Japan's strict gun laws trigger problems for Olympic shooting

For Goran Maksimovic, the extent of Japan's restrictions only became clear when he arrived to coach the national team and found he couldn't lay a finger on a gun, let alone fire one.

FILE: A lantern containing the Olympic flame is seen during an event to mark one year until the postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games at the National Stadium in Tokyo on 23 July 2020. Picture: AFP

TOKYO, Japan - Some of the world's toughest gun-control laws are posing unusual problems at the Tokyo Olympics, from the coach who can't touch a firearm to strict limits on ammunition.

For Goran Maksimovic, the extent of Japan's restrictions only became clear when he arrived to coach the national team and found he couldn't lay a finger on a gun, let alone fire one.

"I was very surprised in the beginning," said the Serb, a 10m air rifle gold-medallist at the Seoul 1988 Olympics.

"It's very difficult for the coach because sometimes you need to check that the trigger is clear, or check the weight of the trigger or help the shooter to adjust some parts," he added.

Just 500 people can own an air pistol in Japan, whose history of controlling guns and other weapons dates back hundreds of years.

Today, Japan's gun laws are among the strictest in the world, and annual deaths from firearms in the country of 125 million people are regularly in single figures.

Getting a gun licence is a long and complicated process even for Japanese citizens, who must first get a recommendation from a shooting association and then undergo strict police checks.

It is even more difficult for foreigners, with Maksimovic having to use Japanese assistants as intermediaries when he is coaching the shooting team.

But as the coronavirus-delayed Olympics loom, officials have moved to head off the worst of the problems by coming up with a series of work-arounds.


During the Games, coaches will be able to help with "minor repairs", so long as the athlete is holding the weapon.

And rules have been relaxed so that technical officials can handle firearms and inspect ammunition under International Shooting Sport Federation rules.

It's been a complicated process, National Rifle Association of Japan president Kiichiro Matsumaru told AFP.

"We were involved in negotiations with the police and government so that teams coming here wouldn't have any complaints," he said.

But despite their efforts, he fears "if they come here and feel it's inconvenient, they might complain afterwards".

Other obstacles required more complicated solutions. Japan has a limit of 800 rounds of ammunition per shooter at any one time, fewer than at previous Olympics and other international competitions.

Organisers had to come up with a "complex plan" to stop competitors potentially running out of bullets, Tokyo Games shooting sport manager Peter Underhill told AFP.

"This has been introduced specifically for Tokyo 2020, in order to help mitigate the effects of this particular piece of legislation," he said.

There will be a few options, including shipping bullets to Japan through a designated contractor, but the rounds must be stored outside the shooting venue and brought in to replenish supplies.

Teams will also be able to buy ammunition at the Olympic shooting range, though they'll have to settle for whatever is available, which may differ from their usual specifications.


National Rifle Association of India executive Ajay Singh said his shooters were happy with the solution.

"It's top-quality ammo," he told AFP.

"They specify the quality standards, so it's pretty much on track."

A 16-page guide for teams warns of "very strict legal regulations", and Matsumaru said Japan's gun laws make it difficult to host international shooting events.

They also hold back Japan compared to Asian heavyweight shooting nations China, South Korea and India, and getting youngsters into the sport is a particular challenge, he said.

Children must be 10 before they can start using an air gun, and minors are subject to strict checks.

"Before a child is given permission, a detective will go around their neighbourhood gathering information to find out what kind of kid they are," Matsumaru said.

"Neighbours will tell the parents that a detective was around asking questions, and the mother will tell the kid to quit the rifle club. It's excessively strict, and we'd like that to stop."

Still, he's proud that Japanese shooters have won six Olympic medals so far, and is hopeful the Tokyo Games could help change minds about the sport.

"Japanese people aren't really familiar with shooting sports, so if Japanese shooters do well at the Olympics, it will really put it in the spotlight," he said.

"That could give it the momentum to really become established."

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