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Introduction

This survey describes the different legal approaches taken by eighteen countries and the European Union (EU) with regard to ownership, possession, and other activities involving firearms.[*]  The individual reports cover laws, regulations, and directives, in addition to statistical and other relevant information on gun control.  The reports also address the availability or lack thereof of a constitutional right to bear arms under foreign law; the scope of firearms-related activities that are subject to licensing; conditions for the issuance of licenses, including background checks of the applicant’s mental and criminal history; training, testing, and storage requirements; weapons bans; and registration procedures, including the use of a central register in some of the countries surveyed.  Many reports describe legislative history and trends, which in some cases were influenced by rising crime levels or incidents of mass shootings.  A bibliography of selected recent English language materials is included.

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Mass Shootings in Foreign Countries

Incidents of mass shooting in schools and other public venues by so-called “lone wolves” are not unique to the United States.  Shortly prior to the completion of this report, on January 3, 2013, a thirty-four-year-old militiaman in Daillon, Switzerland went on a shooting spree, killing three women and wounding two men with his militia weapon.

In 1987 in Hungerford, England, a gunman equipped with two lawfully owned semiautomatic rifles shot and killed sixteen people and wounded fourteen more before killing himself.  In 2010 in Cumbria, northwest England, a gunman killed twelve people and wounded twenty-five using firearms he lawfully possessed.

Port Arthur, Australia, was the scene of a mass shooting in 1996, when a twenty-eight-year-old gunman armed with a semiautomatic rifle shot and killed thirty-five people and wounded eighteen others.  That same year a gunman armed with two lawfully held rifles and four handguns walked into an elementary school in Dunblane, Scotland, and shot and killed sixteen four- to five-year-old children and their teacher before killing himself.

In Germany, teenage shooters armed with semiautomatic pistols or a sawed-off percussion rifle shot schoolchildren and teachers on three different occasions in 2002, 2006, and in 2009, all ending with multiple deaths and casualties.  Norway similarly witnessed a gruesome mass killing in 2011 by a man who had first bombed the government district of Oslo and then, using weapons he had lawfully acquired for hunting, shot and killed seventy-seven and wounded 242 mostly young people at a youth camp.

Incidents of mass killings are not unknown to Russians, who experienced terrorist attacks on a hospital, theater, and school in 2002 and 2004, as well as a number of more recent mass shootings in public places committed by criminals or mentally unstable people.

Mass shootings in China, where the private possession of firearms is generally banned, are rare, and the Chinese media correlates the country’s strict firearms-control laws to the generally fewer crimes committed with guns and explosives in China as compared with other countries.

This report explores the different legal approaches taken by the surveyed countries regarding licensing of firearms, including requirements for proper training, safe storage, criminal and mental-health background checks, mental health, and enforcement.

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Constitutional Right to Bear Arms

Among the countries surveyed only Mexico was found to have an express provision in its Constitution that recognizes the right of inhabitants to bear arms.  This right extends to possession of arms at one’s home for security and legitimate defense, with the exception of weapons that are prohibited by federal law and those reserved for the exclusive use of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and National Guard.  The Mexican Constitution expressly provides that the conditions under which inhabitants may be authorized to bear arms are to be determined by federal law.

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Possession of Firearms by Military Personnel

Compulsory military service, which exists in several of the countries surveyed, often gives rise to special laws governing conscripts’ use and possession of military weapons and ammunition.  Israel and Switzerland illustrate two varied approaches to this issue.  Conscription begins at age eighteen in Israel and nineteen in Switzerland, and generally ends at age forty-five in Israel and between the ages of thirty-four and fifty in Switzerland, depending on the military or militia rank of conscripts in these countries.

In Switzerland militiamen are issued personal equipment, including a personal weapon and ammunition, that they are authorized to keep in their homes even after retirement.  Israel maintains a much more restrictive policy on soldiers taking military firearms on home leave and reserve service.

