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Know the West

The West’s Asian Americans arm up for self-defense

Once denied their Second Amendment rights, Asian Americans are heading to gun shops in droves.

 

On a Friday evening in late March, in southeast Portland’s Jade District, about a thousand people gathered to mourn the most recent mass shooting. The previous week, a man shot and killed eight people — including six Asian women — in the metropolitan area of Atlanta, Georgia. The tragedy enraged the Asian community, which has faced an escalation in harassment ever since the COVID-19 pandemic began. People at the rally held signs that said “hate is a virus” and “not your model minority.” Snow, a 20-something Vietnamese American who preferred not to give their real name, citing possible retaliation, was among them, wearing a Glock 19 handgun on their hip.

A Stop Asian Hate rally in Los Angeles, California’s Koreatown in March attracted hundreds of participants.
Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

“Some people were uncomfortable at first” about seeing the weapon at the rally, Snow said. “But it was a decision (I) made to ensure the safety of our people.” Snow purchased the gun online last October in response to recent attacks on Asian people in America.

Tens of thousands of Asian Americans, motivated by self-defense, bought their first guns over the past year, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, an industry trade association. A survey by the organization, which tracks background checks and gun purchases through retailers, estimated a 43% jump in sales to Asians nationwide in the first half of 2020. (Few surveys track Asian American gun ownership; on forms and in databases they are often relegated to an “other” category.) Recently, High Country News contacted 20 gun shops in the West to hear their perspective on this trend. Of those that replied, nine confirmed that they’d seen an uptick in sales to customers of East and Southeast Asian descent.

HISTORICALLY, ASIAN AMERICANS have rarely been able to buy guns in the West. In 1923, despite decades of violence against Chinese immigrants in San Francisco’s Chinatown, California passed a law prohibiting non-citizens from possessing concealable firearms. As a result, many Chinese people, barred from citizenship by the Chinese Exclusion Act, could not own firearms. The bill also allowed police officials to determine who could receive a concealed weapon permit. In a San Francisco Chronicle article published at the time, the law’s proponents argued that the ban would help disarm Latino and Chinese residents, whom they depicted as criminals, using racist stereotypes. “Where the officials have the discretion in terms of gun licensing, there’s a very clear historic pattern of discrimination,” said Robert Cottrol, a legal history and civil rights professor at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. The passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, however, made it harder for police to discriminate, undermining the 1923 statute.

Second Amendment rights would come into play 28 years later during the 1992 Los Angeles riots, after police officers were acquitted of charges stemming from the beating of a Black motorist named Rodney King. Redlining had forced low-income Korean immigrants, African Americans and Latinos to live in the same neighborhoods for decades. Interracial tensions boiled over during the riots, and thousands of Korean-owned businesses were destroyed. A small number of mom-and-pop shops survived because armed Korean residents stood on their roofs to deter rioters. That became a pivotal moment for the Asian American community, inspiring more people to practice their Second Amendment rights.

“I don’t think a gun takes care of all the problems. But at least if there’s an image of Asians being armed, it could deter some crime.”

When the novel coronavirus started spreading across the world, Asian Americans and Asian immigrants once again became the target of violence. Then-President Donald Trump fueled rising xenophobia, using racist terms like “Chinese virus” and “Kung Flu,” and Asian people were accosted, spat on and even stabbed. Since March 2020, more than 3,795 hate incidents have been reported, around half of them in the Western United States and over 40% in California, according to the nonprofit group Stop AAPI Hate.

In response, many Asian Americans have purchased their first firearms. Ray Kim, the founder of a Facebook group called Asian American Gun Owners of California, said that his group has seen a rise in membership as a result of the community’s gun-buying boom. Over the past 15 months, the online community has grown from fewer than 500 people to more than 2,100. “I don’t think a gun takes care of all the problems,” Kim said. “But at least if there’s an image of Asians being armed, it could deter some crime.”

Kim, who is a second-generation Korean American, moved from Los Angeles to Texas for a Ph.D. program in 2015. The West Texas gun community welcomed him and taught him how to handle a firearm safely. Kim said that life in the Texas Panhandle came as a “culture shock” after the racist violence he’d experienced in California. In 2017, he returned to Los Angeles to take care of his aging parents. Two years later, he started the Facebook group to connect with other Asian gun owners shortly after seeing a shocking video: Korean grandmothers being attacked in LA’s Koreatown. The incident rattled him. “It was all on camera,” he said. “I just kept on thinking that … an armed society is a polite society. And that sounds much better than a society that attacks Asians.”

On social media, Kim often posts about community safety and advises members to be “first responders” to guard their families and properties. When Vicha Ratanapakdee, an 84-year-old Thai man in San Francisco, died after being shoved to the ground in January, Kim changed the profile photo on the group’s Facebook page to a popular drawing of the man. The violent incidents inspired Peter Juang, a new member, to buy a gun. “Elderlies are getting beaten up like hotcakes, and people feel it’s OK to come up and yell at others. That’s what keeps me up at night,” said Juang, a Taiwanese American who lives in a rural area near Chandler, Arizona. In February 2020, he bought a pistol, the first firearm he had ever owned, to protect his family. “Now that you know things can happen, I’ll bring my everyday carry with me when I go out,” he said.

Given the influx of new customers, firearms stores and training facilities are starting to cater to Asian Americans. Two Seattle area gun shops — Lynnwood Gun and Ammunition and Low Price Guns — told High Country News that they had hired Chinese- and Japanese-speaking international college students as part-time assistants. In early April, Edmon Muradyan, the owner of Marshall Security Training Academy & Range in Compton, California, asked friends who spoke Korean and Mandarin to help teach 20 Asian Americans — people who ranged in age from their 20s to their 60s — to handle a handgun. It was the first all-Asian American class he’d given in over two decades of instruction. “Society’s way of treating them right now is unfortunate and making them become gun owners — responsible gun owners,” Muradyan said.

“Now that you know things can happen, I’ll bring my everyday carry with me when I go out.”

All of the firearm owners interviewed for this story view guns as an equalizer that can help advance their rights and protect their communities. But in a political climate that attaches Second Amendment rights to a largely white right-wing faction and sees gun control as part of a liberal agenda, they often find themselves caught in the middle of the ideological spectrum. Many did not want to speak on the record, preferring to keep a low profile.

Still, gun owners like Juang feel that they need firearms to protect their families from potential racist violence and oppression. “If China ever decided to start a war with the United States … I’d be very worried about anyone who looks of Chinese descent. Because you could easily slide into what happened,” Juang said, referring to the Japanese American internment camps during World War II. With a gun, he said, “at least I can buy some time for my wife and kids to get out.”

Wufei Yu is an editorial intern at High Country News. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.