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By Matt Poulter, eChinacities.com |
Guns and politics are often interlinked. In America the Second Amendment enshrines the right of Americans to bear firearms while in China it was Mao who famously commented that 'political power grows from the barrel of a gun' (枪杆子里面出政权- qianganzi lichu zhengquan). Guns also had a large part to play in the violent birth of both nation states. But modern America, and indeed many Western countries, have a very different relationship with guns than modern China does. Rarely a day passes in America or Western Europe where a shooting does not feature in the news, while in China an event like the fatal shooting in Nanjing last month of a man at a bank made headlines because of its relative unusualness. Just why is there so much less gun crime in China compared to Western countries, despite its size and the enormous task faced by the authorities in policing firearms?
According to Gunpolicy.org, which references Karp's Small Arms Survey 2007, Cambridge University Press, there are over 40,000,000 privately held guns in China (numbers are only estimates due to the difficulty in sourcing information in this field in China). That might sound like a lot but when you compare that figure to the total population of China and contrast it to the 270,000,000 guns which are privately held in the US it suddenly doesn't seem too bad! In fact in an estimated ranking of the rate of private gun ownership, China ranks 102 out of 179 countries while America is, you've guessed it, number 1.
While there are no figures for China for the amount of gun homicides the overall homicide rate is 1.22/100,000 (2007), which when contrasted to the US rate of 5.61/100,000 (2007) (in light of the contrasting levels of gun ownership), suggests that guns have a large part to play in a country's murder rate. So, first and foremost you are statistically safer in China because there are fewer guns as a proportion of population.
China has some of the most stringent guns laws in the world. It is illegal for civilians to possess firearms and there is a two year prison penalty if caught doing so. Firearms are issued for certain uses such as hunting or professional shooting but are strictly licensed. In all cases fully automatic and semi automatic assault weapons are prohibited and the penalty for homicide committed with a firearm is usually death.
However, China offers a stick and carrot approach to enforcing gun law. Frequent collection and seizure programmes are run throughout the country, sometimes with financial incentives to turn in illegal firearms. Between 2005 and 2008 around 291,000 firearms were collected and destroyed in conjunction with a UN programme to eradicate illicit trade in small firearms. You are safer in China because the law comes down firmly against private gun ownership and the penalties for breaking the law are severe.
Drugs, Guns and Politics
The modern relationship between guns and drugs is well established; one is often produced to fund the sale of the other and murder and mayhem are the frequent by-product. But it was here in China during the Opium Wars mid 19th Century that an early precedent was set for this violent gun-drug symbiosis, when the British used overwhelming firepower to coerce the Qing government into allowing the import of opium. Perhaps the early experience of this drug-gun link had a factor in shaping current attitudes to gun possession and explains why gun laws are so strict (as indeed are drug laws)?
And as Mao in fact went on to say after his famous one line quote, "our principle is that the Party commands the gun, and the gun must never be allowed to command the Party." China is a country which is socially and politically biased against gun ownership, unlike America where an organisation like the NRA (which boasts millions of members) wields certain social and political influence in favour of gun ownership.
It was in 1969 that guns were formally banned in China when two boys accidentally shot out a window of the Great Hall of the People in Beijing while trying to shoot a pigeon. These days the only real guns you are likely to see in China are the over sized shotguns toted by the skinny, young security guards who accompany the cash collection vans to banks (accidentally being shot by one of these guys is probably your only real risk of gun injury in China!). Otherwise, the guns you are likely to see will be on a TV screen in a Second World War Chinese resistance movie where some invincible young heroine machine guns thousands of Japanese soldiers.
But the popularity of the gun is rising in China. The modernisation of China's military has created a fetish of modern weaponry and seen the rise in popularity of firearms magazines so common in the US. A search on Alibaba or other sourcing platform will also yield thousands of suppliers offering gun replicas and related shooting paraphernalia. Little kids are running around with toy guns all the time too now, and Counterstrike and other violent gun-based videogames have become so popular here that they do re-enactments at temple fairs.
The 2008 Olympics and China's five gold medals in shooting also arguably helped to peak interest in guns and marksmanship, and created a boon in the BB gun industry to the further detriment of China's remaining wildlife.
But overall, it is fair to say that guns have less allure and glamour to younger Chinese than to their Western counterparts. This probably also has a positive impact on the levels of gun related crime.
History, laws, and yet…
As you might expect from the country which invented gunpowder, guns have featured prominently throughout China's history and it is arguably in this history that China's current antipathy to firearm ownership can be traced. However, while having some of the strictest domestic gun ownership laws in the world, China is more relaxed when it comes to their export; the middle kingdom happens to be one of the major small and medium firearms manufacturers in the world.