On Wednesday, China’s highest court and state prosecutor issued a joint response to criminal cases involving air guns or imitation guns, advising lower courts to give more lenient penalties.
Courts must properly consider an air gun’s capacity to wound, whether it can be modified to create a more powerful weapon, the number of guns, and the owner’s motivation when convicting and sentencing suspects in such cases, the juridical notice instructs.
The legal document from the Supreme People’s Court and Supreme People’s Procuratorate relates to cases involving the illegal production, sale, transport, or possession of guns powered by compressed air and with low muzzle energy. In China, such cases can result in serious punishments ranging from administrative detention to the death penalty.
The notice, which will take effect on Friday, comes after a spike in cases involving imitation guns and air guns over the last few years. According to media reports, police uncovered more than 9,000 cases related to imitation guns and air guns from 2011 to 2015, arresting more than 80,000 criminal suspects.
Legal experts say the increase in such cases was the result of a 2010 expansion of what is considered a weapon. As part of efforts to strengthen gun control, the Ministry of Public Security decreed in 2010 that any gun with a muzzle energy above 1.8 joules per square centimeter was a weapon, whereas the previous regulation had only counted those above 16 joules per square centimeter.
Wednesday’s announcement has not changed the 2010 definition, which has led to many high-profile cases. In 2015, 33-year-old Da Minglei was sentenced to lifelong imprisonment for purchasing 14 imitation guns online from a Taiwan seller. Da later won the right to a retrial but still waits behind bars for a verdict.
Then in December 2016, Zhao Chunhua, a 51-year-old woman who ran a shooting game, was sentenced to three and a half years in jail after police identified six imitation guns at her street-side stall as weapons. After appeal, a higher court reduced her punishment to a three-year suspended sentence.
“Judgments on individual cases have attracted attention from all sectors of society, causing negative legal and social impact,” the Supreme People’s Court said in the explanatory article accompanying the legal notice.
Zhao’s lawyer, Xu Xin, told Sixth Tone on Wednesday that the official response shows progress. “It addresses the fact that because of stricter gun classification standards, a huge number of cases relating to toy guns have become criminalized,” he said. “However, this juridical explanation is not a complete solution; it gives the judges too much discretionary power. I still appeal to public security to improve their gun classification standards.”
Xu also represents 23-year-old Liu Dawei, who was famously sentenced to life imprisonment in 2015 for possession of 24 imitation guns that he purchased online. Though a retrial was ordered in 2016, there hasn’t yet been a hearing from the Fujian High People’s Court. “We hope that a hearing can be held as soon as possible,” Xu said. “According to this juridical explanation, he should be ruled not guilty.”
On Wednesday afternoon, seven suspects in an imitation gun case in Zhejiang province were allowed bail after nine months in custody.
Editor: Qian Jinghua.
(Header image: A police officer lays out fake guns at a suspect’s apartment in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, May 22, 2007. Xiao En/VCG)