australians, with polls showing both city and country residents, who usually disagree, in support of the bans (91 percent and 88 percent). -- Michael Perry

CANADA

The impetus for Canada's tight gun-control measures flowed initially from the soul-searching that followed the 1989 massacre of 14 college women in Quebec by a gunman with a semiautomatic rifle.

Big-rifle magazines and semiautomatic versions of automatic weapons were banned in 1991.

Public clamor for tougher laws resumed in 1994 following two highly publicized shootings in Toronto and Ottawa. Prime Minister Jean Chrtien pushed ahead, passing the measures last year despite resistance from Canada's formidable gun lobby.

Canada's newest gun laws, which went into effect in January, require gun owners to pass a test, get a license, and register every gun in the country by the year 2003.

It now takes from four to six months to be able to own a handgun. Criminal records are checked. Police interview spouses and neighbors about a prospective owner's mental stability.

Hand-gun registration has long been required here. But Canada's recent crackdown is aimed at the 7 million unregistered rifles and shotguns, most in rural areas. Under the new law, a computerized registry will track ownership of all the nation's guns. Criminal penalties now apply for those who knowingly fail to register.

The reward for having fewer guns overall and tightly restricting them is homicide rates about a third those of the US. Polls have consistently shown that more than 70 percent of the Canadian public supports tougher gun laws.

Living next to a nation that has more firearms than any other country in the world means Canada has to be diligent about keeping gun use down, say Canadian gun-control advocates.

"We're constantly getting the spillover effects from the US - which makes it all the more important for us to stand on guard for Canadian values," says Wendy Cukier, president of the Coalition for Gun Control. -- Mark Clayton

BRAZIL

On paper, Brazil's gun-control laws would drive a National Rifle Association member nuts. There is no constitutional right to bear arms. Those seeking gun permits must wait up to two weeks for a criminal-record check. Taxes on guns are huge, assault weapons are banned, and only one state permits hunting for sport.

Brazilians who want a license to carry a gun must submit character references, take a medical and psychiatric exam, and complete a police course in firearms.

Yet if Brazil sounds like a gun-control paradise, it's not. This nation of 158 million is teeming with weapons. Industry experts estimate that there are some 18.5 million guns in the country, only 6 million of which are registered.

At home, individuals have several options if they want to pack a pistol illegally. Gun store owners are often willing to arrange permits for a fee, and cops illegally sell confiscated weapons.

"In theory, we have strict gun control laws," says Guaracy Mingardi, a crime expert and adviser for the So Paulo state secretary of public safety. "But in practice, there is little enforcement."

Many gun owners are law-abiding urban dwellers concerned about out-of-control crime, inept police, and rising homicide rates.

In Rio de Janeiro, 55 percent of 557 minors killed in the first six months of last year were slain by guns, according to the Rio Juvenile Court. Many gun deaths are drug-related as rival gangs fight over turf in slums.

To curtail future arms shipments from the US, Brazil is expected to sign an agreement soon that would allow US customs officials and agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms to train Brazilian officials.

--Jack Epstein

BRITAIN

In a country where even shotguns are legally available only to members of government-approved pistol clubs, the recent massacre in Dunblane, Scotland, has sent British lawmakers scurrying to examine their already-stringent gun-control laws.

Sixteen schoolchildren and their teacher were killed in their primary school in March by a former scouting leader, who then killed himself.

Britain revamped its gun laws after a similar crime in 1987 in the town of Hungerford. Shotguns became available only to members of shooting clubs, and rifles and handguns became subject to tighter controls. Machine guns were banned completely.

Many lawmakers feel in the wake of Dunblane that the laws should again be strengthened. The results of a public inquiry into Dunblane, led by Scottish lawmaker Lord Cullen, will be published in September.

Opposition Labour Party leader Tony Blair is preparing to propose to the Cullen inquiry strict clamp-downs on guns. He would raise the minimum age requirement from 14 to 18 and would give police the power to refuse people permission to own a gun.

Some 800,000 licensed gun owners live in Britain, according to Home Office statistics. Currently about 2,500 gun clubs operate in Britain that are approved by the Home Office. Individuals can shoot firearms on their premises without obtaining a government certificate.

In a country where hunting is a national sport, about 1 million firearms are owned privately, obtained legally with certificates issued by the Home Office. But another 1 million are estimated to be owned illegally.

