Do other countries have a constitutional right to bear arms?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Dec. 14 2010 4:09 PM

Have Gun, Want To Travel

Do other countries have a constitutional right to bear arms?

Gun.
A pistol.

The United Arab Emirates dropped all charges Monday against an American soldier arrested for traveling with gun accessories. It's illegal for foreigners to carry firearms or other weapons paraphernalia into the country without a special permit. Do any foreign states guarantee the right to keep and bear arms like we do in the United States?

Yes. Mexico, Haiti, and Guatemala all enshrine the right to pack heat in their constitutions. Guatemala's Article 38 is the only one that's as broad as our Second Amendment (it guarantees "the right of possession of arms for personal use"). Article 10 of the Mexican constitution and Article 268-1 of Haiti's constitution limit the right to the confines of the home and allow the government to pass laws significantly restricting ownership. Mexicans, for example, are supposed to get a permit, renewable every year, from the military, and all firearms must be registered. (The law is widely ignored. Only 4,300 licenses have been issued for Mexico's 105 million people.) Handguns must be .380 caliber or less, shotguns can't be greater than 12 gauge, and rifles must be .30 caliber or smaller.

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A constitutional provision doesn't necessarily guarantee easy access to firearms or a country full of gun enthusiasts. While the United States has 90 guns per 100 people—the highest ownership rate in the world—Mexico has just 15, placing it 22nd among the 59 countries for which data is available.

If you're looking to commune with other gun owners abroad, you might consider traveling to Switzerland, where there are 46 guns per 100 people. The Swiss national legislature could, theoretically, ban gun ownership tomorrow since there's no constitutional guarantee. For now, however, the famously neutral government not only permits gun ownership, but also issues an automatic rifle to every male when he becomes eligible for military service at age 20. Female volunteers are also armed. On Sundays, tourists can see the Swiss head to firing ranges on trains and buses with their rifles resting on their shoulders. The country hosts the world's largest rifle shooting competition in the world every five years. Gun ownership laws have tightened up on handguns and non-military weapons in the last 10 years, but it's still reasonably easy to get a handgun permit.

If you find rifles too tame, you could try Yemen, the second-most heavily armed country in the world with 61 guns per 100 people. (Many observers think that estimate is far too low, and that Yemenis own more weapons than even Americans.) Yemeni tribesmen are known to maintain arsenals of machine guns and hand grenades. The country requires weapons sellers to keep detailed records of their transactions and the buyers' identities, but the laws are completely ignored. Urbanites are supposed to have licenses for their guns (tribal areas have different laws), and the government occasionally goes on enforcement sweeps, but arrests are generally rare even in Sana'a, the capital city.

East Asia is the most restrictive region for gun enthusiasts. Private gun ownership is illegal in Singapore, and Japanese citizens can only get their hands on a shotgun after taking classes and passing written and marksmanship tests. The European state of Luxembourg is also very anti-gun. There's a complete ban there, and the country donated a sculpture of a revolver with its barrel tied in a knot to the United Nations in 1988.

For the most part, countries that permit their citizens to own firearms also allow tourists to bring them in. But don't just box up your flintlock and toss it in with your other luggage. All countries require you to get a permit in advance, and you usually have to get an acknowledgement of legal ownership from your home country. If you skip this step, penalties can be steep. In Mexico, for example, foreigners caught with unlicensed firearms or ammo can spend up to 30 years in prison.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Stephen P. Halbrook, author of Target Switzerland: Swiss Armed Neutrality in World War II, and David Kopel of the Independence Institute.

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Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and Earthwire. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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