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Asians turn to gun shops as attacks rise

By LIU YINMENG in Los Angeles | China Daily | Updated: 2021-04-19 08:24

A protester expresses defiance at a rally in Millbrae, California, on Saturday in highlighting the types of violence experienced by Asian Americans. [LIU GUANGUAN/CHINA NEWS SERVICE]

With no letup in racist violence in US, fears drive many to resort to self-defense

More Asian Americans are arming themselves for protection amid a surge in violence and abuse directed at them during the coronavirus pandemic.

Tim Hensley, general manager of Towers Armory, a gun shop in Toledo, Ohio, told China Daily that the number of Asian customers who have come to his store recently has jumped from "a couple of people a week" to "four or five a day".

Most of them are first-time gun owners who feel the need to take matters into their own hands to fight for their security, Hensley said from his shop in the industrial suburb of Oregon.

"I think people have just now realized that they can buy a gun," he said. "While it wasn't a big priority before all this, now it's becoming: How do I become more self-sufficient and be responsible for my own security and less dependent on public services? So guns become a much cleaner option for you at that point."

The National Shooting Sports Foundation, an industry group, estimates that more than 8.4 million people bought a firearm for the first time last year, and 21 million background checks were conducted for guns sale during the year.

According to the foundation, Asian men accounted for 3.1 percent of all customers at gun retailers during the first half of 2020; Asian women made up 0.7 percent. The group notes that Asians make up 5.7 percent of the nation's population.

In comparison, 55.8 percent of the gun buyers in 2020 were white men and 16.6 percent were white women.

But many firearm merchants painted a slightly different picture.

Hensley said the number of Asian American gun-buyers began growing shortly after the outbreak of COVID-19 in the United States, and a further rise followed a mass shooting in the Atlanta area of Georgia in which most of the victims were of Asian background.

More Asian Americans, as well as women in general, are also taking Concealed Carry Weapon Training, or CCW, a firearms safety or training class required for a gun owner to obtain a permit to carry a concealed weapon in public areas.

"It's basically everybody (taking the CCW classes), but there is more Asians participating now," Hensley said. He reported a five-fold jump in the number of students at the store's CCW classes, more than half women.

Anti-Chinese slurs

Racially motivated violence and hate incidents against Asian Americans have been on the rise since the pandemic started last year. Some blame former US president Donald Trump, who during his presidency made repeated mentions of terms such as "China virus" and "kung flu".Others have pointed to the effects of poverty among people and broader financial struggles exacerbated by the pandemic as causes.

On March 16, a shooting rampage in three Atlanta spas that left eight people, including six women of Asian descent, dead. The attack sowed fresh fear in a community already reeling from a year of heightened anti-Asian attacks. This racially motivated violence has triggered many protests across the US.

"This is a change for Asian people (to buy guns). Asian Americans are going through a crisis time because of coronavirus and Trump saying the 'China virus' stuff and all of that," said Jay Zeng, owner of Jimmy's Sport Shop, a gun store in Mineola in New York's Long Island.

Zeng claims his shop is the first Asian-owned gun store in Long Island. He attributes the recent rise in gun sales to a fear of violence.

"Most Asian people are buying guns because they're scared," Zeng said. "Ammunition is selling 10 times more than usual in the country in general."

Charles Hu, a retired police officer and general manager of Manhattan's John Jovino Gun Shop, said March "was the best-selling month for guns in the US".

"We have a lot of people from the Chinese community come to inquire about the gun license service," said Hu, a Chinese immigrant who has worked at the gun shop in New York's Little Italy neighborhood since 1990.The 110-year-old business shuttered last year due to the pandemic.

Darren Leung, owner of West Side Rifle & Pistol Range in Manhattan, said more Asian women are participating in shooting practice.

"We have seen a lot more Asian clients coming to practice shooting, just to be able to say that 'I'm able to protect myself'," he said.

In the three-hour window since he opened his doors for business, Javier Garcia, co-owner of HTX Tactical, had ushered in four to five older Asian customers.

The Houston-based firearm retailer said his store has long catered to a clientele of young Asians who purchase guns for competition, protection or recreation.

When the pandemic broke out there was a sharp rise in gun sales by every race, with everyone scrambling to buy guns thinking "it was the end of the world", he said, but the most recent Atlanta shooting has put older Asian on edge.

"It's a little bit of both, whether it's a hate crime or just being scared in general, and they just don't want anything to happen to them or their families, so they just want to be prepared," he said when asked about the causes behind the spike in gun sales among older Asians.

Disproportionate surge

According to an analysis of police statistics by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, anti-Asian hate crimes in 2020 rose 145 percent across major US cities, while overall hate crimes fell 6 percent.

The New York City Police Department reported three hate crimes against Asians in 2019 and 28 in 2020, an 833 percent hike. Los Angeles and San Francisco both saw an increase, from seven to 15, and six to nine, respectively.

The advocacy group Stop AAPI Hate said there were 3,795 hate incidents from March 19, 2020 to Feb 28,2021. A disproportionate higher number of these attacks were directed at women. The group stands up for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

Chinese made up 42.2 percent of those who reported experiencing hate. They were followed by Koreans with 14.8 percent, Vietnamese 8.5 percent, and Filipinos 7.9 percent.

Anti-Asian incidents occurred in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. California topped the list with 1,691 cases. New York trailed with 517 cases. It was followed by the state of Washington, 158 cases, and Texas with 103 incidents. Ohio had 40 cases. The nonprofit doesn't report its data to the police.

David Liu, owner of Arcadia Firearm and Safety in Los Angeles, said people of all races and ethnic backgrounds are snapping up guns, causing supplies to be seriously depleted at his store, which is in a mainly Asian American area around 20 kilometers northeast of downtown Los Angeles. He is even having trouble getting products from his major suppliers, he said.

"Nobody could get their hands on a gun nowadays. Gun stores across the US are all running out of merchandise."

David Stone, of Dong's Guns, Ammo and Reloading, a gun shop in Tulsa, Oklahoma, said sales in his store have surged 400 percent since the start of the pandemic.

An Atlanta gun-shop owner, who didn't give his name, said there's been a "significant increase" in sales since last year, driven by people's desire for self-defense. He didn't notice any change in the number of Asian customers after the spa shootings.

"The focus on Asians, no, it's not. They've been buying from last year also."

Minlu Zhang and Belinda Robinsonin in New York contributed to this story.

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