As a general rule, Israeli soldiers do not take their guns on home leave.  Exceptions to this rule apply to soldiers who serve in combat units; serve in the West Bank or other specified areas; or obtain special authorization from high-ranking military officers, because of their officer rank or for reasons of personal safety associated with their home or service location.

Other countries surveyed similarly do not generally permit military personnel to take firearms out of their assigned duty area.  In Russia, for example, military weapons are not legally permitted to leave the military compound.  Military personnel cannot take weapons outside of their unit’s location unless they are on a special, duty-related assignment.  Others who have service weapons, including police officers, investigators, and some judges, however, may have their service firearms with them when not on duty.

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Civilian Activites Requiring Licensing

All of the countries surveyed require licensing for various activities involving firearms and ammunition.  Such activities may include selling firearms and ammunition by or through licensed dealers, as well as acquiring, possessing, owning, using, carrying, handling, trading, repairing, manufacturing, distributing, transporting, importing and exporting, training, storing, collecting, and disposing of such firearms and ammunition.

The following table lists general requirements for civilian licenses in the countries surveyed, including age limits, reasons for which firearms are allowed, the role of an applicant’s criminal record and health status, mandated training or testing, and other miscellaneous requirements:

Country Minimum Age Recognized Reasons Criminal History Requirements Health Requirements Training/Testing Requirements Other Requirements

Australia

18

“Genuine reason” (e.g., sports, recreational shooting/hunting, collecting, or occupational requirements). Ammunition only provided to license-holders.

 

Self-defense excluded.

“Fit and proper person” test; no convictions for violent offenses in past 5 years.

 

Mental/physical fitness.

Safety course.

28-day waiting period; storage requirements and inspections.

 

Brazil

25

Actual need for acquiring firearm; ammunition must correspond to caliber of registered gun and quantity requirements.

Submission of records indicating no prior criminal activities, police investigation, or criminal prosecution.

Evidence of psychological ability.

Evidence of technical ability.

Evidence of lawful occupancy and place of residence.

Canada

18 generally.

 

12–17 for minor’s license (limited to non-restricted rifle or shotgun, and licensed adult must be responsible for firearm).

For restricted firearms or prohibited handguns, must show need for use in connection with lawful profession or occupation; no such requirements for ordinary shotguns and rifles, such as those used for hunting.

Criminal and domestic-violence background checks.

 

Mental-health background check, including addiction.

Safety tests depending on type of weapon.

Transport, storage, and display requirements.

Egypt

21

[no information available]

Licensing prohibited for persons convicted, sentenced, or on parole.

No mental or psychological impairment; must be physically capable of owning and using firearms.

 

 

 

 

Germany

18 generally.

 

14–18 for supervised training or employment.

 

21 for marksmen, subject to exceptions.

Licenses issued to hunters, marksmen, shooting- association members, endangered persons, collectors, experts, producers and dealers, and private security firms. 

 

No criminal record, membership in criminal or terrorist organization, or justified suspicion of potential violation.

No substance addiction, mental illness, or feeblemindedness.

 

Psychiatric evaluation if under 25.

Knowledge of weapons technology and law; expertise in use of firearms.

Five years’ residency; liability insurance coverage of up to 1 million Euros.

 

Specified storage requirements, depending on potency of weapon.

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Country Minimum Age >Recognized Reasons Criminal History Requirements Health Requirements Training/Testing Requirements Other Requirements

Great Britain

18

“Good reason” to possess requested firearm (e.g. profession, sport or recreation, or shooting vermin).

 

Self-defense not a good reason.

 

No sentence of more than three years’ imprisonment or preventive detention; those receiving sentences of three months to three years cannot possess firearms or ammunition for a period of five years after date of release.

 

 

References regarding mental state, home life, and attitude toward guns; medical release form; access to firearms by unfit family members or associates may disqualify applicant.

 

Conditions may include specification of storage cabinets that meet British safety standards.

Israel

21 for citizens who served in Israel Defense Force (IDF).

 

27 for other citizens.

 

45 for permanent residents with 3 years of uninterrupted stay.

Proof of need based on place of residence or employment, occupation, or service in elite IDF reserve units.

