After Orlando, the US must accept that strict gun laws curb mass violence, as China’s example shows
Zhou Zunyou says China has been free of the kind of murderous rampage the US witnesses on a regular basis, in part because of its laws
Two simultaneous incidents on Sunday brought much international attention to the US and China. In Orlando, Florida, a gunman armed with an assault rifle and handgun shot dead 49 people and wounded 53 others at a gay nightclub in the deadliest mass shooting in America’s modern history. The shooter, Omar Mateen, 29, who died in an exchange of fire with police officers, was a US citizen of Afghan heritage.
At about the same time in Shanghai, a 29-year-old Chinese man, Zhou Xingbai, set off a home-made explosive device at an airport check-in counter, injuring four people, before cutting his neck with a knife. He was taken to hospital for surgery. Zhou turned out to be an indebted gambler, who had warned on social media before the attack that he would commit “a very crazy act”. If firearms were not strictly controlled in China, his attack could have been much worse.
The Florida atrocity has rekindled debate over gun control in the US; the Shanghai explosion is another reminder of how lucky Chinese people are to live in a country without a serious gun problem.
In terms of the number of mass shootings, the US is by far the world’s No 1. Here, a “mass shooting” refers to a single incident that kills or injures at least four, including the assailant. In 2015 alone, there were 372 mass shootings in the US, leaving 475 people dead and 1,870 wounded. As for “gun murders”, a broader term, the US is also exceptional. In 2012, for example, the number of gun murders per capita, 2.9 per 100,000, was almost 30 times that of the UK, with just 0.1. Of all the murders in that year, 60 per cent were committed using firearms in the US, compared with just 10 per cent in the UK.
The US is also known for having the highest rate of gun ownership in the world, with nearly one gun for every citizen, thanks to the country’s legal framework and unique firearms culture. For many Americans, owning guns is viewed as a fundamental right enshrined in the constitution. Although mass shootings and gun murders have occurred with increasing frequency in recent years, opinion polls suggest that public support in the US for gun rights remains strong.
In China, gun violence is generally not a grave concern. The fact that mass shootings are rare is usually attributed to the tough gun laws. With very few exceptions, private gun ownership is not allowed. By law, guns are available only to the military, semi-military and police forces, as well as a limited number of special professions.
Despite a black market for guns, the heavy penalties are a deterrent. Any act of manufacturing, selling, buying, transporting, storing, possessing, leasing, lending or stealing a gun is punishable with a three-year prison term. More serious gun crimes may lead to the death penalty.
The Obama administration has been pushing hard for further firearms restrictions to reduce gun violence. In an address to the nation in January, President Barack Obama tearfully recalled the 20 children who died along with six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 2012. He cited China’s strict gun laws as a good example.
In the Connecticut incident, Adam Lanza, who suffered from mental illness, was able to kill 26 people using a rifle and two handguns, before killing himself. On the same day, a mentally disturbed Chinese man, Min Yongjun, injured an elderly villager and 23 children with a kitchen knife at an elementary school in Guangshan county, Henan province. Min was subdued and all of the injured survived.
No country is immune to mass violence. But, given the strong support for gun rights in the US and fierce opposition to gun restrictions in Congress, shooting tragedies will continue. Although China has much to learn from the US, especially in terms of respect for individual freedoms, America must learn from China when it comes to the control of lethal weapons.
Dr Zhou Zunyou is head of the China section at Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Foreign and International Criminal Law, and the author of Balancing Security and Liberty: Counter-Terrorism Legislation in Germany and China