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Gun guidelines reduce punishments, case loads

By Cao Yin | China Daily | Updated: 2018-05-22 07:20
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Authorities put focus on power of weapon and owner's intentions

A move to clarify penalties for people caught with illegal firearms is not only stopping minor offenders from receiving overly harsh sentences but also preventing unnecessary prosecutions, legal experts say.

China introduced a guideline for judicial authorities on handling cases involving air guns on March 30, putting the focus on the weapon's power and the danger it poses rather than the number of firearms in a defendant's possession.

According to the guidelines, a weapon that can launch a shell with energy of 0.16 joules per square centimeter should be regarded as an "imitation firearm", while anything above 1.8 joules per sq cm - which experts say is powerful enough to bruise a person's skin - should be classified as a gun.

Those convicted of owning imitation firearms can avoid prison or a heavy fine, depending on whether or not they intended to cause harm, according to the document jointly released by the Supreme People's Court and the Supreme People's Procuratorate.

Fourteen court verdicts have referred to the guideline since it took effect, with defendents in four cases spared criminal punishment and another two seeing earlier sentences overturned on appeal.

In one case, Jiao Shiyong from Biyang county, Henan province, was convicted on April 27 for illegally purchasing guns. The court's verdict, released through the SPC's online platform, said he had assembled two air guns after buying accessories online, "but we decided not to punish him because he did it for fun and didn't harm others".

"Jiao pleaded guilty and didn't benefit from the guns, so considering his purpose and the actual damage, we made the ruling," the court said.

Ruan Chuansheng, a professor of criminal law at the Shanghai Administration Institute, said the guideline provides prosecutors and judges with a clear line on which gun holders should be prosecuted and how to punish them.

Holding and purchasing guns is illegal in China, "but not all gun holders need to face criminal punishment", he said. "The punishment should depend on why people possess the guns or what they use the guns for."

The guideline has also prevented several cases from going to court, saving time and resources.

Prosecutors in Foshan, Guangdong province, for example, said they chose not to proceed with a case against a man surnamed Zhou who was accused of illegal gun possession on April 13 because he had used the firearms only to shoot birds and rats, which didn't harm society.

The move was based on the guideline, which stipulates that people who possess or buy guns for collection or for fun should receive lenient punishments, the authorities said.

In April, prosecutors in Tianjin and Zhejiang province also decided not to accuse two men of illegal purchase or possession of guns, because they pleaded guilty to the crimes and their offenses did not bring actual damage to the society.

"Some legal specialists have called for legislators to change the definition of guns in the law, but the most effective way to prevent unnecessary accusations, I think, is the guideline, which can help judicial organs accurately distinguish gun carriers who are not attempting to harm others from the real offenders," Ruan said.

The move to clarify punishments came after Zhao Chunhua, an owner of a carnival balloon-shooting gallery in Tianjin, was sentenced to three and a half years in prison for illegally possessing guns in 2016.

She was freed in January last year as the appeals court said it found she had no intent to harm society.

More than 80,000 people nationwide were prosecuted in more than 9,000 cases involving toy guns for children from 2011 to 2015, according to the Ministry of Public Security.

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