Going out with a bang

By Huang Jingjing Source:Global Times Published: 2012-7-11 22:24:15

Illegal firearms are displayed before being destroyed by police in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, on June 12. Photo: CFP
Illegal firearms are displayed before being destroyed by police in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, on June 12. Photo: CFP

Early on July 1, a 48-year-old factory boss surnamed Nan was shot through the head while on the way to do his morning exercise in Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province. He later died in hospital. Police later announced that they found the murderer surnamed Lin who was found dead with a gun beside his body. The two were involved in a dispute over money that resulted in the murder.

The case sparked fresh concerns on gun use in China, coming so shortly after the country launched an unprecedented nationwide anti-gun campaign and announced that gun crimes had dropped to a record low.

On June 12, police officers in 150 cities began a joint campaign to destroy illegal guns and explosives they had confiscated. Over 100,000 guns and more than 250 tons of explosives were destroyed, according to the Ministry of Public Security (MPS).

Crimes involving firearms dropped to about 500 in 2011 from 5,000 in 2000, while those with explosives decreased from 4,000 in 2000 to 200 last year.

China has a strict ban on the private ownership of firearms and explosives. The law stipulates that all individuals are prohibited from owning, making, assembling, transporting or selling guns. Nevertheless, violators still risk the death penalty for serious offenses.

Despite the sharp decline, the ministry started a new anti-gun campaign in February, to last until the end of the year. So far, over 50,000 guns, 2.4 million bullets, 5.6 tons of explosives and 4.5 million detonators were confiscated, the ministry said in a press release in June. The campaign also saw the arrest of 7,800 suspects and the dismantling of 180 gangs.

The campaign is regarded as an effort to improve security ahead of the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, which is to convene in October and will set the stage for China's leadership transition.

Going underground

Despite the continuous crackdown, the underground gun trade remains strong. Sometimes, gun vendors boldly open stalls in highway service areas or makeshift shooting galleries. In some large markets, gun vendors are also hidden in back alleys. In Hebei's Baigou, China's largest luggage and bag wholesale market, gun traders secretly peddle their wares.

While on the Internet, gun trade runs rampant. Various online forums, websites and news portals display gun advertisements and online sales networks have been formed.

Some dealers have even set up online shops and although many have been busted, they continue to find ways to sell underground. For example, the word "dog" is used to replace "gun," leading to sales of "air dogs" and "hand dogs" while bullets are referred to as "dog food."

A search for "air dog" returns scores of results and links to e-mails and telephone numbers. One man reached by the Global Times through such adverts denied any connection to the gun trade while another one from Fujian, speaking anonymously, said he had left the business behind.

"The crackdown is intense. The business is too risky," he said. "But it's not difficult to buy an imitation gun. In Hong Kong, there's a street full of stores selling them," He stressed that arms enthusiasts like to collect them. However, the imitation guns can be lethal to human beings, and their manufacture and sales are also prohibited.

In December 2011, four military enthusiasts, all office workers in Shanghai, were arrested for possessing 10 imitation guns they purchased online, including pistols and rifles. They were later sentenced to between 18 months and five years on probation.

Posing as customer

One Global Times reporter posed as a customer and contacted a seller through a post on a forum. He soon replied with a link to a website showing a range of professional firearms, with pictures and prices. Each gun, from handguns to sniper rifles, had a range of information available, including place of origin, material, caliber, length and firing range. US, German, British and Chinese weapons were all for sale.

The seller was very cautious and replied in very short statements to every inquiry. He refused to give a discount, but said 20 percent of the fee would have to be paid upfront, with the rest payable upon delivery. The ammunition would be provided free of charge and the delivery would be made through a private and confidential freight service.

To other questions, including his location, how to make sure the weapons were genuine, or how many deals he had made, the seller remained silent and became suspicious. Minutes later, the website was taken down but one alternate version of it remained accessible. A domain name search revealed they were registered in Zhuhai, Guangdong Province and Zibo, Shandong Province.

"Due to their high alertness and the difficulty of tracing them and gathering solid evidence, these networks are much harder to crack than imagined," Chen Tianben, an associate professor at the Chinese People's Public Security University, told the Global Times. "They always change domains and IP addresses. And the deliveries are made through private logistics channels and are hard to detect." 

On July 10, a delivery worker in Luoyang, Henan Province, went to the police when he discovered a gun from a broken package. The police then confiscated 32 imitation guns and 30,000 bullets in four boxes.

Ji, 28, from Beijing who purchased a pistol online two years ago revealed the gun was hidden within batches of clothes sent to Beijing from Guangzhou.

"As the package arrived in Beijing with the clothes, they told me to fetch it. I love military paraphernalia. Now I just keep it at home. I won't use it or hurt others," Ji told the Global Times.

But not all military fans are so cautious and some pay the price. In May 2011, gun shots were heard around midnight in a residential community in the Huangpu district of Shanghai. Some residents found their windows broken the next morning. The 22-year-old arms enthusiast Liu Xiaochuan was soon arrested. He had bought five guns for 4,000 yuan in total, including two sniper rifles, through the Internet. In August, Liu was sentenced to eight months in prison.

He Li, an official with the MPS said in 2010 that 80 percent of guns in China come from underground plants and gun smugglers. Most of them were smuggled across the border from Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam and Myanmar.

"With more people growing richer and having more contact with the outside world, some lawbreakers have found the opportunity to smuggle firearms into the country," Guo Guangyun, an associate professor of public security at the China Criminal Police University in Shenyang, told the Global Times.

In a recent case in June, US and Chinese police jointly cracked a major international arms ring and arrested 28 suspects, including three in the US, according to the MPS. A total of 105 guns, some 50,000 bullets and a "large amount" of gun components were confiscated.


The evidence shows that the gun ban has been effective in protecting public safety, as criminal cases involving firearms are extremely rare compared with some other countries.

In China last year, there were only about 70 gun-related fatal incidents, much lower than in some other countries. In the US, where ordinary citizens are allowed to possess guns, each year sees about 30,000 deaths and 200,000 injuries due to guns.

However, there are controversies concerning China's policy as civilians are allowed to possess guns in countries like the US, Canada and Brazil.

There have often been individual appeals, calling for families to be allowed to possess a gun for self-protection.

"I think it would be alright if the ban was overturned. In emergencies, the police can hardly show up in time, especially since in China, helicopters are still rarely used. In those cases, people can defend themselves with a gun," Ji said.

Some netizens also cited that forced demolitions would be curbed if individuals had guns.

"Firearms are a double-edged sword. It indeed can be a weapon for self-protection and defense, and for people to fight against injustice and a violent administration," Chen told the Global Times. "But a country's control policy is closely related to its culture, history and reality."

In addition to having the largest population in the world, a still lacking respect for human life is the major reason for China's harsh gun control policy, Chen said.

"It is clear to me that violent cases would rise if China lifted the firearm ban," he added.

Guo echoed Chen, saying that the gun ban should stay in place. "The social environment is complicated, the law structure on firearms is not perfect, the prevention and control ability needs to be improved," she said.

There have been proposals to intensify law enforcement on gun control. In 2006, 37 deputies to the National People's Congress proposed to revise the law, saying there were still loopholes, such as loose rules on gun storage and usage and poor awareness about gun safety.

The MPS declared back in 2007 that it had begun research into revising the law. But nothing has been heard about it since.


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