In my previous article, I talked about the difficult process of getting a gun permit in Japan. But as tedious as it may seem if you actually take the time to jump thru all the hoops, cross your T’s and dot your I’s, gun ownership in this country is within reach of most folks. Of course, there are plenty of ways you can get disqualified, but for the average person, all it takes is a bit of commitment and time. Upon receiving final approval for my gun permit I received my license. It comes in the form of a little book that resembles a passport. Like a passport, on the first page, it has my name, a photo, permit number, nationality, address, gender, and birthdate. The following pages have details for each gun I own, and pages in the back are for ammunition purchasing permits. So, now that I finally have a gun permit and acquire a gun, what can and can’t I do with it? Well, the first and most basic rule is, when not using the gun, I am required to keep it under lock and key in the police approved gun locker. When I first heard about the gun locker requirements I was expecting something like those huge and expensive gun lockers widely available in the U.S. You know the ones I mean! Almost as heavy as a car, bank-safe style locks, door and walls that are several inches thick, and completely fire-proof. So, when I finally went to a gun store that had the approved lockers in stock and saw them I was somewhat underwhelmed. These things look like the lockers we used in the gymnasium locker room when I was in high school. Back in Colorado, I keep my guns in the cheapest gun locker I could find. I won’t mention the brand here but it cost me just under $100 for an eight-gun locker. The Japanese police approved gun lockers are strangely reminiscent. See the photo below.
Police approved 5-gun locker
One more detail about the gun locker; it must be securely attached to a back wall to prevent a thief from picking up the whole thing and walking off with it. Of course, the devil is in the details; in this case, the definition of the term “securely attached”. Basically, there are two little holes in the back panel by which the locker can be screwed into a back wall. Never mind that the back wall might be drywall! Just so long as it’s screwed in place! Furthermore, while not shown in the above photo, there is a very small chain that needs to be hooked thru the trigger guards of each gun and fastened with a tiny padlock. The chain and padlock are probably strong enough to hold a fully grown chihuahua in place but I wouldn’t trust it with a dachshund! The locker needs to be placed somewhere in the home where guests and visitors can’t see it. Finally, the licensed owner of the guns is the only one ever allowed access to the locker. No one else can ever be in possession of the keys, not even temporarily, and the locker may never be left unlocked when guns are in it.
So, the next question is, when can I take my guns out of the locker and use them? Once again, this is very clearly specified in Japanese law. There are only two situations in which it is legal for me to fire the gun. The first is hunting. Of course, this requires a hunting license and there are plenty of other regulations about when and where I’m allowed to hunt, but that’s true just about anywhere. The second legal use of a gun is at a firing range. Naturally, firing ranges are subject to all sorts of regulations as well, and a quick web-search indicates that there are just under one hundred licensed firing ranges in the entire nation. I happen to be rather fortunate because there are two of them within an hour of my home. But lots of shooters must travel two to three hours to get to the closest firing range. The club where I do most of my shooting has three trap ranges (Olympic or “bunker” trap), two skeet ranges and one rifle range (100 meters). That is considered pretty big by Japanese standards. Gun owners are never allowed to fire their guns in any situation other than the two mentioned above. So that rules out plinking or any other sort of informal target shooting, whether on private or public land. What goes completely without saying is that using a gun for self-defense or home-defense is never, ever considered legal in any situation in Japan!
Here are a few photos from the gun club where I do most of my target shooting.
Skeet ranges and rifle range in the background
Not too many budget guns around here!
The next restriction is about what guns I can shoot. To put it simply, when I got my gun license it was for one specific gun; in my case a Remington 870 Wingmaster. As the licensed owner of that gun, I am the only one ever allowed to fire it. By the same token, I am not allowed to ever fire anyone else’s gun even though I have a license. So, whether at the range or in the field, there is no swapping of guns allowed, not even just for a test shot or two. Since getting my license for the 870, I have applied and received licenses for two more guns; an Italian Breda over-under trap gun and a Miroku OT over-under skeet gun. Those are the guns I and only I can shoot.