But, the number of violent crimes involving firearms is relatively small. And only a limited number of British bobbies, or police officers, are allowed to carry guns on the beat. Most bobbies approve.

"Here, where police are walking around on our own in the dark, we would just become gun shops," says Acting Sgt. Carl Pendlebury, who patrols in central London. "We'd get mugged just to steal our guns." -- Wendy Sloane

CHINA

After decades of tight Communist control and little street crime, open-market reforms have propelled China into a crime wave. Although China is hardly as dangerous as the United States or Russia, public safety is threatened, especially from increasing gun-related crime.

Chinese newspapers abound daily with grisly reports of murder, rape, or violent robbery. Armed gangs flourish, especially in fast-growing enclaves like Shenzhen in southern China, where earlier this year a gang of four robbers held off 200 policemen for eight hours.

Chinese officials say that the growing number of guns in the country is behind the crime explosion. Private gun ownership is banned. Chinese manufacturers produce 200,000 guns for civilian use a year; 160,000 of them are sold illegally, according to government estimates. Illegal sales and smuggling of arms have worsened in recent years, especially in southern provinces, where gun-running is linked to drug-trafficking from southeast Asia.

Officials also worry about ethnic minority areas where separatist movements simmer. Police regularly raid illegal weapons stashes in Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang Provinces where guns seep in from the former Soviet Union, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

Poor controls over China's huge munitions industry, the 3-million strong People's Liberation Army, and more than 1 million police officers have given criminal gangs easy access to a wide range of weapons.

Increasingly, officials are unable to control the illegal trafficking in their areas or are bribed by gun merchants. Huge stockpiles of guns have been seized by the authorities.

"Many people now own guns," says a former Beijing police official. "If you want to and can pay enough, you can get firearms in many places."

--Sheila Tefft

JAPAN

If you didn't look closely at the signs, you' d never know you were in the most gun-free society on the planet.

Berettas, Colt 45s, even an Uzi and a Kalashnikov fill the glass cabinets of a basement gun shop in Tokyo. All the guns are eerily exact renderings of the real thing. They shoot, at most, plastic pellets.

But their popularity is rising, says salesmen Kazuhisa Ogawa. Most customers are men, although a few women have come in asking about using the models for self-protection.

Yoshiaki Inoue, director of the firearms control division of the National Police Agency (NPA), wouldn't recommend the practice, even if the guns were real. He and other officials work hard to keep guns out of the hands of criminals so the Japanese won't want them for self-defense.

Statistics suggest they do a good job. Thirty-four people were murdered with guns in 1995, out of a population of 125 million. "From a global perspective, this sounds tiny," acknowledges Mr. Inoue. "But as an official responsible for gun control, I think it's large."

One reason he is worried is that an increasing number of Japanese are being threatened or murdered by guns.

Firearm smuggling is rising, as is the cultural acceptance of guns. Although the government is effective in keeping guns out of Japan, it can't keep out cultural products that fuel their popularity. Gun salesman Mr. Ogawa says a violent hit movie can boost sales.

Japan's laws are already strict, so officials are concentrating on enforcement. Japanese are forbidden from owning handguns, except for law-enforcement officials and about 50 sportsmen. Ownership of rifles and shotguns, permissible for hunting and target shooting, is also closely monitored. Licensing requires a background check and training.

Japan's geography and a tradition of tight administrative control have contributed to an atmosphere in which guns are "not part of our common sense," says NPA official Goro Aoki. -- Cameron Barr

SWITZERLAND

It's not how many guns you own, but how you treat them.

That's the view of many Swiss, whose country is awash with assault rifles. Although 2 million exist in a population of 7.3 million, few crimes are committed with them, says Patrick Cudra-Mauroux, spokesman for the Swiss Defense Department.

In 1995, there were 113 firearm homicides. That relatively low level of gun violence may be because of both a plethora of regulations and the reverence of the Swiss toward guns.

Under compulsory military service in Switzerland, which relies on a militia rather than a standing army, most men remain soldiers until their early 40s and keep an assault rifle and an allotment of ammunition at home.

"It's a very long tradition in our country, and the confidence the state put in each citizen to protect the country is respected," says Mr. Cudra-Mauroux.

New gun-control laws come into effect this June to set uniform standards nationwide. They require police authorization to buy guns, which then must be registered. -- Cathryn J. Prince

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