Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights

CHINA: Strict Gun Control Laws Fail to Curb Violent Crime

Mitch Moxley

BEIJING, Jun 22 2010 (IPS) - China and guns have a long history.

The country invented gun power and developed one of the world’s first guns, known as the “fire spear.” Rifles played a major role in China’s modern history, from the fight against the Japanese army to the Communist’s victory over the Nationalists. In 1938, Mao Zedong famously said that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”

That comment perhaps foreshadowed the gun control laws later implemented by Mao and the Communist Party – some of the most severe firearms laws in the world. China has imposed a blanket ban on gun ownership, including replicas. Since 1966, the government has prohibited the private manufacture, sale, transport, possession and import or export of bullets and guns.

Possessing a single gun can yield a three-year prison sentence, while perpetrators of gun crimes are often executed.

Yet despite harsh penalties, China’s Ministry of Public Safety (MPS) has said it increasingly faces armed suspects. In the most recent high-profile case last month, a security guard in Hunan province in south-central China, apparently upset by a court-imposed divorce settlement, shot and killed three judges and wounded three others before turning the gun on himself.

It was not an isolated incident. In early 2007, a man in north-east China killed five family members and neighbours in a rampage with a homemade pistol. In September 2007, a man in Guangzhou city in southern China was sentenced to 19 years after using a replica gun to rob a bank customer. And in December 2008, a guard at a munitions depot shot and killed a colleague over a chess match, and was shot to death himself by police two days later.

Guns figured prominently during the 2008 unrest in the Tibetan Autonomous Region, when a policeman and a Tibetan insurgent were killed during a gun battle.

“There has been an increase [of gun crime] in recent years,” said Ding Xinzhen of Chongqing Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of Law. “It can be attributed to the rich-poor gap and unfair distribution of social benefits, together with inefficient government management [of gun laws].”

The growth of gun crimes being reported in state media coincides with the development of a gun culture in China. Web sites and magazines cater to the growing market. For instance, ‘Small Arms’, a bi-weekly glossy magazine, has 60,000 subscribers, and guns are regularly featured in Chinese films. The government has green-lighted shooting clubs in some cities, and businessmen are turning to hunting as a leisure activity.

Freshman college students can receive basic training in marksmanship, a sport China thrived in during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

China is one of the world’s largest gun manufacturers, and many guns end up in the black market because of lax control at factories and theft from armories. Ding said other black market guns in China are homemade weapons of poor quality. Other better-quality guns are smuggled into China through Burma. Prices for smuggled weapons range from about 500 to 2,000 renminbi (around 73 to 294 U.S. dollars), Ding said.

Li Dafu, a lawyer from Henghexin law firm in Chengdu, Sichuan province in south-west China, said that while the country has adequate gun control regulations, the laws are often poorly enforced, particularly at the local government level.

Li, who is also an expert on gun crime and gun control law in China, pointed to a massive criminal trial last year in Chongqing city in south-west China, where a massive crackdown on organised crime netted some 2,000 suspects and 48 guns, and revealed a connection between gangs and government officials.

“The Chongqing gang cases tell us that in some places the local government has a beneficial relationship with local crime groups. They turn a blind eye when it concerns illegal gun use,” Li said.

In fact, Chongqing has become a hotbed of illegal gun trafficking. In January 2009, police netted 470 suspects and 183 firearms following a 40-day campaign. In 2008, Chongqing municipal public security bureau statistics showed 339 cases involving illegal guns.

China’s government periodically hosts rallies where citizens are encouraged to surrender guns in exchange for cash. One six-month campaign in 2008 netted 79,000 guns, 1.8 replica guns and 5.75 million bullets, according to the MPS.

China introduced gun control in 1966, after children armed with rifles shot out a window at the Great Hall of the People at the Tiananmen Square in Beijing while trying to hit a sparrow, according to official MPS history. The government cracked down harder on gun ownership after the 1989 pro- democracy demonstrations.

It needs to crack down even harder on today’s rising gun crime.

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