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Guns and Knives and Madmen: What the US and China Can Teach Each Other

Jan 21, 2013

Sometimes the eeriest U.S.-China coincidences have most to teach us.

Last December 14th a psychotic man disturbed by Mayan doomsday rumors burst into an elementary school in Guangshan County, Henan, slashing 22 children with a kitchen knife; some lost fingers and ears.  Ten hours later in Newtown, Connecticut another madman gunned down 20 more children.

The bizarre parallel has generated much heat:

Neither country has responded well to the violence.  Can shedding some light better help our kids?

Statistics clearly favor China’s approach. Chinese school slashers have killed 24 since 2010.  27 died in Newtown alone, one of 145 U.S. mass shootings recorded since 2010.  China’s homicide rate averages 1/100,000/year. Ours is almost six times higher.  Including accidents and suicides, our gun deaths top 30,000/year (10+/100,000).  More like Iraq than China.  Logically, most parents would surely prefer wounded children to dead ones.

Defense logistics also favor China.  There were armed guards at Columbine, and at Fort Hood.  They failed.  Chinese teachers now train instead with bamboo poles, learning to pin attackers past arm’s-length.

But emotions rarely follow logic, logistics or statistics.   And emotions guide politics.

And gun sales.  Some 2.2 million Americans sought to buy guns in December, as new bans were debated.  U.S. responses to Newtown are not going as gun control advocates hoped.  Chinese netizen responses to Guangshan aren’t following Beijing scripts.  Many Chinese are now calling for gun rights.

Can we do better?  Only by grappling with at least six aspects of the problem:

First, history: However Americans may admire China’s statistics, we can’t wish away the 2nd Amendment.   Debates about “well-regulated militia” aside, our right to bear arms came from revolutionaries deeply concerned with state and personal liberty.  We must acknowledge this history to find middle ground, interpreting the 2nd Amendment in balance with other rights just as 1st Amendment rights don’t allow yelling “fire” in crowded theaters.  Only compromise allows creative forums on reducing gun deaths.  Only compromise will defang extremists who reject all controls.

China can also learn from its own long gun history, starting with inventing gunpowder.  Perhaps because Mao learned political power can grow from gun-barrels, China’s laws ban gun rights, though “special permit” loopholes for sports clubs and hunters have allowed some 40,000,000 individual gun sales.  China now ranks 3rd among nations in total private gun ownership (102nd by rate of gun ownership).  With hundreds of gun murders and 3,500,000 illegal guns confiscated in recent years, China is now at a crossroads.  Will China learn more from our gun history, or her own?

Second, emotions: We must acknowledge passions all around guns and violence.  I’ve had to.  I live just over 20 miles from Sandy Hook, with a 2nd grade daughter and a gun-owning husband.  We veered toward the worst fight of our marriage when Mike dealt with post-Newtown anxieties via gallows humor about buying semi-automatics before they’re banned, as I indulged in Ramboette fantasies about N.R.A. lobbyists.  Thankfully, tempers have cooled.  What remains is awareness that we must compromise.  Millions of sane Americans treasure their gun rights for protection, sport or fun.  We must engage informed, passionate gun owners like Mike to craft moderate, meaningful proposals: better registries and registration, smaller magazines, closing gunshow loopholes, and so on.

Likewise, Beijing must see that censorship is hardly the best way to calm post-Guangshan terror.

Third, profits: Greed is a mighty motivator.  With 2.2 million potential U.S. gun sales in December alone, it’s easy to imagine gun-makers grinning – here and in China.  While dwarfed by our $336 million in annual small arms exports – and the $4.1 Billion U.S. shooting industry – China’s estimated near $13 million annual gun exports implicates her too; before the 1994 ban some 1/3 of all U.S. guns came from China.  The ban exempted shotguns, and paeans to gun control aside, Chinese still sell Americans 60,000+ shotguns/year (far more to Sudan).   China has signed UN initiatives against illicit small arms sales, but not consistently reported exports or signed all relevant treaties.  Like us, Beijing can better put money where mouth is on this issue.

Meantime we can all better track funding that keeps lobbyists pushing extremist agendas.  Follow the money and we’ll surely find gun profits financing policies that keep us all feeling the need for more guns.

Fourth, madness: Mental health systems both here and in China are disgraceful.  Chinese advocates describe politicized confinements in a system that clearly missed the Guangshan slasher.  Our deinstitutionalization has also been disastrous, leaving nearly 1,000,000 severely disturbed adults roaming unsupervised who decades ago would have been hospitalized. Nancy Lanza feared her son and sought his institutionalization unsuccessfully. We need mental health reform as much as gun control.

Fifth, violence: As many Chinese entertainment-media heroes wield knives and swords as ours wield guns; those film and video game images find imitators among disturbed minds.  Both nations need more focus on the non-violent heroes of our traditions.

Sixth, community: Did friends and neighbors advise Nancy Lanza against mixing guns and a disturbed son?   Could they have done more?  We are sometimes too reticent about other’s affairs.  As a rabbi once told me, the proper answer to Cain’s question “am I my brother’s keeper?” can be “yes.”  I support strong families, nosy landladies, close neighbors, systems to encourage reporting and working with disturbed individuals with access to guns OR knives.  When we know and share with each other we ease burdens and reduce risks.   We can all learn from models like Detroit’s church-based conflict resolution teams, and China’s wonderfully busy-body retiree “street committees.”

There is no silver bullet.  But by engaging all aspects of these complex problems, learning from the best in both our systems, and compromising and rejecting profiteer-financed extremism our nations can each craft reasonable laws that respect our own histories and traditions, reduce violence and mental health risks, increase community and stand a chance of saving our children’s lives.

Rebecca Weiner is currently Director of China Affairs at Strebesana Resources, LLC, and has over 30 years of China business experience.  She is also a mom and an advocate for education.

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