I came across this passage on Wikipedia and it startled me: "In South Korea, it is a capital offense for anyone not related to military to own or distribute firearms" Is this true?
Clinging to my guns and religion
No, it is not true. (As the Korean said repeatedly, please don't trust Wikipedia when it comes to discussions about finer points of Korean life.) But owning or distributing firearms in Korea is definitely against the law. Consequently, there is virtually no guns available to civilians, except for hunting rifles. (We will get to that in a bit.)
This question jumped the line in light of the terrorist shooting in Arizona. The Korean wants to make a clear point here: it is eminently possible to eradicate guns from a society -- even in a society where nearly every single adult men are familiar with guns (during their military service.) And eliminating guns from a society is easier than eliminating crazy people.
Here is how gun regulations work in Korea. Guns are regulated along with all weaponry, which are in three categories: guns, knives and explosives. Guns include all firearms and air- and gas-powered rifles. Knives with blades longer than 15 cm (about six inches!) are also regulated. Separately, pepper sprays, tasers and crossbows are also regulated. Importantly, even the mock weapon that have no capacity of hurting anyone is regulated the same way. (Sometimes, this provision actually prompts complaints from Korean movie directors about the red tapes through which they must wade in order to film war movies.)
First, the manufacturing. No one who has been convicted of a crime and received a jail sentence (including suspended sentence) can enter into manufacturing of any weaponry. People who want to import, export or sell weapons have to receive a permit from the local police office. Again, you cannot sell weapons if you are a convicted criminal who received jail sentence.
Second, possession. Everyone requires a permit from the police office to own a gun. The following types of people cannot legally own a gun:
- People under age 20, except for a training athlete with a permit.
- People with impaired mental capacity, including those who have been convicted of drug addiction.
- People who committed crime and received a jail sentence (including suspended sentence.)
All other people may own a gun with a permit from the police office, renewable every five years. The permit is essentially a license, and one has to take classes on gun safety in order to receive a permit. If you own a gun without a permit, the maximum penalty is 2 years in prison. If you lost your legally owned gun, you must report to the police immediately. If a person happened to find a gun on the street, she is required by law to report it to the police within 24 hours of discovery.
In practice, only hunters own guns in Korea. (And hunters are not many in Korea.) By regulation, hunters cannot keep their guns all the time -- they must keep their guns at the police station during off-season. Handguns are pretty much nonexistent among civilians.
If a gun-related incident does happen in Korea, it is pretty much limited to the weapons procured from the military one way or the other. For example in 2005, a private who was not adjusting well to the military life threw a grenade and fired his rifle into his barracks, killing eight and injuring two. (He was arrested and sentenced to death.) -EDIT 1/11/11- As commenter Adeel pointed out, the worst gun-related murder in Korea happened in 1982, when a renegade police officer stole two rifles and seven grenades from a nearby military base. He went on an all-nighter rampage over four rural villages, killing 56(!) people before blowing himself up with a grenade. He was able to do this by first killing the telephone operators for the village, cutting off communications with the outside world. (Goes to show how far back Korea was -- in 1982, rural villages still had switchboard operators.)
The example to closest to the Arizona shooting that the Korean could think of -- in a sense that a civilian attacked a public official with a legally obtained ranged weapon -- is an incident in 2007, when a person shot with a crossbow a judge who ruled against him. The judge only suffered minor injuries, and no one else was hurt.
Obviously, getting America's gun regulation to Korea's level would be a difficult task, because Korea's history has no element like America's historical relationship with guns. But know this: when gun advocates say something like "Psychopaths will find a way to kill with or without guns", they are blatantly lying. Despite filled with people with famously fiery temper, Korea has never suffered a mass murder like the ones happened in Columbine or Virginia Tech, in which civilians were able to kill scores of people with legally obtained guns. In fact, on occasions when Koreans manage to get their hands on guns, they plainly show that Korea's low, low crime rate is not because Koreans are angels. So what is easier to believe -- that Korea is completely devoid of nut cases, or Korea is completely devoid of guns?
Got a question or comment for the Korean? Email away at firstname.lastname@example.org.