BEIJING — Dickson Wong, a marksman with a deep interest in firearms, arranges tours for groups of other Chinese gun enthusiasts to travel to DeSoto County, Fla., so they can shoot at firing ranges.
That’s a long way to travel for target practice, but its exceedingly difficult to do that here in China where the restrictions on firearms are so severe that even possession of air rifles or toy guns can land you in jail for years.
“It’s a place Chinese can go to experience real gun culture,” Wong, 38, said. “It’s impossible to shoot here.”
Wong estimates tens of thousands of wealthy Chinese now travel to the U.S. every year to shoot, and aims to capture some of that demand when he opens his own state-of-the-art gun club in 2019.
He hopes to draw 5,000 Chinese tourists a year to his club with luxury accommodations and Chinese-speaking instructors. A promotional video for the club highlights sumptuous steaks, open-air firing ranges and a wide selection of weapons.
Gun tourism already is a growing business in the U.S. because of lax laws regulating firearms compared to other countries. For example, Honolulu attracts target shooters from Japan, which has stringent gun-control regulations, and Las Vegas has many firing ranges available for domestic and foreign visitors.
Wong has the closest thing to a gun shop in Beijing. It has camouflage gear, holsters and T-shirts quoting the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment — which guarantees the right to bear arms. What’s missing from the shop are the arms, which are illegal to manufacture or sell in China for private use.
Although weapons control laws in China date back to the third century B.C., China was awash in firearms when the communists came to power in 1949 – the result of resistance to Japanese occupation and a protracted civil war.
The government confiscated some arms in urban areas but allowed farmers to keep two rifles for hunting.
Tighter controls were later imposed but they were largely ignored. After pro-democracy demonstrations on Tiananmen Square were crushed in 1989, the government moved to toughen enforcement and in 1996 passed a law that formally banned citizens from owning guns.
In 2008, just months before the national shooting team cleaned up at the Beijing Olympics, the rules were widened to include further restrictions on replica weapons. Possession of a firearm can carry a prison sentence of up to seven years.
Even so, sales of replica arms are soaring, and websites like “Armshead” and “Ironblood” allow people to trade gun-related news and images, according to police.
Criminals are also using guns more, especially those involved in the drug trade in the south, Chinese news media report.
Over the last few years, there has been a spate of cases where people have been jailed for owning guns they thought were toys.
In one example, a former solider in northeast China was held in 2016 for six months because police discovered he had five air rifles in a collection of military models he started when he was a boy. He still faces trial.
In August 2015, an 18-year-old in southeastern China was given life in jail for ordering 24 imitation guns from Taiwan — 20 guns turned out to be real, according to the South China Morning Post. He has since been told his sentence would be commuted.
China’s government defends strict gun laws to guarantee public safety, but critics say the real reason is to prevent rebellions.
“The Chinese government took away people’s guns to prevent them rising up,” said Zhou Xiaozheng, a sociologist at Renmin University. “Do you think they would be able to demolish peoples’ homes if they hadn’t?” he said, referring to the government’s broad right to seize private property.
The Chinese government publicizes mass shootings in the United States, where there are an estimated 300 million firearms, according to the Congressional Research Service.
There are no official figures for gun-related deaths in China, but media reported only 25 last year. In the U.S., annual firearm-related deaths exceeded 33,000 in 2013, the latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Ironically, China is one of the world’s largest small-arms producers.
And state-owned manufacturers may be helping stoke public interest in guns. China North Industries Corp. owns one of the country’s few public shooting ranges outside of Beijing. China South Industries Group publishes a bimonthly magazine for gun enthusiasts called Small Arms. The magazine also has an active social media presence where it posts pictures and details of weapons to Weibo, China’s equivalent to Twitter.
“(The 2008 law) had the effect of criminalizing harmless behavior, of putting people, who present no threat to society, in jail,” said Deng Xueping, a Shanghai lawyer who specializes in gun cases.
The result has been more Chinese going overseas to shoot and hunt.
Han Weitian, 33, of Beijing, visited Wong’s club in Florida last May. Pictures on social media show him firing an automatic rifle on an open range.
“Chinese ranges fix their weapons to the bench,” Weitian said. “This felt free, like real shooting.”