By Julia Tong
The 2021 Atlanta spa shootings were a turning point for many Asian Americans. The tragedy, which occurred amidst a dramatic rise in hate crimes, was a stark reminder to many AAPIs of their vulnerability to gun violence.
For many, owning a firearm is a way to protect themselves in an age of rising violence; Asian American gun ownership rose by 43% in 2020. Yet others say that guns are insufficient to protect Asian Americans– and can even present new dangers to the community.
Today, in the wake of publicized shootings in California and Texas, AAPIs are organizing to protect their community. What that means, however, varies per group. Advocates emphasized the importance of pushing for policies to stop gun violence and hate crimes alike. Meanwhile, gun owners stressed the need for education and training to ensure safe firearms ownership.
AsAmNews spoke to representatives of organizations from both groups in order to gain a deeper understanding of AAPI gun ownership and safety, in an intense environment of anti-Asian hate.
For the AAPI Gun Violence Coalition, policy changes against gun violence necessary
Over 10 AAPI groups are gathering today (June 20) in Washington, DC for the 2nd annual 2023 AAPI Against Gun Violence conference. The two-day conference will include speakers, workshops, and panels from experts, advocates, and survivors alike. This year also marks the formation of the AAPI Against Gun Violence Coalition, which seeks to coalesce a vision forward for the fight against gun violence.
For members of the Coalition, the Atlanta shootings laid the seeds for their anti-gun violence organizing today. But the shootings in Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay were the catalyst that sparked the collective effort, says Varun Nikore, Executive Director of the AAPI Victory Alliance.
In the wake of the shootings, the AAPI Victory Alliance had assisted local organizations in both communities. However, Nikore noted that many of those organizations were not prepared to deal with the aftershocks of the violence.
“The first responders of the AAPI organizations on the ground in those communities were struggling with how to address what was going on, and address it from the perspective of how do we help the survivors, how do we help the community heal,” he recalls.
Additionally, the shootings underscored the need for collective, policy-oriented action against gun violence. Nikore says that community organizations beyond California’s borders were “galvanized” to act.
“‘How do we address this issue in a more policy-focused, advocacy sort of way?’” he recalls. “That’s how we interacted with local groups, and that’s how this further movement of AAPIs being involved a lot more intentionally in the larger gun violence movement came to fruition.”
The AAPI Against Gun Violence Coalition was the result of these nationwide conversations. In particular, the AAPI Victory Alliance, MomsRising, Newtown Action Alliance, Chinese for Affirmative Action, and Hope and Heal Fund formed the Coalition’s Steering Committee.
Each of those groups has its own policy perspectives on gun violence. Newtown Action Alliance, for instance, campaigned for an assault weapons ban; MomsRising deconstructed the Second Amendment; Chinese for Affirmative Action rallied against anti-Asian hate. Nikore says that the conference will be key to determining a shared vision for future policy.
“We all have our own individual priorities, but this next-level coalition building is going to be: What are some common goals that we all might share in order to advance the cause?” he says. “It might not be any one of our singular focuses, but collectively, what can we work?
Nikore, however, stresses that the Washington, DC conference is not simply a place to develop policy. Ultimately, the conference’s central goal is to uplift survivors of gun violence, and the possibilities for change their stories represent.
“It’s extremely important not only to shine a spotlight on incidents of gun-related violence and the legacy of trauma, but also the legacy of hope that gets inspired by such a horrific series of events,” he says.
Growing group of AAPI gun owners stress importance of safe ownership
Other Asian Americans, however, found safety and community in gun ownership. To Patrick Lopez, one of the founders of the Asian Pacific American Gun Alliance (APAGOA), educating and supporting those gun owners is essential.
Lopez had been interested in sports shooting before the pandemic. However, he, like many other Asian Americans nationwide, was disturbed by the intensity of anti-Asian hate post-2020.
The Atlanta shooting, he recalls, was a galvanizing moment for him. Lopez was out shooting with his brothers and friends, who were all Filipino, when the concept for APAGOA first occurred to him.
“What I had in my head was, where’s the group supporting Asian American gun owners, to provide information on how to use firearms safely, responsibly?” he recalls.
“The more I looked into it, it seemed like a national group like what I had expected didn’t exist. So then I started reaching out to people to try to put something together.”
Lopez founded APAGOA in 2021. He says that the organization’s goal is to provide resources for Asian Pacific American gun owners to use their firearms safely and responsibly.
Not all gun owners, he points out, purchase weapons for self-defense. Some are involved in sports shooting, competitions, or target shooting; some hunt; others collect. But Lopez says he’s recently noticed an increase in Asian Americans purchasing firearms for self-defense reasons.
The obvious reason for this is anti-Asian hate. Lopez has observed that many new Asian American gun owners had either directly experienced hate crimes or harassment, knew people who did or were concerned about reports on the news.
