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The fatal shooting of former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe at a campaign event Friday has shocked a country that has some of the world’s strictest laws on gun ownership — a nation where political assassinations have been rare in recent decades.

Police soon described the weapon used to kill Abe as “homemade.” Firearms experts consulted by The Washington Post said it had an unusual and crude design, an apparently successful attempt to get past laws restricting the sales of firearms and ammunition in Japan.

“In firearms context, it’s going to be a low-power device,” Robert Walker, a longtime crime scene investigator and author of “A Field Guide to Ghost Guns,” said after reviewing images and videos of the weapon. “It’s not going to be particularly accurate. It’s not going to be particularly long-ranged. But let’s face it, it doesn’t have to be.”

The 67-year-old Abe, Japan’s longest-serving prime minister and a staunch U.S. ally, was shot in the western city of Nara while giving a speech ahead of elections for the upper house of parliament.

The Post’s Tokyo bureau chief Michelle Ye Hee Lee explains what we know about the assassination of Japan’s former prime minister on July 8. (Video: Alexa Juliana Ard, Michelle Lee/The Washington Post)

How hard is it to get a gun in Japan?

Anyone wanting to own a gun in Japan must apply for a permit, which starts with attending a class on gun safety and passing a written test.

The lengthy process involves background checks on family, work and criminal records, and it requires a medical certificate that attests to the applicant’s mental health. Police look into details like potential alcohol problems or whether the individual has a history of domestic or neighborhood disputes. An officer also will visit the applicant’s home to inspect the locker that is legally required for storing a gun and should be affixed to a wall; the rules specify that it must have three outer locks.

In addition, an applicant must take a full-day training course on safe shooting and practicing techniques before a permit is granted.

In 2020, Japan had nearly 192,000 licensed firearms, largely shotguns and hunting rifles, according to the National Police Agency. The country’s population totals about 125 million.

In Japan, even the gun enthusiasts welcome restrictions on firearms

How rare are shootings in Japan?

“Gun violence is very, very rare,” noted Satona Suzuki, a lecturer in Japanese history at SOAS University of London.

With stringent restrictions on firearms, gun violence is often associated with the yakuza, the Japanese criminal network. Last year, 10 shootings were reported in Japan not involving accidents or suicides. They led to one death and four injuries. Of the incidents, police linked eight to the yakuza.

Political assassinations that were a feature of the late 1920s and 1930s have been considered “a thing of the past,” according to Suzuki.

The attack on Abe will leave people “shocked,” she said. “They’ll be scared, but it’s not like America. It’s not crazy gunmen going to schools or malls.”

Abe’s own grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, survived a stabbing assassination attempt in 1960 when he was prime minister.

In 1992, a gunman failed to injure Deputy Prime Minister Shin Kanemaru — like Abe, a member of the Liberal Democratic Party. Two years later, former prime minister Morihiro Hosokawa was unharmed after a shooter fired at him at a Tokyo hotel.

In 2007, the mayor of Nagasaki, Ito Itcho, was fatally shot by a man whom authorities described as a member of an organized crime group.

What gun did the suspect use in Abe’s shooting?

Police in Nara confirmed Friday that the suspect had made the weapon himself. Multiple guns confiscated from his home after a search were similar to the weapon used in the attack, they said.

Photographs and videos of the weapon, which police said was 43 cm (nearly 16 inches) long, suggested that it was improvised using items like pipes, wood, tape and batteries. Firearms experts who reviewed images of the weapon at The Post’s request confirmed that it was not industrially produced. Rather, the two-barreled firearm was what they described as “craft-made,” probably from a wide range of readily obtainable materials.

“This isn’t a design we are immediately familiar with,” said N.R. Jenzen-Jones, director of Armament Research Services. “Often with craft-produced firearms, they follow a common pattern, and you see them pop up around the world.”

Whether the suspect designed the weapon himself or drew on someone else’s design is unclear. Jenzen-Jones said he was able to find at least one similar design online that included instructions for production.

Japanese media reported that the suspect had served in the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force. “The gunman may have drawn inspiration maybe from different online sources or his own technical background,” Walker said.

In a message, Andrei Serbin Pont, a security analyst with the Buenos Aires-based Regional Coordinator for Economic and Social Research, said the weapon appeared designed to get around restrictions not only on firearms but also ammunition. He suggested that the cloud of smoke shown in photos might indicate that the weapon used homemade black powder, a crude form of gunpowder or, more likely, firecrackers as the propellant to force a projectile from the barrel.

Firecrackers “makes sense, being that they are readily available in Japan,” he added.

Adela Suliman in London and Michelle Ye Hee Lee in Tokyo contributed to this report.

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