I’m a U.S. citizen, and I live with Chinese, British, and Brazilian roommates in Beijing. In China, introductions tend to elicit specific responses from locals, and it’s always an interesting representation of a given country’s warped reputation. When the Brit introduces himself, he’s often labeled a gentleman. When the Brazilian shakes hands, Chinese compliment him on his country’s soccer prowess and inquire whether he can dance the Rumba.
When I introduce myself as American, I’m frequently asked whether I own a gun.
This occurs in various situations, regardless of the background of who asks. I say no, but that my father, who grew up on a farm, owns a small pistol and has recently taken up skeet shooting. I never thought much about it as a kid, or even now, because guns were never a big part of my childhood. Only when someone asks do I remember we had one in the house.
The American familiarity with guns is tough to explain to people in China—citizen gun ownership is banned and most policemen aren’t even allowed to carry firearms. When a cab driver asks, I lack the motivation to explain the origins of the Second Amendment or the degree of individual liberty my constitution grants relative to other countries. I could tell the driver that the founding fathers were paranoid about the power of government, so much so that they allowed citizens to carry guns in case they felt the need to overthrow a tyrannical ruler. Of course, owning guns no longer has any use against a government with drones and the H-bomb, so that justification has become anachronistic. Now most pro-gun arguments are based on ensuring individual liberty. I don’t want to explain all this in casual conversation, so I just shrug and say it’s a complicated problem that’s way over my head. I don’t know how to say “anachronistic” in Chinese anyway.
But when a gun massacre occurs in the United States, like the most recent tragedy in Washington, D.C. or the mass shooting in a Chicago park, news outlets in China invariably report on it extensively. That’s why everyone asks about gun ownership. As an American already devastated by violent gun-related events, the coverage in China makes it even harder to stomach. Rather than pay respect to the victims, Chinese media (whether it be official state news or blog posts from citizens) often use the moment for gleeful criticism of domestic chaos in the United States, using such events to label our gun culture as a violation of human rights.
To understand public safety in China, it’s crucial to recognize how both the Chinese government and its citizens view human rights in the context of public safety.
In China, when individual and group rights conflict, group rights take precedent. Both government and citizens agree on this concept, which stems largely from a culture historically accustomed to strong central governance and a large population. While Chinese citizens and the Communist Party often debate how to incorporate individual freedoms into this model, like freedom of speech, it’s rare to find someone who supports replacing the overarching supremacy of group rights. Americans tend to assume that what prevents Chinese society from operating on the same basis of U.S. individualism is a lack of liberal democracy, ignoring cultural legacy.
I’ve always found this view naive. Chinese citizens—and their government—believe the state should have the power to actively remove guns from public life, the same way the state controls movies shown in theaters or controls the country’s biggest banks. It’s not just about protecting the regime. Guns put society in danger, just as violent films and selfish banks do, the argument goes, so the state has the right to intervene to protect society. Traditionally, the United States approaches human rights in the opposite way, by not intervening—it believes it should leave citizens and other entities alone.
Nearly all Chinese laws rely on intervention to maintain public safety and stability. When it comes to trusting individuals on self-control, the Chinese government would rather actively prohibit firearms than give individual citizens the benefit of the doubt, viewing the risk one gun owner presents to society as outweighing an individual’s desire to own a gun. From China’s point of view, the United States violates a human right by not protecting its citizens’ collective safety. When events like the Navy Yard shooting occur, it’s understandable why Chinese view America’s condemnation of Chinese human rights as the definition of hypocrisy. What kind of a society would put its citizens at such a risk collectively by making dangerous weapons so easily accessible?
I seldom feel shamed as an American answering the gun question. It’s often asked with humor and intrigue, and some Chinese respond by saying, with an amused laugh, that their country would descend into chaos with such an allowance. The Global Times, one of China’s nationalistic newspapers, agrees. There have been some appeals for guns in China, but the reasons cited imply the type of chaos anti-gun culture seeks to avoid. Estimates put the number of guns in the country, most black market, at 40 million. The United States, its population a fourth the size of China's, has between 270 and 310 million guns.
Recently, it’s been harder for me to answer the question. What’s disappointed me deeply is that the Second Amendment provides a bold chance for our country to display the responsibility of individual citizens. After all, what is a deeper display of trust in one’s citizens than defining the freedom to carry a deadly weapon as a basic right? America’s trust, or simple allowance, is a radical idea from a radical constitution. In China, with a government that’s sometimes fearful of its citizens taking cell-phone pictures on Tiananmen Square, such trust is almost alien.
I am not allergic to guns—I thoroughly enjoy shooting them. I have a cousin with a large collection, and few things are more stupidly satisfying than blasting a pumpkin to bits every Thanksgiving when I visit. A lawyer with a deeply American sense of humor, he likes to make fun of California and Vermont—“you’re not allowed to do anything there” I remember him once saying. He acquired a silencer through a loophole in state law, by establishing a living trust for the silencer, and loves telling the story —how quirky American law and freedom can be. But he has an enormous respect and caution for guns, and his affinity for them isn’t a religion.
I’m proud that my cousin and most Americans treat the Second Amendment with deep respect, and I wish I could tell Chinese friends that our laws reflected this respect. I could brag a little about my nation’s unique ability to handle such an extreme individual right.
But I can’t. We’re clearly not ready enough to handle it, at least as the culture and gun lobby currently stands. My government doesn’t have a healthy relationship, right now, with the Second Amendment. The United States could pass sensible gun-control laws, and treat the Second Amendment with real responsibility. But Congress hasn’t. As a result, China and much of the world judges the United States harshly, as it should, for such tragic and extreme behavior. Chinese friends ask, can’t we just enact a little control? I wish I could say yes.