By Tao Shi
Understanding the differences between China’s and the United States’ laws and policies can show the huge transformation in thinking about firearm ownership among Chinese immigrants. Mofan Li was raised in the gun-free environment, as were most other Chinese international students. Li came to the U.S first and related to firearms then, for various of reasons.
Gun homicides are a common cause of death in the United States, killing about as many people as car crashes (not counting van, truck, motorcycle or bus accidents). Whether in mass shootings that make headlines or individually, gunshot homicides totaled 8,592 between 2010 to 2015, according to Small Arms Survey.
Mass Shootings Count 2 Percent in All Gun-involved Deaths in US (From CDC and Mass Shooting Tracker of Vox)
On the other hand, because of strict gun laws and policies, the number of firearm-involved homicides in China was 619 at the same time. Besides, China’s rate of homicides deaths by any method are 0.9 per million, which was still less than half of the rate of gun-involved homicides in the U.S.
Other data from Gun Policy Organization, a research group hosted by Sydney School of Public Health, and experts in this field shows that the US rate of civilian gun ownership is 29.1 percent while the rate in China is 4.9 percent.
Comparison Between China’s Homicides Rate in Any Method And US Gun-involved Homicide Rate
Yongzhong Wei, a professor studying China firearm policies at Public Security University of China, said that Chinese gun laws are the strictest worldwide.
“The Chinese government tried its best to prevent ordinary citizens from owning firearms,” he said. “Because China has the biggest population in the world, if everyone can have guns, it will be a great threat against public safety.”
Wei also said firearms control has been a constant activity in modern China’s history.
“The most recent firearms policies revision came before the Beijing Olympic Games which was held in 2008,” Wei said. “The government at that time considered making Beijing the most secure city in the country to welcome all the foreign athletes. Therefore, the Department of Public Safety published an executive order trying to strengthen the firearms policies. After that, airsoft guns have been forbidden until now.”
Air Guns vs. Real Guns
Airsoft or air guns use compressed air to shoot small plastic balls or pellets. The air guns are considered toys in most countries and regions, even in Hong Kong and Taiwan. China’s airsoft guns ban policy has been heavily criticized by some Chinese.
Alex Han is one of them. He is a Chinese international student in New York. Before coming to the U.S., he had always been a hard-core airsoft player. “When I was a little kid, I asked my parents to buy me toy guns and so did my friends. We had been playing this for our whole childhood,” he said.
Han said when he went into middle school, he heard about “War Game,” a kind of military simulation activity using airsoft guns to combat with other players, and he immediately became a fan.
“We played once or twice a week,” Han said, “it was actually great exercise.” Han and his friends went to a rural area where they could run, hide, crawl, climb up and down. It hurts when the small plastic balls hit, but it was a totally safe activity, said Han, adding that he and his group wore protective glasses so no bullets would hurt their eyes.
The third year after Han started playing “War Game,” the Department of Public Safety published a new executive order to ban all airsoft guns. Han kept asking himself how could toys become banned guns.
“Almost all the players asked the same question at that time. Players from different parts of the country went online and discussed the classification of airsoft guns,” he said. “We think it’s just some temporary regulation because of the Olympic Games.”
But Han and his fellows underestimated the authority’s resolution. Han said local police raided their “war zone” when they were simulating a battle on the Saturday right after the executive order was published, confiscated all the airsoft guns, and warned the players to not buy any more airsoft guns.
“They warned us not buying airsoft guns or other toy guns, otherwise, they would arrest us,” said Han. “The airsoft gun dealer I frequently went to was arrested and sentenced for five years in the name of ‘transporting, possessing of firearms.’ It’s ridiculous!”
Han and his friends went underground and played less frequently. But he kept being a military and firearm fan. “I knew that people in the U.S. can have guns when I was 10 years old, after watching a documentary about guns,” he said. “Since then, I have always wanted to go to the U.S. to shoot the real guns.”
After graduating from college, Han told his parents that he had made up his mind to go to graduate school in the U.S., for “learning more advanced knowledge.” He did not admit that another reason for going to America was to try shooting real guns.
“I can’t tell my parents,” he said. “Most Chinese people are afraid of guns, including my parents. They believe guns are dangerous.”
Han came to the U.S. in September. The first thing he did after he landed in New York City was to turn on his cellphone and search “gun club” in Google Maps. “I was really excited when seeing multiple red spots on the map,” Han said.
After finding and moving into an apartment, Han started calling the clubs he saw on the map and asked if they allow international students to shoot firearms. One club in New Jersey, called “Gun for Hire,” told him it did.
Han asked one of his Chinese classmates to drive him to the club. He rented a Glock 17, an AR15 rifle, as well as buying some bullets, which cost him more than $300.
Even after putting on protective glasses and soundproof ear covers, Han found firing a real gun quite unique. “It was so loud,” Han said, “it was totally different to the airsoft guns!” His instructor asked if he had shot before, and Han said he had shot airsoft guns. Han said the instructor told him, “They’re not real guns, they are toys.”
After being told of the security rules, Han stepped onto the shooting range and picked up the Glock. He stretched both arms in front of his body, with his right hand holding the gun and left hand assisting it. He slowly moved his right index finger onto the trigger. “Bang!” Shot fired.
“It was a shock,” Han said. “I never expected the recoil would be that big. But I calmed down quickly and continued shooting until the magazine was empty. It felt so cool!”
Han said after that first time shooting a real gun, he had fallen for that feeling and kept going to the shooting club once to twice a month. He even considered getting a firearms license.
“I thought about getting my own guns. I don’t want to hurt anyone. I just want to collect guns because these are the real ones, they are not the toys which I used to play with,” Han said.
Besides interest, Han has another reason for getting a license and buying firearms: security.
“I live in Hempstead on Long Island, where I heard a lot of people saying that it is the place of MS-13,” Han said. “I personally haven’t met any of them yet, but I am worried about the security situation here.”
Seeing Homicide, Buying Guns
Like Han, a number of Chinese international students are worried about safety and security living in the U.S., and some of them choose to bear arms.
Yanni Chen is a graduate student at Boston University. Unlike Han, Chen was neither a military fan nor a firearm lover. She was raised by her medical doctor parents and never thought about using firearms. Also, she lives near Fenway Park, considered by many a safe Boston neighborhood.
“I asked some people who had been living in Boston for a while for the advice of a living location in Boston,” Chen said. “They all told me Fenway is a great place to live. I also did my research. After all these, I decided to rent an apartment in the Fenway area.”
But Chen’s peace of mind was broken by a gunshot in front of her apartment building last November. A person was shot dead in his car. “I live on the second floor,” Chen said, “and suddenly a really loud sound burst out. I thought it was a firecracker at first, but after I saw the guy sitting in his seat and a hole in his car’s front window, I realized that was a gunshot.”
Chen described her feeling as “mind-blowing,” “I just can’t believe that someone shot another person right in front of me, even in the most safe neighborhood in this city. What if someone shoots me through my window? I must have a gun.”
This firearm rookie then began searching firearm laws, both federal and state, and the process of getting a firearm license in Massachusetts as an alien resident.
After doing her research, Chen signed up for firearm lessons, went to a shooting range, and began preparing the documents needed for the license application. This May, she got the license issued by the Massachusetts Department of Criminal Justice Information Services.
“I am not excited when getting the license,” Chen said, “I don’t feel good or privileged to have the right to own firearms. It’s just a way to protect myself.”
Chen said she’s considering buying a shotgun and storing it in her room. “My instructor told me shotgun can be quite effective in home protection situation. I think I won’t buy any other guns,” Chen said.