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News / Nation & World

First hate crimes, now mass shootings. For some Asian Americans, feeling safe means owning a gun

By Jeong Park, Hailey Branson-Potts and Anh Do, Jeong Park, Hailey Branson-Potts and Anh Do, Los Angeles Times
Published: February 5, 2023, 6:02am

LOS ANGELES — Guns have always made Lynn Kim nervous. She had never considered firing — let alone buying — one herself.

But that changed last week after two mass shootings in California, two days apart, carried out by older Asian American men who targeted fellow Asian Americans.

After hearing the news, Kim, who is Korean American, told her husband: “It’s time. Honey, let’s research getting a gun.”

Kim, who is in her 40s, lives in West Los Angeles with her husband, their middle school-aged daughter and her mother. Her greatest fear is a “terrible stranger” breaking into their home while her mom is alone.

“I’m a little afraid of weapons. I’m much more afraid if we’re attacked. I can’t let anything hurt my family,” said Kim, a human resources employee who is studying up on guns and plans to watch YouTube videos on the basics of handling a firearm.

The mass shootings at a Monterey Park ballroom dance studio and in rural Half Moon Bay follow a rise in anti-Asian hate crimes during the pandemic, along with violent crime increases in major California cities.

For a small but growing number of Asian Americans, owning a gun seems like the only way to feel safe.

Research shows that Asian Americans, who have some of the lowest gun ownership rates in the country, have been buying more firearms in the last few years — as have other racial groups.

“There is just an explosion of gun ownership during the pandemic,” said Alex Nguyen, a research manager at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which advocates for stronger gun safety laws.

Nearly 30% of gun retailers said they had more Asian American customers in 2021 compared with the previous year, according to a survey by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a firearm industry trade association.

Other groups increased their gun buying at even greater rates, the survey found. More than 60% of retailers sold more guns to white people than the year before, 45% had more Black customers and 37% sold to more Latinos.

A significant increase in gun ownership would represent a cultural change for Asian Americans, especially in coastal cities.

Some Asian American men are familiar with guns from serving in the military in their countries of birth. Korean American shop owners staking out rooftops with guns became an enduring image of the 1992 L.A. riots. And in places like Wisconsin, many Hmong Americans go hunting just as their neighbors do.

But white men are by far the most common gun-owning demographic and Asian Americans the least common, according to the Pew Research Center and other surveys.

“Asian Californians are a growing segment of the gun-owning public,” said Sam Paredes, executive director of Gun Owners of California, a pro-gun advocacy group. They “have been becoming more involved in not only their own personal protection, the protection of their homes and businesses, especially with the rise in violence that has been evilly targeted against them … and you can’t blame them for doing that.”

California has some of the strictest gun control laws in the country, and the two mass shootings last week, which killed 18, have reignited the national debate over gun control.

Some say that buying a gun is not the right way for Asian Americans to deal with their fears.

Gloria Pan, senior vice president of the advocacy group MomsRising, implored Asian Americans to “resist the deadly siren call to buy guns.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom — who said last week that the Second Amendment is “becoming a suicide pact” — said he understands why people, especially Asian Americans, are arming themselves.

There is a “stacking of stress: years of COVID, a community that feels under-respected, under-appreciated, under-resourced, and then a mass shooting on top of that,” he told reporters outside Ten Ren’s Tea Time in Monterey Park, just north of the dance studio where 11 were killed and nine injured on Jan. 21.

But he condemned Fox News and gun-backed groups, saying they have exploited fears about rising crime, immigration and other issues.

The gun industry has upped its marketing toward Asian Americans — the fastest-growing racial or ethnic group in the country — along with other nonwhite groups. More diverse faces are being featured in gun ads and on the covers of firearms magazines.

“What we saw with the marketing efforts targeting Asian Americans is that, during COVID, when we saw the increased racist attacks on Asian Americans, the gun industry saw this as an opportunity to try and sell this community guns,” said Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center, which advocates for gun control.

Chris Cheng, who is of Chinese and Japanese descent, said he was proud to have been recruited years ago by the National Rifle Association to be “a different face of gun ownership,” and that he is happy to help the firearms industry with its marketing toward Asian Americans — especially now.

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Amid “race-based social upheaval, a lot of Asian Americans are asking themselves, ‘Is the government able to protect me?’ And the answer for a lot of us is, ‘No,’” said Cheng, an author, sport shooter and winner of The History Channel’s “Top Shot” competition.

Cheng, 43, of San Francisco grew up in Orange County. His father, a U.S. Navy veteran, taught him how to safely use guns as a young boy, and he has fond memories of their trips to a shooting range in Laguna Niguel.

