Cops crack gun nuts

By Chang Meng Source:Global Times Published: 2013-11-25 21:18:01

Officers with the Gansu Provincial Department of Public Security coordinate the destruction of 12,252 illegally made guns and 7,568 imitation guns at a steel refinery in Lanzhou on October 31. Photo: CFP

Officers with the Gansu Provincial Department of Public Security coordinate the destruction of 12,252 illegally made guns and 7,568 imitation guns at a steel refinery in Lanzhou on October 31. Photo: CFP

Peng Di (pseudonym), an engineer from Wuhan, Central China's Hubei Province, did not expect to spend the rest of his life in prison or face the death penalty, for a hobby.

Despite the fact that China has many gun enthusiasts, the hobby has its risks. Peng went further than simply studying guns and decided to buy 1,300 air gun pellets online from a US vendor in 2011.

Peng was charged with smuggling ammunition after he bought over 1,000 non-military bullets from overseas and claimed they were steel ball bearings to escape customs checks.

Given his confession and the minor consequences of his act, Peng received a sentence of three years in jail with three years' probation based on a review approved by the Supreme People's Court, the Wuhan Intermediate People's Court revealed last week.

To prevent firearm-related crimes and maintain stability, China had a strict gun control policy for decades. Apart from  violent offenders, a number of firearms enthusiasts have been involved in similar charges in recent years as the Internet engenders a thriving market for high-end imitation guns, and makes it harder for police to track suspects down.

Easy access

According to the Law on the Control of Firearms enacted in 1996, only certified sports shooting ranges, hunting grounds, pasture areas, and wildlife protection and research institutes can apply for a civilian gun license. The manufacture and trade of imitation guns are also banned.

However, firearms enthusiasts might get tired of replicas that have weak muzzle energy, which don't meet the identification standard of a gun, or cannot fire at all, when a world of real or quality imitation guns is just a click away.

A cursory search yields hundreds of websites selling a variety of firearms from smuggled air guns to sniper rifles, usually paired with ammunition and auxiliary tools.

But the Global Times discovered that many of these websites use similar, sometimes identical product and contact information.

Powerful air guns, represented by the US-produced Airforce Condor, delicate imitation guns and pistols are their major products, usually priced between 1,500 yuan ($246) and 20,000 yuan.

Most online sellers leave their phone number and QQ number, a popular instant messaging service in China, and complete the whole transaction in the cyber world.

"Pick your favorite, wire a 20-percent deposit to our bank account, and we'll deliver the order to your place and clear the residual payment," said a website contact surnamed Li, whose business model is common.

The guns are typically disassembled into parts and then put in sealed boxes and shipped in separate parcels with fake product labels to circumvent supervision, said Li.

For some sellers who accept third-party online payment methods, such as China's most popular platform Alipay, they will create a fake item to make the transaction record look clean, said a seller surnamed Hu.

Firearm-themed QQ chat groups and online hunting forums are also important trading channels, normally for individual or second-hand transactions, as well as discussions about firearms knowledge and techniques.

While many enthusiasts are not fully aware of the penalty of such conduct, they obviously know that it is illegal and use jargon.

In one example, "gou," or dogs, means guns, and "gouliang," or  dog food, means ammunition. "Blow" describes home-made illegal guns that deploy combustive gases for momentum.

Make it yourself

The Web is also fertile soil for homemade firearms or transformed imitation guns, which are even harder to track.

"You can make an air gun and even a shotgun with perfectly legal materials. Seamless steel tubes are viewed as technical and materials can be as simple as a soft drink bottle and air freshener," said an administrator of a large online military forum on condition of anonymity.

Although most gun fans don't have criminal intent, they probably don't realize the safety threat either, particularly from home-made firearms that are unstable, he said.

Many imitation guns are produced in factories in the southeastern part of the country, said Liu Ancheng, director of the criminal investigation bureau at the Ministry of Public Security (MPS). "They used to process supplied materials and export imitation firearms," Liu said. "But they began selling them domestically when their business became hampered by the recent hard economic times."

Prior to transactions, buyers and sellers agree that the trades are only for collection purposes, and that the gun owner is responsible for any consequences.

Some sellers instead smuggle gun parts and let buyers assemble the guns themselves to be "safer."

However, as they may not really be acquiring the guns for collections, the law states that illegal possession of more than one gunpowder-powered non-military gun, or more than two gas-powered non-military guns is a crime, said Lu Xuchang, a Shandong-based lawyer specializing in criminal defense. Additionally, 30 parts will be counted as a set when gun smuggling charges are applied.

Hard crackdowns

Even though gun-related crimes often make headlines, gun crimes dropped by 41.4 percent this year, according to data released in October by the MPS, based on already huge decreases over the past decade.

Among regular crackdowns, police departments launched a "Net clearance" campaign this year, clearing up more than 100,000 illegal messages and shutting down 1,233 websites.

Besides concealing transactions and faking personal information, the Internet also facilitates transborder crimes, Liu said. They represent a more serious, long-term investigative challenge, he concluded.

"Authorities have just started supervising this new form of crime, whereas offenders had already learned some counter-forensic skills," Lu said.

Some suspects destroy or alter evidence to disturb the investigation or confuse people who report crimes as witnesses usually can't recognize the arms, he added.

Public comments in support of strict gun laws have been popular in recent years, especially after reports of gun crimes. However, the increasingly easy access to guns brought by modern technology has raised new questions.

"I support gun control policies," said the anonymous administrator. "But there should be either complete control or a better system that protects the general public and prevents knowledgeable people with access to guns from committing crimes."

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