Finally, a word about transporting guns. The only time you can take your gun out of your home is when you are going hunting, taking it to the firing range, taking it to the police station for the required annual inspection, or taking it to a store or gunsmith for repairs. When taking the gun out of your home you are required to keep it in a case and keep it in your possession always unless turning it over to the police or a gunsmith and you must have your gun permit book with you. The law specifically states that a locked car is not considered a legal place to leave a gun. Of course, this gets us gun owners into a pretty big legal gray-zone because according to the letter of the law, if I’m legally transporting my gun in my car and decide to stop for a bathroom break or even a cup of coffee, I’m not allowed to leave the gun in my car. So how do you think it might look when I walk into at 7-11 to use the bathroom or get a sandwich, with my gun case on my shoulder? Oh boy.
Next are the restrictions on gun types. First off, hand guns are almost entirely banned here, except for police and military use. The only exceptions are an elite group of target shooters. There aren’t very many competitive handgun target shooters in Japan, and most of them don’t actually own the guns they compete with. A very small handful of Olympic class competitors own their own handguns, but even so, they are not allowed to store them at home; so, they stay under lock and key either at a gun club or a police station. Secondly, restrictions on rifle ownership are very strict. All first-time applicants start with shotguns. It’s believed that rifles are much more dangerous so everyone starts with a shotgun. Then, only after you have proven to be a safe and responsible gun owner can you consider applying for a rifle license. But how long does that take? Well, here’s the deal. Before you can apply for a rifle license in Japan you must have been a registered shotgun owner for a minimum of TEN years! Needless to say, my rifles are all staying in Colorado for the time being. There are also restrictions on rifle caliber. You may be surprised to know that small caliber rifles are not allowed at all. The smallest rifle caliber permitted under Japanese law is 5.9mm. So that rules out .22 and .17 guns. It seems odd but the official reason given in the books is that rifles are only allowed for hunting big game (bear, deer and wild boar). Small caliber rifles are considered inadequate for such game and run the risk of injuring but not killing animals. But if you dig a little deeper there is more to that story. .22 caliber rifles were quite common in Japan in the past but revisions to the law back in the seventies banned them. At the time, there were a number of high profile crimes committed with these guns, the most famous of which is recorded here. Furthermore, worldwide statistics supposedly reveal that more people are killed with .22s than any other caliber if you don’t count war-time casualties. Japanese authorities decided that .22 rifles were too easy for bad folks to attain, due to their low cost, so they just banned them. But, you might wonder, how does a young kid learn to shoot safely if smaller guns are prohibited? I guess I forgot to mention, only legal adults can apply for gun licenses. Here in Japan, you become a legal adult when you turn twenty. Finally, even shotguns are carefully regulated. Maximum ammunition capacity is limited to three rounds, regardless of what the shotgun is being used for. In another interesting twist (lousy pun intended), fully rifled shotgun barrels are forbidden. The official explanation goes something like this. If a long gun has a fully rifled barrel, by definition that makes it a rifle. And since the maximum allowed caliber for rifles is 10.5mm, that means all shotgun shell calibers exceed the limit. But authorities recognize the advantage of rifling so they have made a bit of a compromise. It’s called “half-rifling”. A half-rifled barrel is smooth in the front half and rifled in the back half. That means perfectly good fully rifled shotgun barrels have to be sent to a gunsmith, where the rifling in the front half of the barrel is ground out. Tests show that half-rifled barrels are just as accurate as fully-rifled barrels but that’s a different matter! The law is the law. Below is a photo of a half-rifled barrel. Notice how the rifling stops towards the far end of the barrel.
Of course, guns aren’t of much use without ammunition. Once again, Japanese laws about ammunition are pretty restrictive. Gun owners are required to keep their ammunition in a separate locker from the gun. The ammo locker must be located away from the gun locker; like on a different floor or at opposite ends of the house or preferably in another building. Ammo locker requirements are similar to those for gun lockers. Here is a photo of a police approved ammo locker.