But he also points out another factor: how AAPI gun owners identify. Before 2020, many people did not associate their Asian American heritage with their gun ownership. Recently, however, Asian American gun owners have become increasingly visible. For instance, Chris Cheng, a sports shooter who won the Top Shot competition in 2012, has frequently spoken on behalf of the NRA and National Sports Shooting Foundation (NSSF).
“It wasn’t until fairly recently that [Cheng] started identifying or publicly saying, ‘Hey, I’m an Asian American competitive shooter, I’m an Asian American gun owner,’” says Lopez.
“You see folks like Chris [and think]… they’re gun owners so I can be a gun owner, too.”
However, simply owning a gun is not enough for self-defense. For Lopez, educating AAPI gun owners on firearms safety and responsible use is a critical part of gun ownership.
For APAGOA, this means hosting online webinars and conferences, creating website materials, and providing live range training to ensure that gun owners understand the responsibility they have.
“Folks in the gun community [are] taking it upon ourselves to make sure that we are safe and responsible, and make sure that folks in the media and the general public understand that we are doing what we can to make sure that we are safe and responsible gun owners,” he says.
The complex relationship between gun safety and self-defense
Both groups recognize that firearms self-defense can be complex. Using a gun in a real-life self-defense situation can be stressful. Furthermore, gun ownership represents a notable risk to the owner: guns are frequently involved in death, both purposeful and accidental.
APAGOA does not advocate for gun ownership. However, the organization focuses on education on basic gun safety, proper handling, and storage, in order to prevent unnecessary deaths.
In addition, the organization also recognizes the many interpersonal factors that can trigger violence. In the wake of the Monterey Park shooting, for instance, APAGOA provided connections to mental health experts. It also encouraged members to sign the GunPro pledge, which includes a commitment to seek help and remove firearms access during mental crises.
“If people are keeping these in mind, negligent gun firings should not happen or be reduced,” says Lopez. “It seems reasonable that if they’re following proper gun handling procedures, some of those things shouldn’t have happened.”
Anti-gun advocates, however, say existing narratives surrounding safety and gun ownership are misguided.
To Nikore, the idea that guns create safety is an “NRA narrative.” He points at a large body of evidence that gun ownership increases violence in the home. For instance, gun ownership has frequently been associated with increased deaths by suicide, intimate partner violence, and homicides. On top of that, accidents arising from improper gun storage and handling result in numerous preventable deaths.
“There’s widespread ignorance for people who purchase guns in this country, not only AAPIs, that somehow guns are going to make someone safer,” he says. “And by every measurable statistic that anybody has from a public health arena or gun safety arena… people are more unsafe by having guns.”
And Nikore attributes the spike in Asian American gun ownership to another factor: targeting by the gun industry. Organizations such as the Violence Policy Center have noted that Asian Americans have become the subject of aggressive ad campaigns, and have become the face of those ads as well.
Nikore attributes this advertising push to a drop in gun sales from 2018 to 2020, which caused gun manufacturers to look for new markets. The fact that a significant percentage of Asian Americans were not gun owners and had high average incomes– on top of the rise in anti-Asian hate– created a “perfect storm,” he observes.
And this targeting of Asian Americans by gun manufacturers has made Nikore “livid.”
“The reason I’m so upset is Asian Americans during COVID, post COVID have had to live frankly, through the worst time of year that we’ve probably had to live through in decades,” he says. “And the NRA and the gun industry is… directly taking advantage of our community at the worst possible time to sell more guns.”
For both groups, however, the key to preventing hate crimes, and other forms of violence, extends far beyond guns themselves.
APAGOA has no stance on hate crime or violence prevention policies; Lopez adds that the group is not interested in pushing more Asian Americans to purchase guns for self-defense. But he stresses the importance of supporting AAPIs who choose to purchase guns, to ensure their gun use is as safe as possible.
“For folks that choose to purchase a firearm [so they] can make them feel safer with the environment of anti-Asian hate crimes, it’s important that they’re using a firearm safely and responsibly.”
And Nikore says that the Coalition is not focused solely on gun safety—but rather the policies that can protect the community on a broader scale. These may include working with the Biden administration, state governments, and legislatures to put more protections in place; continued tracking of hate crimes; and focusing on communities that are more affected by gun violence, such as Southeast Asians and Pacific Islanders.
The path forward for the Coalition on that front, Nikore says, is “slightly uncharted.” But he hopes that the conference will motivate people to continue to mobilize against gun violence well after it concludes on June 21st.
“We’re seeing a wider recognition of this issue with respect to the Asian American community,” he says.
“We’re now using this conference as momentum builds and attention builds on this issue, to take it to the next level.”
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