Conviction for violent offense (including domestic violence) may result in license cancellation/ ineligibility for period defined by court. 

Mental health care providers report to Ministry of Health those patients capable of endangering themselves or others; report may be forwarded to permitting authorities.

Certified appropriate training for each licensed firearm at licensed shooting ranges.

Proof of permanent residency and uninterrupted stay for period of at least three years, basic knowledge of the Hebrew language, safe storage.

 

Japan

18 generally.

 

14 for athletes.

 

20 for hunters.

“Specific need” (e.g., hunters; target shooters; athletes; dealers; manufacturers; exporters; collectors; and specific businesses, including lifesaving, slaughterhouses, fisheries, testing or research, and construction).

 

 

 

Passage of 5 years since completing sentence of imprisonment; no previous warnings or restraining orders for domestic violence.

 

No mental illness or other specified health problems, dementia, alcohol/drug addiction, or feeblemindedness.

Classes on firearms laws and regulations; skill test or completion of shooting classes.

 

Fixed abode; proof of accident insurance; not under bankruptcy restrictions.

 

 

Lebanon

18 generally.

 

16 for hunting under guardian’s supervision.

Recognized reasons (e.g., hunting) tied to specific classes of weapons.

No prior sentence or conviction for heinous felonies, carrying weapons, or offenses against state security or Weapons and Ammunition Law.

 

Foreigners cannot have been subject to revocation of residence or deportation.

No history of mental illness.

 

 

Mexico

18

For employment/ occupation, target shooting, or hunting; or based on living circumstances or other credible factors, including self-defense in the home.

 

For a carrying license, no conviction for any crime committed with the use of firearms.

For a carrying license, no physical or mental impediment or drug addiction

 

For a carrying license, must earn living by honest means and complete any military service duty (if applicable).

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Country Minimum Age Recognized Reasons Criminal History Requirements Health Requirements Training/Testing Requirements Other Requirements

New Zealand

16 for standard license.

 

18 for military-style semiautomatic firearms.

None required for standard license. For licenses for certain firearms, must be member of recognized pistol-shooting club; collector; employee or member of broadcasting or theatrical entity; one acquiring firearm as an heirloom or memento; or a licensed dealer.

 

Self-defense not a valid reason.

Applicant must be “fit and proper person”; no history of violence.

Two references (family and nonfamily); license may be denied where there is a history of drug/alcohol abuse or mental illness; license may be revoked if unfit person could gain access to firearm.

 

Safety course and written test.

Storage requirements and inspections.

 

Norway

 

 

21 for acquisition of revolvers, pistols, or parts.

 

18 for other firearms.

 

16–18 if weapons stored by guardian or other permit holder based on police consent.

 

 

 

“Reasonable grounds” for having a weapon.

Persons of “sober habits.”

Sobriety and “reliability” required.

Active membership in approved shooting group or successful proficiency test for applicants 16–18 seeking to acquire rifle or shotgun.

Police endorsement required; mandatory safe storage.

Russian Federation

18 generally.

 

16 per approval of provincial legislative assemblies (usually for industrial hunting).

Self-defense, hunting, sports,receiving guns as gift/inheritance.

Criminal background check.

Physical/mental ability; no history of substance abuse.

Training and test.

Citizenship; registered permanent residence; safe storage.

Singapore

18 for target practice.

 

21 for self-defense.

Selected examples include membership in a registered gun club or serious threat to applicant’s life with no other possible protection.

No criminal record.

 

Shooting proficiency test.

 

 

South Africa

21

Collectors and museums; hunting or sport-shooting organizations or ranges; providers of training, including use of firearms in theatrical, film, or TV productions; game ranchers and hunting-business owners.

 

Self-defense only if it cannot be accomplished by other means.

No conviction within 5 years immediately preceding the application for certain crimes related to violence, dishonesty, recklessness, or instability.

Stable mental condition; no substance abuse problem or proclivity for violence, including domestic abuse allegations or being laid off from job; competency certificate indicating applicant is “fit and proper person.”