Police approved ammo locker
You might be thinking, “that’s awfully small!” Well, you’re right, and there’s a reason for it. The maximum amount of ammunition allowed in one’s possession at any time is eight hundred rounds. There are similar limitations on gunpowder and other components for reloaders as well. Before ammunition can be purchased, the gun owner is required to go to the police station and get an ammunition purchasing permit. First-time applicants usually only receive a permit for eight hundred rounds. Once that is all purchased and used up you apply for another permit. On my second application, I could get a permit for two thousand rounds, although I’m still never allowed to have more than eight hundred rounds in my possession at any given time. But it means I can keep replenishing my stock of ammunition for a bit longer before having to apply for another purchasing permit. On my third application, I got approved for five thousand rounds. I think the maximum permit is something like twenty thousand or fifty thousand but only for competitive target shooters. Firearm ammunition distribution is restricted to licensed dealers such as gun shops and firing ranges. Essentially it is treated the same way as dynamite and other explosives. In fact, many gun shops are also licensed to sell explosives, selling them to construction companies. There isn't a very big market for firearm ammo so prices tend to be a bit higher. The cheapest shotgun ammo goes for about $90 a flat, which comes out to something like $0.36 per cartridge. Slugs and sabots are far more expensive. Being as I don't have a rifle here in Japan I don't know about rifle ammo but would imagine it is several times higher than what one would pay in the U.S. as the market is even smaller than shotgun ammo. Each time I go to the store and purchase ammunition the store owner checks my ammo permit which is on one of the back pages of my gun permit book. If I’m good to go then he writes how many rounds I’ve purchased and how many rounds remain on my current purchasing permit. When that number reaches zero it’s time to apply for another permit. One more detail; each time I apply for a purchasing permit I have to fill out an application including a second page that states when and where I plan to use the ammo. Then I take it to the police station, pay a fee of 2,400 yen (about $21) and submit the form, so obviously the larger permit I can get the better! One last thing about ammunition. All gun owners are required to keep clear and accurate records of all ammunition in their possession. Gun stores will give you a nice notebook where you can keep these records. Every ammo purchase gets an entry; date, location, type, and quantity of ammo purchased. Each time you use any ammo you also make an entry in the book with all the same information. If you go to a firing range you must attach a scorecard or receipt for verification. If you go hunting you’re on the honor system but your entry must include the details of when and exactly where you hunted, and most importantly, how many rounds you used. The bottom line is that at any time the police can ask you to provide your ammunition records and check them against the actual contents of your ammo locker. If it doesn’t add up you are in trouble and will likely lose your gun license.
I have a friend who is contracted to do deer culls on the mountain where I live. He brings in a lot of young hunters and provides some excellent on the job training for them. Last fall one of his hunters took a very serious fall in some rugged terrain. She cracked her hip bone and they had to evacuate her by helicopter. But the story that got in all the local newspapers was that when she fell down the forty-foot embankment her gun went flying even further down the hill and landed under some leaves. It took them a full day to find it but fortunately, it showed up. When word got out that a gun was missing police immediately sealed off the trailhead and kept a very close watch on things until it was found. But as if that weren’t enough, it turns out that one round of ammunition also went missing in the fall. Yes, one measly shotgun shell! Needless to say, that’s a much harder thing to find. In the U.S. I regularly lose multiple rounds of ammunition in my own car! A couple years ago when helping my son clean out his truck in Colorado I think we found about forty rounds in at least three different calibers! So, imagine looking for one shotgun shell in near-vertical terrain when the ground is covered in autumn leaves! But this is Japan. The police kept the entire area sealed off while they all searched for the one missing shotgun round with metal detectors. To everyone’s relief, it showed up after three days (or so the story goes!) and everyone finally got to go home. The happy end of the story is that her injuries healed quickly and she was back in the woods within a couple months. But it just goes to show how seriously the police take these matters here in Japan.
Finally, a word about gun inspections and license renewals. Once a year, in April, all gun owners are required to take all their guns to the police station for inspection. It isn’t much of an inspection because they just measure the length and caliber of the gun to make sure you haven’t modified it and verify the serial number. But at the same time, you must show them your ammunition records and yet another little book in which you record your regular self-inspections of your lockers. What I can’t stress enough is that everything must be in order! The gun license itself is only good for three years but fortunately, renewing it is a much simpler process than getting it the first time. But there is one more requirement that can cost you your license. You are required to use each gun you own at least once during the three-year period. If you can’t prove that you actually used the gun (hunting or at the range) your license for that gun will be canceled and you will be required to either turn it into the police, a gun store or sell/give it to someone else.
Below are photos of the three guns I’ll be taking in for inspection next April.
Remington 870 Wingmaster
Breda Sirio Trap
Miroku O.T. Skeet
So there you have it! A quick review of some of the ins and outs of owning a gun in Japan. Next time I’ll talk about hunting in Japan. Believe me, it will be a good deal more encouraging than today’s installment. In the meantime, if any of you are wondering about visiting Japan some time and doing a little shooting at one of our local firing ranges or going hunting… for all the reasons listed above; Just Forget It! Happy shooting until next time!