With the 2020 Presidential Election in the news, and the gun control versus gun rights issue on the minds of both sides of the aisle, the United States’ firearm laws are again being compared to the rest of the world. We’ve never seen such a clear line between the Democratic and Republican parties on this subject. Remembering back to the Democratic debates, candidates attempted to one-up each other about who was the most anti-gun, and proposals to change our laws to mirror those of foreign countries continued the debate.
How do America’s firearms laws compare to those throughout the rest of the world? Read on.
Though many states are more restrictive, U.S. federal statutes are among the least restrictive in the world. The United States Code requires no licensing for the purchase of non-NFA firearms, and we can own as many as our budgets allow. We can store them in the manner in which we choose. There are no waiting periods, no caliber restrictions below .50 caliber, no limits on magazine capacity, no fees and no training requirements. Other than the specific provisions of the National Firearms Act (NFA) that restrict machine guns, short-barreled rifles and any other weapons, there are few limits on the types of firearms that Americans can own, at least at the federal level. To add, this right of citizens is protected by the U.S. Constitution.
Let’s start close to home. Our friends to the north live in a culture that is similar to our own, but Canada’s gun laws do not mirror those in the United States. First, there is no “right” to own or possess a firearm in Canada. Gun ownership is treated as a privilege that is granted and regulated by the government. In order to purchase a firearm in Canada, a possession or acquisition certificate is required. To acquire the certificate, citizens must complete a safety course, produce references and apply for a license from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). The process takes a minimum of 28 days in order for a background check to be completed.
Canada divides firearms into three categories and restricts them accordingly. Rifles and shotguns are considered “unrestricted” and can be purchased and possessed by certificate holders. Until May 1, 2020, “restricted” firearms included handguns and semiautomatic rifles such as AR-patterns. In the wake of a mass shooting, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau summarily banned the sale, transfer and use of more than 1,500 so-called “assault weapons” identified by make and model. Existing gun owners were given a 2-year grace period to comply. Such firearms require an additional license and are subject to strict storage and transportation requirements. Currently, “prohibited” firearms include handguns with barrels less than 4.1 inches, automatic firearms, and others. Suppressors are banned in Canada.
Regardless of firearm category, magazine capacity is restricted to 10 rounds for handguns and five rounds for rifles, with some exceptions such as the M-1 Garand’s 8-round En Bloc clip. Firearms must be stored unloaded and locked-up, with ammunition stored separately.
Despite a record 34,582 homicides in 2019, there is only one store in Mexico where a firearm can legally be purchased — and it is operated by the military. Surprisingly, the right to own firearms in Mexico is enshrined in the nation’s constitution but is subject to restriction. Lawfully carrying a firearm for protection is unheard of in Mexico.
Purchasing a firearm in Mexico requires a letter from local authorities, a background check, proof of employment and fingerprints. There are numerous limits on the types of firearms that can be owned as well as their chamberings. For example, handguns cannot be chambered in rounds larger in diameter than .38/9mm, which explains the historical popularity of Model 1911 handguns chambered in .38 Super south of the U.S. border.
Firearms laws in Great Britain became extremely strict following the 1996 Dunblane massacre in Scotland. Merely possessing a rifle or handgun cartridge without a license is considered a serious crime. Handguns other than muzzleloaders are effectively prohibited altogether as are centerfire semiautomatic rifles. Shotguns, whether semiautomatic or pump, cannot hold more than three rounds total. Even CO2-powered air guns are banned.
To purchase a firearm that isn’t prohibited, a five-year Firearm or Shotgun Certificate must be obtained from police. To obtain such a certificate, one must show “good reason” for why each and every firearm can be owned. The type and quantity of ammunition for each firearm is restricted by the license. Self-defense is not a valid reason to own a firearm in Great Britain.
We sometimes hear about Switzerland’s permissive gun laws, but few details are often provided by those who use them as an example. The fact is that Switzerland does require a weapon acquisition permit for the purchase of most firearms other than single-shots, bolt-actions and multi-barreled hunting rifles. Citizens and permanent residents who are 18 or older and aren’t considered a danger to others are eligible. Interestingly, non-citizens from nations such as Albania, Serbia and Turkey cannot obtain a permit. Now that Switzerland has adopted much of the European Union (EU) Weapons Directive, magazine capacity is restricted under Swiss law for both handguns at 20 rounds and “small firearms” at 10 rounds.
Though ownership of firearms, other than machine guns, is relatively unrestricted in Switzerland as compared to most of Europe, carrying a firearm is tightly controlled. Obtaining a permit to carry a firearm in public is generally not granted to an ordinary citizen unless a job-related or other so-called “need” can be established.
