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Already-strict Japanese want even tougher gun laws

Seventeen people were killed by gunfire last year in Japan, about the same number as on a slow afternoon in the United States. In the country of some of the world's toughest gun laws, handguns are illegal, police inspect homes to make sure hunting rifles are under lock and key, and possessing a single bullet can result in a $10,000 fine and five years in prison.

The laws are so strict that Japan's national team in the biathlon, an Olympic sport combining cross-country skiing and shooting, was practicing in Russia last week because the laws make it so hard to find a place to practice here. Japanese authorities fretted that the athletes might accidentally pick off a bird or a skier if they practiced on the course near Nagano where next year's winter Olympics will be held.

As strict as the laws are, the public is clamoring for the government to make them even tougher. Although this is still one of the least violent societies in the world, and the vast majority of violence is committed by yakuza gangsters against one another, many Japanese people feel the "American disease" of guns is spreading here.

Chinese and Russian mobsters have recently increased their smuggling of guns into the country. The street price for many black-market handguns has dropped from about $3,000 a couple of years ago to $500.

Prices are so low that guns have spread for the first time from organized mobsters into the hands of extortionists, political extremists, petty criminals and even law-abiding people who have taken a fancy to guns.

Perhaps even more upsetting to Japan's collective psyche is that young people are showing more interest in guns. A recent police survey showed that one in three Japanese men in their 20s would like to own a gun, or at least fire one.

In the markets in Tokyo's Ueno district, young people are snapping up $100 toy guns made of black plastic that look and feel remarkably like the real thing _ and thousands more are being bought across the country.

"It's become a fad, a cool thing, to like guns," said Michiko Nagashima, 49, a security company employee. "This is a bad import from the West."

In the past few years, more and more Japanese tourists have traveled to the United States or Guam _ the closest U.S. territory to Japan _ for "gun tours." They travel to fire guns at shooting ranges the way some people travel to play golf.

"If you go to the U.S., you can shoot a gun for $50 or $100. Japanese people want to do it for the experience," said Keizo Kimura, 37, an office clerk in Tokyo, who took a trip to Guam with his friends to blast away with semi-automatic weapons.

One tour brochure advertised $1,000 tours to San Francisco and Los Angeles, where the traveler could "experience 200 types of firearms." The Japan Travel Bureau canceled a series of gun-shooting tours to the United States because, as a company spokesman said, "We decided there was a moral problem with these tours; that they were against the good of society."

Although people fear that Japan is becoming "more like America" in terms of gun crime, the comparison is still far-fetched.

Compared with the few dozen gun-related killings here in the past few years, there are about 16,000 gun-related killings in the United States each year. Counting homicides, suicides and accidents, an average of 100 people die by gunfire every day in the United States.

While owning a handgun is a legal right in the United States, and an estimated 75-million handguns are in private hands in America, in Japan only 65 civilians _ all sportsmen _ legally own handguns. The government is so strict on this point that the location of the nation's only factory producing handguns for use in law enforcement is secret.

It is getting harder to keep foreign guns out of Japan. As Japan allows more foreign imported goods across its borders, smugglers are concealing illegal guns in ships and goods.

More than 800 guns from South Africa have been seized, including many packed in a ship alongside tuna. Other smugglers have simply mailed weapons to Japan.

"The traditional smuggling route used to be from the U.S. and Philippines, but it has now diversified to Russia, China, South Africa and Peru," according to the National Police Agency's recently released annual crime report.

Japan's notorious yakuza gangsters are doing almost all of the smuggling and the vast majority of the trigger-pulling. Of the 17 gun-related deaths last year, 11 involved one mobster's killing another. And two-thirds of 1,549 firearms seized last year were taken from yakuza.

But the Japanese see those statistics as a glass half-empty _ they are far more concerned with the six non-yakuza who were shot dead than with 11 dead gangsters.

"Six deaths of non-gangsters is way too high," said Kimura, who took the gun tour to Guam. He said he much prefers the gun laws in his country to those in the United States.