Two years ago, he helped start the Asian Pacific American Gun Owners Association, which, he said, has about 2,000 members.

For new gun owners, he said, there is a progression, from fear to excitement about learning how to use the gun and, ultimately, to empowerment.

Mike Yu, a part-time musician from Pasadena who is Taiwanese American, could soon be one of those new gun owners.

He and his father plan to start visiting gun stores to compare prices and reliability among Glock models.

Yu, 25, said his father was concerned about the risk of a gun accidentally firing but feels differently after the mass shooting in Monterey Park.

In California, gun owners need a concealed carry permit to be armed in public. Without one, city dwellers are mostly limited to storing the weapon at home, which offers little protection against mass shootings.

But those who are thinking about buying a gun say it would make them feel safer, even if they can’t bring it with them everywhere.

Yu lives with his parents and cousins, and visitors from Hong Kong and Taiwan often stay at their home.

“I don’t know how they, the guests, will feel about having a gun under our roof,” Yu said. But, he said, “We don’t want to be victims.”

Hung Nguyen, 70, of Santa Ana was a gun enthusiast in his youth, after moving to Chicago from Vietnam and falling in love with American cowboys in the movies — especially John Wayne.

He got rid of his two guns decades ago — one was stolen, and his wife urged him to get rid of the other. Last year, he bought a Ruger rifle for target practice.

After last week’s mass shootings, he is glad he has the protection.

“In a desperate moment — if my wife, my children, my family members were in danger of being attacked — I would use it and any other means I have: my hands, kitchen knife, baseball bat,” said Nguyen, who works in online development. “We can’t just sit there. We can’t be passive targets.”

Experiencing the Vietnam War and the fall of Saigon as a young man left a “deep, deep impression” on him, he said. The instability of the past few years — people hoarding toilet paper, the recent rush to buy eggs — has made him anxious.

“Anything can happen,” he said. “That’s why we have to have weapons to stay prepared.”

Tom Nguyen said that interest in his group, L.A. Progressive Shooters, goes up after every mass shooting.

Nguyen, who is Vietnamese American and came to the U.S. as a young refugee, founded the group in 2020, hoping to create a space friendly to liberal or progressive people who may be intimidated by guns and typical gun shops. The classes he teaches include basic shooting, defensive pistol techniques and how to apply for a concealed carry permit.

He estimates that least a quarter of his 600 or so students have been Asian American.

For them, anti-Asian hate is the “top driver” for learning how to use a firearm, Nguyen said, but other violent crimes are also a factor.

“There’s a concern that things are getting out of control,” said Nguyen, 52.

Jeff Liu’s first exposure to guns came as a teenager — his father bought one after a neighbor’s house was burglarized.

Liu owns about 20 firearms, including a shotgun and a .22-caliber rifle.

He has a concealed carry permit but doesn’t arm himself in public unless he’s going to an area he doesn’t know well — for example, heading to Northern California for the weekend.

Liu, 48, an Irvine resident who was born in Taiwan and works at an automotive company, is especially worried about the safety of his daughter, a first-year high school student, and has taken her and her older brother to the shooting range.

“My thinking is that a gun is like a last defense,” Liu said. “You really don’t want to use it, but I’d rather have the option and have a chance to react — just in case.”

Last week at Arcadia Firearm & Safety, owner David Liu chatted up a chiropractor looking to buy a handgun.

“Gun control is full of s—” Liu said, a Glock 43 pistol strapped to his hip as Athena, a 2-year-old Belgian Malinois, napped nearby. “I told the other media they should worry about online games.”

Liu, 56, opened the gun store in 2016 in the majority-Asian city of Arcadia, in a strip mall that includes two boba tea shops and a Taiwanese beef noodle shop.

A Trump 2020 flag hangs outside the front door, and the store’s name is displayed in English and Chinese.

Inside, an upside down American flag is held up by a rifle, near a Taiwanese flag and a black flag reading “Free Hong Kong, Revolution Now.”

Liu, who was born in Taiwan and moved to Hong Kong at 4, came to the U.S. as a teenager. He thinks the media “blew up” the connection between anti-Asian hate and the increase in Asian American gun ownership.

Rather, he said, people feel unsafe because of an increase in burglaries and other crime, as well as the George Floyd protests of 2020.

About half his clientele is Asian American, he said. Asked if more Asians have come in since the mass shootings, he laughed.

“For the past three years, whoever needed to buy (a gun) already bought (it),” he said.

He has, however, seen an increase in inquiries about getting a concealed carry permit.

“When you are protecting your family, protecting your business, what does a gun do for you? You protect your community,” Liu said.