Recreational shooting is a popular pastime among the Swiss, and ammunition purchases are government subsidized at shooting ranges to encourage marksmanship among its citizens. The long-held practice of Swiss Militia members taking home their military-issued firearms continues to this day, though the government no longer issues ammunition to be kept in the home. To purchase ammunition, the buyer must fulfill the same legal obligations that apply to acquiring firearms.
Japan is one of the most-industrialized nations in the world and has some of the most-stringent gun (and sword) laws. Merely possessing a firearm or a blade longer than 15 centimeters without a license is a serious crime. In order to obtain a license to own a firearm — even to hunt or shoot clays — citizens must endure a training, testing and a background-check process that can take four months or longer. Every round of ammunition purchased or shot must be cataloged, and police can make unannounced home visits to inspect licensed firearms. After 10 years of owning a shotgun under such conditions, an application can be made for owning a rifle. Given the current argument surrounding gun laws and suicide, it should be noted that, despite its highly restrictive gun laws, Japan has one of the highest suicide rates among developed nations. Suicide is the leading cause of death among men aged 20 to 44.
Israel’s gun laws are more restrictive than many would have you believe, but in 2018 the Israeli government moved to make them more permissive. Depending on the source, between 145,000 and 500,000 of the nation’s nearly 9 million citizens currently have gun permits, a figure that could climb by 500,000 given the recent changes that allow all former combat soldiers to apply.
Soldiers are permitted to carry their firearms while off-duty, which is why it is common to see young Israelis walking the streets carrying assault rifles and submachine guns. For ordinary citizens, a license must be obtained to own or possess a firearm. A citizen must be 20 to apply for a permit if they’ve completed military service and 27 if they have not. Non-citizens must be 45 years old to apply. Background checks and training courses are required, and a significant number of applications are rejected. Permitees are allowed a single handgun and 50 rounds of ammunition, but that handgun can be carried either openly or concealed.
Venezuela might be one of the single best examples of how quickly things can happen for gun owners. Even just a few years ago, the South American nation had an active shooting culture and concealed carry permits were reasonably obtainable. Olympic-shooter Gabby Franco, who starred in Seasons 4 and 5 of the “Top Shot” television series and competed in both USPSA and 3 Gun matches at the national level, actually got started in the shooting sports as an 11-year-old growing up in Venezuela.
Circumstances have changed, though. When Hugo Chavez’s regime set its sights on civilian disarmament in 2012, Venezuela’s National Assembly passed a law banning the sale of guns, ammunition, airsoft guns and slingshots to anyone other than the government. Getting caught carrying or selling a weapon will earn a person 20 years in prison, so the ban certainly has teeth. Despite a failing economy, the Venezuelan government appropriated $47 million in 2014 to enforce the ban and seized more than 12,500 guns. In wake of the ban, Venezuela saw a rising homicide rate that earned them the label, “World’s Highest Violent-Crime Rate” by 2017.
Not all of South America has taken the same path as Venezuela. Brazil has moved to make firearms more accessible to civilians in-response to an exploding murder rate. Gun ownership became heavily restricted in 2003, despite the nation having a large firearm manufacturing industry. Apparently, the system wasn’t working as a half-a-million murders during the last 10 years has left the nation in crisis. Despite the 2003 ban, some 120,000 guns were seized in 2017 alone.
Fulfilling a campaign promise to allow Brazilians to protect themselves, President Jair Bolsonaro signed an executive order in 2019 that has liberalized gun ownership. Under the new system, a Brazilian who can demonstrate competency and pass a background check and a psychological examination can legally purchase a firearm. The president’s son, Eduardo, who happens to be a congressman who supports civilian gun ownership said, “People who want to murder, steal and commit gun crimes already have access to [firearms].”
As Guns & Ammo has previously reported, the gun laws on this island-chain paradise were significantly strengthened in 2019 following a mass shooting that targeted Muslims in and around two mosques. Most semiautomatic rifles are now banned, as are many common shotgun models. A firearms license is required to obtain a gun, though there is no registration. Applicants must pass a background check, as well as a home inspection, and take a gun safety course before buying a firearm. The process reportedly takes months.
The constitution of the Russian Federation states that “each individual has the right to defend his/her rights and freedoms by all means not prohibited by law.” Though illegal guns reportedly outnumber legal ones by a factor of 3-to-1 in Russia, the nation does have a system that allows adult civilians to own firearms for hunting, sport shooting or self-defense. The process of obtaining a 5-year permit from local police includes demonstrating the need to own a firearm, as well as passing a test on the relevant laws. A doctor’s note stating that the applicant is not mentally ill or a drug abuser is also required, as is a background check.
This is a short sampling of the variety of gun laws enforced by governments around the world, but it provides those of us residing in the United States with a broader perspective on how our other governments treat their citizens. Despite the constant threat of additional gun control, when considering our ability to exercise our 2nd Amendment rights, most Americans have it better than anywhere else in the world.