In a rare moment in history, twin tragedies connected the United States and China on Dec. 14. A gunman in Newtown, Conn., forced his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School and killed 20 children and six adults. In Guangshan, in China’s Henan Province, a madman wielding a knife attacked Chenpeng Village elementary school and injured 22 children and one adult.
It is hard not to draw comparisons. The difference is a knife and a gun, life and death. The difference is Chinese parents visiting their children in a hospital as they recover, while American parents are mourning theirs lost forever. The difference is private gun ownership, banned in China, but legal in the U.S., even for assault weapons.
While President Obama shed tears when speaking about the tragedy in Connecticut, President Hu Jintao of China sent his condolences and expressed his deep sympathy to the American people and victims’ families. Whether this is a new practice of diplomacy among nations, the condolences remind one of responses to devastating natural disasters: earthquakes and hurricanes; or terrorist attacks, like 9/11; or epidemics, like SARS — a force majeure beyond anyone’s control. In a way, it is. America’s guns are out of control.
As Americans mourn and reflect on the latest epidemic of gun rampage in the country, China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency published an in-depth analysis of America’s gun politics and violence, titled “Innocent blood demands no delay for U.S. gun control.”
People’s Daily published a special report with detailed information on the crime and a long list of gun shootings in the U.S. from 1997 to 2011. The Chinese government is hardly an untarnished model, but views from China offer a different perspective. To Chinese citizens and government alike, private guns and gun violence are alien, a “cultural shock” particular to the United States, a country that many in China otherwise admire and seek to emulate.
The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos in Beijing said it well in his blog on the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting: “It takes a lot to make China’s government look good. But we’ve done it.”
When it comes to American exceptionalism, Americans are exceptionally vulnerable to the guns of their own fellow citizens. How many Americans died in Iraq in the eight-year war? 4,400. How many Americans are victims of gun violence a year? 100,000. While gun-rights advocates say more guns would make us safer, there is already one gun for every person in America.
It is a bigger puzzle to the Chinese. On Sina Weibo under the hot topic “Save the Children,” where Chinese netizens discuss the tragedies in both Connecticut and Henan, one expressed his incomprehension as to why anyone in the U.S. could own a gun. With the average mass murderer in his 20s and single, this microblogger suggested perhaps only mature taxpayers married with children should be allowed to purchase them.
We may not be able to get rid of evil, but we can do our best to prevent evil people from arming themselves with combat-style weapons. We may have Second Amendment rights to own guns, but we can’t let violent gun owners trample other people’s rights to live, to work, to go to the movies, to go shopping, or go to school.
It is truly sad, but we have made a knife in a hideous Chinese crime look good by comparison. One thing in common in both countries, however, is the sorrow over the innocent young victims. As one Sina Weibo entry suggested, Dec. 14 should be declared “Children’s Sorrow Day” – indeed, a day linking China and the U.S. in the most unfortunate way.