Training and test on safe and efficient use of firearms, as well as applicable training and tests for specific licenses.

Fingerprinting;

sportsmen must be members of accredited hunting associations.

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Country Minimum Age Recognized Reasons Criminal History Requirements Health Requirements Training/Testing Requirements Other Requirements

Spain

18 generally.

 

14–18 requires  permit for hunting or sport shooting.

Hunting, target shooting, collection, self-defense, or security.

Criminal and domestic-violence background checks; certification of good behavior.

Report on the applicant’s “psychophysical aptitude” conducted in designated medical facilities; physician sends final report to competent authorities of the Guardia Civil.

Theoretical and practical training and tests.

Safe storage.

Switzerland

18

For carrying license, self-defense or defense of others or property against existing dangers.

 

Militiamen permitted to retain personal ordinance after termination of service.

 

For handgun-aquisitions license, no conviction for a violent crime or other specified crimes.

For handgun-acquisitions license, not suspected of being danger to self or others; not under guardianship.

Exam for theoretical and practical skills.

 

European Union

 

[Minimum Standards for EU Members]

18 generally;

 

Below 18 for hunting and target shooting, subject to parental consent or guidance of licensed adult, or at approved training center.

“Good cause” as determined by individual EU Members.

Conviction for violent, intentional crime may indicate propensity for posing danger to self or society.

Must not be a danger to self or the public.

[not regulated by EU Directives]

Certain firearms subject to permit, others to declaration.

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Restrictions on Certain Types and Quanties of Firearms and Ammunition

All countries surveyed regulate the type and quantity of firearms and ammunition that can be acquired or possessed by license holders.

The European Union (EU) Directives, which lay down minimum standards for Member States, ban the sale and use of explosive military missiles and launchers; automatic firearms; firearms disguised as other objects; ammunition with penetrating, explosive, or incendiary projectiles; and pistol and revolver ammunition with expanding projectiles.

In complying with EU Directives and introducing additional restrictions, Germany bans both fully automatic and semiautomatic weapons that are not intended for hunting or marksmanship.  It further bans pump-action shotguns with pistol grips or of a short overall length; concealed, technically advanced devices; and some multiple-shot semiautomatics in calibers less than 6.3 mm.  Spain similarly bans automatic firearms; those disguised as other objects; armor-piercing, incendiary, and expanding ammunition; and “firearms designed for war use.”  Similar prohibitions apply in Great Britain, which bans military-style weapons and firearms disguised as other objects.

Many countries in and outside of the EU prohibit “military style” and other high capacity weapons.  Australia bans certain semiautomatic and self-loading rifles or shotguns; Brazil restricts some firearms for use by armed forces, public security institutions, and qualified persons and corporations.  Similar restrictions exist in Japan, which bans all “military” weapons from civilians.  Canada prohibits most 32- and 25-caliber handguns and those with a barrel length of 105 mm or shorter, fully automatic weapons, converted automatics, firearms with a sawed-off barrel, and some military rifles like the AK 47.  The Russian Federation bans many types of high-capacity firearms and cartridges.

Norway, Switzerland, and South Africa specifically ban fully automatic weapons; in addition, Norway bans some semiautomatic weapons and other types of firearms disguised as other objects.  In addition to banning fully automatic firearms, South Africa generally prohibits transactions involving, among other things, guns, cannons, recoilless guns, mortars, light mortars or launchers manufactured to fire rockets, grenades, self-propelled grenades, bombs, and explosive devices.  The list of banned weapons further includes the frame, body, or barrel of such weapons as well as any imitations or alterations.  As in many other countries, the manufacture and sale of imitation guns is prohibited in China, a country that maintains strict control of the manufacturing of firearms by ensuring that designs for firearms are developed by the State Council or Ministry of Public Security.

Israel is one of many countries that strictly regulate not only the type but also the quantity of firearms and ammunition for civilian use.  As a general rule, in Israel an individual who qualifies for a license may be eligible for only one firearm and fifty bullets.  Possession of additional firearms may be licensed for special reasons, including when the additional firearm is an air or BB gun, when it is designed to be held as memorabilia, or when it is required for sports or for the prevention of harm to agriculture.

