Destroying Firearms
A smelter in China's southern Guizhou Province is prepped to receive once-illegally held firearms. While some look to be new, others are ancient, including what look to be a set of flintlock rifles in the foreground. Xinhua

In China, gun ownership as a percentage of the total population is very low, and urban shootings are rarely ever heard of. But authorities there are making efforts to combat illegal firearm ownership. That reveals a concern about the flow of weapons and arms to criminal organizations largely unknown to the country in the 1980s and 1990s.

Chinese authorities have stepped up efforts to combat organized crime, illicit trade, drug trafficking and border-area lawlessness over the past several years -- all phenomena that have become more pronounced as China's economic relations have expanded with the rest of the world.

Police across the country in 150 different towns and cities held a joint effort on Tuesday to destroy more than 100,000 confiscated firearms and 250 metric tons of explosives and ammunition. The highly publicized campaign is a part of the government's efforts over the past year to rein in illegal gun possession and gun-related crimes.

State media showing video and imagery of the illegal firearms being burned, crushed and broken apart revealed a diverse collection of automatic weapons, machine guns and pistols. In some parts of the country, objects like machetes, swords, knives and crossbows were destroyed together with firearms.

According to official figures, some 50,000 illegally possessed guns have been seized just over the last four months. Since the campaign started in February, police have rooted out 180 criminal organizations including 7,800 individuals. The national campaign will last until December and will include operations against criminals, but also a public education drive to convince aging veterans and civilians to turn weapons in of their own will.

The government says that its campaign to rein in firearms has been a resounding success. Between January 2011 and January 2012, criminal cases involving firearms have decreased by nearly 10 percent, according to official statistics, and cases involving explosives have decreased by more than 20 percent. Between 2010 and 2011, crimes involving firearms and explosives decreased nearly 50 percent and 40 percent, respectively.

9,000 Criminal Cases Involving Firearms In 2011

In 2011, there were 9,000 criminal cases involving firearms in China, and only 560 of those involved criminals who actually used the firearms.

The government has used its comparatively low incidence of gun crime in a soft-power battle against U.S. criticism of China's poor performance on improving human rights. China claims that the U.S. had more than 30,000 deaths due to gun violence last year and 200,000 separate cases of injury from firearm discharges, both deliberate and accidental.

While the language of that accusation against the U.S. is certainly politically motivated, the actual numbers may not be far off. The National Center for Health Statistics, a part of the U.S. Center for Disease Control, released preliminary data in early 2012 on national deaths in 2010. Those figures revealed 31,513 Americans died in 2010 due to firearm-related injuries.

There are roughly 90 privately held small arms for every 100 citizens in the U.S., compared to fewer than five guns for every 100 people in China.

That gap reveals a major difference in political culture between the two nations. The culture of gun ownership in the U.S., based on the principle of individual protection and resistance to government intrusion, would have a hard time catching on in the East.