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What America can learn from South Korea’s model of gun regulation

An example is for the U.S. to create safe-gun-storage laws and universal background checks.

The Atlanta-area shootings that happened on March 16 left me in shock. It felt too real for me. Six of the eight victims were women of Asian descent, and four of them were Korean. All I could think of was my family and my community back home.

I am a second generation Korean American, born and raised in the South. I currently reside in the Twin Cities. My parents immigrated in the 1980s from South Korea. I grew up in a community with many Asian immigrants, specifically Korean immigrants and children of Korean immigrants like me.

Because of my Korean connection and experience, I can see quite clearly the impacts of gun violence and the obvious first steps for us to take to reduce gun violence.

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In 2016, South Korea only had five gun homicides. Per 100,000 people, that number is 0.00005, an extremely small number. On the other hand, the U.S. reported 4.1 gun homicides per 100,000 people. Gun homicides are only a small piece, but this paints a grim picture of the problem of gun violence.

Yes, South Korea is a much smaller country. Yes, the number of firearms they have is significantly lower than the U.S. However, South Korea actually had frequent gun homicides before extensive gun regulations.

1970s regulations proved effective

After the Korean War, civilian gun violence was quite prevalent throughout the country. It wasn’t until the 1970s that they passed strict gun regulations and state-led gun confiscations. These regulations proved to be effective as gun violence began to decrease. Now, it’s extremely rare to hear about any gun violence.

Eric Ryu
Eric Ryu
In the U.S. though, gun violence has been an increasing problem. In 2019, there were about 417 incidents of mass shooting, an increase in the total from 2018. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that there were 39,707 U.S. firearm-related deaths in 2019. Statistics and reports clearly show it’s a huge problem. Laws regarding gun control are one piece to address this problem.

Growing up, I was only allowed to watch one show during the weekdays: the local evening news. It was not exciting, but it was my one chance to watch TV. While watching the news, I noticed how often I saw reports on gun violence.

I still have family in South Korea, so I’ve been back to South Korea with my family quite often. Whenever I was in South Korea and watched the news, I rarely ever saw any reports on gun violence. I wondered how South Korea had little to no gun violence.

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South Korea has extremely strict gun regulations. Private guns for hunting or target practice must be stored and registered at local police stations.

All gun owners receive and regularly renew gun permits. These permits require extensive background checks. To receive and renew a permit, a prospective gun owner must provide documents to prove legitimate reasons for gun ownership and physical and psychiatric assessments.

Small changes could save lives

Is it possible to follow a similar model here to South Korea’s gun regulations? I believe so, and we should. I don’t expect anything as strict as South Korea because I want to think realistically. As much as I would like big, immediate changes, I know that is not feasible. Baby steps are a win for us. They could have saved a handful of lives, like the Asian women from the Atlanta-area shootings.

So let’s pass safe-gun-storage laws to prevent unauthorized users from accessing and using firearms, which can reduce suicides and accidental gun deaths.

Gun owners should have the right to keep their firearms at home. But when they are not in use, they should be unloaded and locked at home when not in use. When owners buy firearms from dealer sales AND private sales, locks must accompany the sales.

Another way is passing universal background checks to close the loopholes in federal gun laws. Unlicensed sellers must be made to perform background checks before selling firearms. These universal background checks would prevent those who have been convicted of violent crimes and those who are ineligible due to mental health reasons to purchase any firearms.

Yes, I acknowledge that we Americans hate seeing these comparisons, but there is so much we can learn from South Korea. The numbers show it.

I’ve stayed silent for way too long and have grown to become numb to gun violence. The impact of the Atlanta-area shootings felt too real as all I could think about were my family, friends, and the AAPI community. Now it’s time for me to take action and to use what I’ve learned. It hurts to see that many of these shootings could have been prevented. There is no simple solution, but we can start with safe-storage laws and universal background checks.

Eric Ryu is a Korean American immigration attorney and a graduate student currently pursuing a master of human rights degree at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota. He grew up in Dallas, Texas, and currently lives in Minneapolis. 

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