By Tao Shi
For all of her life, Mofan Li cringed at the sight of a gun. The closest she ever came to a rifle was in watching the Steven Spielberg movie about World War II, “Saving Private Ryan.” Even then she couldn’t finish the movie because of its intense violence.
“I never liked guns, I never thought of having firearms in my life,” she said.
But that all changed last year. In October, Li’s good friend ChenWei Guo was shot and killed. Two days later, Li drove 20 miles to a Walmart store in Provo, Utah, and purchased a pistol. Now she keeps it in her car.
Mofan Li is not a redneck Annie-Get-Your-Gun American who was born and raised on the virtues of the Second Amendment and a steady diet of Hollywood blood and guts. She is a Chinese national, indoctrinated for her entire life on the gun-free environment of a homeland with strict gun laws and policies.
In China – where no average citizen can trade or own guns and where from time to time police do inspections and entrapments to make sure that is the case – its citizens pretty much go about their daily business without any fear of being gunned down by someone on the street or in an office, a hospital, a school or a mall.
Li has been raised in this environment for almost her entire life until she came to the U.S. and Utah’s Brigham Young University at age 18. After two-and-half years studying in the U.S., she married to an American man, who is more familiar with firearms.
“My husband knows how to use guns. He was trained by his father to use firearms while I was not,” Li said. “We bought a gun after we got married, and it cost us $400, but at that time I had no interest in that gun. We keep the gun in our apartment and I never tried to move it or what.”
But after her friend’s death, Li began changing her attitude. “It didn’t take me and my husband too much time to think about buying another pistol,” she said. “We went to the supermarket to choose one pistol that can be used in our car. After browsing and checking, we made up our minds to buy a smaller pistol which cost us $150. This much of money is actually a burden for us, because we are still students and we don’t earn much from the part-time jobs, but we still bought it.”
Li said almost all her Chinese friends around her were thinking about buying guns. “Compared to the number of our American friends’ who own guns, less Chinese people have owned guns, and most of them haven’t thought of buying guns. But after Guo’s tragedy, more Chinese people in this community are considering buying firearms to protect themselves.”
Another Guo friend, Meng Meng, said she also believes buying a gun can be the best option for protecting herself and her family although she is actually against gun ownership.
“I don’t think violence is the solution to all problems,” Meng said, “but what if my family or myself suffer from violence? I’m not able to fight with my fists. At least a gun can help me fight back when someone is trying to hurt me.”
Li has similar sentiments. “I am not a pro-gunner, and I think most Chinese people are not. We’ve never got in touch with guns before when we were in China. But I choose to trust guns rather than people,” Li said. “I don’t want the thing that happened to my friend to happen again to any one of my friends or my family.”
Salt Lake City police and court records show that Li’s friend, Chenwei Guo, was killed in his car by an ex-con using a pistol stolen from a Colorado victim, who had been killed earlier. Guo was a 23-year-old international student from China majoring in computer science at the University of Utah. It was his first year at the university.
On the night of Oct. 30, 2017, police reported Guo had just pulled up in his car into a picturesque park which overlooks a nearby canyon. In the vehicle with him on the passenger side was a female friend Xiaoying Ding, also a student at the university, police noted.
As the two sat in the car, a gunman, an ex-con named Austin Boutain, walked up to the driver’s side and knocked on the window, court documents stated.
Court records have reported that Boutain said he initially only wanted to ask the driver if he had seen a young woman who had just had a fight with him and was in the area. Guo ignored Boutain and drove away. Enraged for being ignored, police records stated Boutain drew a 44-caliber Ruger handgun and started firing.
Police and court records outlined what happened: One of the bullets cracked the window on the driver’s side and passed through the neck of Guo. His car veered into a rock and came to a halt. He died almost instantly. Ding, the passenger, didn’t know how to drive and couldn’t back the car out to escape from Boutain. She called 911.
Map of Chenwei Guo’s Murder
The records further noted that before police could arrive, Boutain ordered Ding out of the car and forced her at gunpoint to walk with him into the canyon. Moments later, Ding distracted her assailant by tossing her cell phone away and escaped while he attempted to pick it up. As she ran down a dusty road, Boutain fired several shots at her but missed.
Police found Guo’s body still in his vehicle in the canyon few hours later. It prompted a campus-wide lockdown and a massive overnight manhunt at the school and in the rugged foothills nearby.
Police arrested Boutain the next day afternoon, explaining that a librarian spotted him at a city library several miles away from the crime scene and about 15 hours after Guo’s body was found. He has been charged with committing Guo’s murder.
On Nov. 6, 2017, the same day as Guo’s 24th birthday, his parents and friends gathered in Salt Lake City to commemorate his life. At the memorial servie, Guo’s mother could not stand straight when grieving her son. She collapsed in front of the podium, holding her son’s picture. “I keep having dreams of my son telling me that he would always be with me in the past week,” she said, “but when I woke up every morning, I know he’s forever gone. He will never be able to come back to me.”
Li was sitting at the center of the second row of the church and said she, as well as some other friends and relatives, couldn’t stop crying.
The story of the Salt Lake City incident, which made a national news, was a wake-up moment for Li. Although she heard about dozens of shootings before, this one was close to home.
“I will never get back to the place where I believe guns are too far to reach and unrelated to me,” Li said at her friend’s memorial service, holding a flower, standing in front of the coffin.