The survey includes two additional Middle Eastern countries—Egypt and Lebanon. Egypt, a country that recently underwent a change of leadership and is still in turmoil, has legislation that prohibits automatic assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), gun silencers, and telescopic equipment used with weapons, but it appears that these laws are not currently being enforced.  In Lebanon, where several armed groups operating outside any legal framework are known to exist, the law prohibits the acquisition, possession, or transport of military- or combat-style arms for civilians except in the case of disturbances or as specified by a permit from the Minister of National Defense.

In New Zealand, a total ban on military-style semiautomatic weapons was rejected in the face of opposition from user groups and the estimated cost of such a measure in terms of providing adequate compensation to current owners.

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National Register

Many of the countries surveyed require transactions involving firearms to be recorded.  Australia, Brazil, Canada, Egypt, Germany, Israel, Singapore, Spain, and South Africa maintain national firearms registries.  The EU is requiring all of its Member States to establish registries of firearms by December 2014, to which only designated authorities will have access. 

Great Britain, Russia, and Switzerland currently maintain local rather than central registers of firearms.

Statistical Data on the Distribution of Firearms and Their Use in Violent Crimes

Among the countries surveyed, several appear to have experienced a reduction in the number of firearms in civilian circulation and in firearms-related crimes and deaths in recent years.  Japan and Israel, for example, have steadily reduced the number of firearms licenses granted to civilians.  In Israel, where 300,000 licenses were issued in the late 1980s during the first Intifada, the number of firearms’ licenses had decreased to 170,000 by June 2012 and continues to decline.

In Australia, the number of victims of firearms-related homicides declined by half in the period between 1989–90 and 2009–10 (from 24 to 12%); Brazil experienced a reduction of 60.1% in the number of homicides between 2001 and 2007.  In Canada, firearms-related homicides declined over the past thirty years and fell nearly 30% over the past four years alone.  New Zealand’s firearms-related deaths were also found to have decreased in the past twenty years.

In Great Britain the use of firearms in offenses decreased in 2010–11 by 13% from the previous year.  However, despite the country’s stringent gun laws, illegal handguns can be easily purchased and newspapers have reported that in the two years after the 1997 ban on handguns following the Dunblane massacre, the number of crimes in which handguns were carried increased by 40%.

South Africa’s firearms-related crimes have reportedly dropped since enforcement of that country’s stricter firearms-control law commenced in 2004.  However, a direct causal connection has not yet been established because the South African Police Service stopped releasing data on the subject after 2000.

The country reports provide examples of countries with very low rates of crime involving firearms.  In China, for example, where civilian gun ownership is generally prohibited, only 500 criminal offenses were reportedly committed with guns in 2011, in a country whose population numbers 1.34 billion.  In Japan, where 271,100 guns were licensed in 2011, the number of gun-violence victims for the year was eight.  In Spain the rate of deaths by firearms is 0.63 per 100,000 people, according to a 2010 report.  Statistical data from Great Britain indicates that in 2008–2009 firearms were used in only 0.3% of all recorded crimes and were responsible for the deaths of thirty-nine people.

A direct correlation between statistical data provided in the individual country reports and specific legal requirements imposed by these countries cannot be established, given the different variables that are relevant to each country’s legal, social, and cultural conditions, and the varied sources of information on which the data was based.

Prepared by Ruth Levush
Senior Foreign Law Specialist
and Project Coordinator
February 2013

 

*The countries surveyed include Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Egypt, Germany, Great Britain, Israel, Japan, Lebanon, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Russia, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, and Switzerland.  These countries and the EU were selected based on interest in their firearms-control laws and the way these laws are implemented, the desire to cover a wide selection of continents and cultures, and the current availability of staff expertise at the Law Library of Congress. The individual country and EU surveys will be added to this web page as they become available. [Back to Text]

 

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Last Updated: 09/16/2014