After a tragedy like the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the statistic is always trotted out. Compared with just about anywhere else with a stable, developed government — and many countries without even that — the more than 11,000 gun-related killings each year in the United States are simply off the charts.
To be sure, there are nations that are worse. But others see fewer gun homicide deaths in one year than the 27 people killed Dec. 14 in Newtown, Connecticut.
As Americans debate gun laws, people on both sides point to the experiences of other countries to support their arguments. Here's a look at two success stories – with two very different ways of thinking about gun ownership – and one cautionary tale.
Japan – The Nanny state?
In this country, guns are few and far between. And so is gun violence. Guns were used in only seven murders in Japan — a nation of about 130 million — in all of 2011, the most recent year for official statistics. According to police, more people — nine — were murdered with scissors.
Though its gun ownership rates are tiny compared to the United States, Japan has more than 120,000 registered gun owners and more than 400,000 registered firearms. So why is there so little gun violence?
"We have a very different way of looking at guns in Japan than people in the United States," said Tsutomu Uchida, who runs the Kanagawa Ohi Shooting Range, an Olympic-style training center for rifle enthusiasts. "In the US, people believe they have a right to own a gun. In Japan, we don't have that right. So our point of departure is completely different."
Treating gun ownership as a privilege and not a right leads to some important policy differences.
First, anyone who wants to get a gun must demonstrate a valid reason why they should be allowed to do so. Under longstanding Japanese policy, there is no good reason why any civilian should have a handgun, so — aside from a few dozen accomplished competitive shooters — they are completely banned.
Virtually all handgun-related crime is attributable to gangsters, who obtain them on the black market. But such crime is extremely rare and when it does occur, police crack down hard on whatever gang is involved, so even gangsters see it as a last-ditch option.
Rifle ownership is allowed for the general public, but tightly controlled.
Applicants first must go to their local police station and declare their intent. After a lecture and a written test comes range training, then a background check. Police likely will even talk to the applicant's neighbors to see if he or she is known to have a temper, financial troubles or an unstable household. A doctor must sign a form saying the applicant has not been institutionalized and is not epileptic, depressed, schizophrenic, alcoholic or addicted to drugs.
Gun owners must tell the police where in the home the gun will be stored. It must be kept under lock and key, must be kept separate from ammunition, and preferably chained down. It's legal to transport a gun in the trunk of a car to get to one of the country's few shooting ranges, but if the driver steps away from the vehicle and gets caught, that's a violation.
Uchida said Japan's gun laws are frustrating, overly complicated and can seem capricious.
"It would be great if we had an organization like the National Rifle Association to stand up for us," he said, though he acknowledged that there is no significant movement in Japan to ease gun restrictions.
Even so, dedicated shooters like Uchida say they do not want the kind of freedoms Americans have and do not think Japan's system would work in the United States, citing the tendency for Japanese to defer to authority and place a very high premium on an ordered, low-crime society.
"We have our way of doing things, and Americans have theirs," said Yasuharu Watabe, who has owned a gun for 40 years. "But there need to be regulations. Put a gun in the wrong hands, and it's a weapon."
Switzerland – guns and peace
Gun-rights advocates in the United States often cite Switzerland as an example of relatively liberal regulation going hand-in-hand with low gun crime.
The country's 8 million people own about 2.3 million firearms. But firearms were used in just 24 Swiss homicides in 2009, a rate of about 0.3 per 100,000 inhabitants. The US rate that year was about 11 times higher.
Unlike in the United States, where guns are used in the majority of murders, in Switzerland only a quarter of murders involve firearms. The most high-profile case in recent years occurred when a disgruntled petitioner shot dead 14 people at a city council meeting in 2001.
Experts say Switzerland's low gun-crime figures are influenced by the fact that most firearms are military rifles issued to men when they join the country's conscript army . Criminologist Martin Killias at the University of Zurich notes that as Switzerland cut the size of its army in recent decades, gun violence — particularly domestic killings and suicides — dropped too.
The key issue is how many people have access to a weapon, not the total number of weapons owned in a country, Killias said. "Switzerland's criminals, for example, aren't very well armed compared with street criminals in the United States."
Critics of gun ownership in Switzerland have pointed out that the country's rate of firearms suicide is higher than anywhere else in Europe. But efforts to tighten the law further and force conscripts to give their guns back after training have failed at the ballot box — most recently in a 2012 referendum.
Gun enthusiasts — many of whom are members of Switzerland's 3,000 gun clubs — argue that limiting the right to bear arms in the home of William Tell would destroy a cherished tradition and undermine the militia army's preparedness against possible invasion.
Brazil – gun murder capital
So how about a country that actually bans guns?
Since 2003, Brazil has come close to fitting that description. Only police, people in high-risk professions and those who can prove their lives are threatened are eligible to receive gun permits. Anyone caught carrying a weapon without a permit faces up to four years on prison.
But Brazil also tops the global list for gun murders.
According to a 2011 study by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, 34,678 people were murdered by firearms in Brazil in 2008, compared to 34,147 in 2007. The numbers for both years represent a homicide-by-firearm rate of 18 per 100,000 inhabitants — more than five times higher than the US rate.
Violence is so endemic in Brazil that few civilians would even consider trying to arm themselves for self-defense. Vast swaths of cities like Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro are slums dominated by powerful drug gangs, who are often better armed than the police. Brazilian officials admit guns flow easily over the nation's long, porous Amazon jungle border.
Still, Guaracy Mingardi, a crime and public safety expert and researcher at Brazil's top think tank, Fundacao Getulio Vargas, said the 2003 law helped make a dent in homicides by firearms in some areas.
According to the Sao Paulo State Public Safety Department, the homicide rate there was 28.29 per 100,000 in 2003 and dropped to 10.02 per 100,000 in 2011.
Brazil wants more powerful guns in the hands of police. This month, the army authorized law enforcement officers to carry heavy caliber weapons for personal use.
Ligia Rechenberg, coordinator of the Sou da Paz, or "I am for Peace," violence prevention group, thinks that could make things worse. She said police will buy weapons that "they don't know how to handle, and that puts them and the population at risk."