“Want to #StopAsianHate? Buy a rifle,” Gun Owners of America shared on Twitter on March 19, 2021, just three days after the Atlanta spa shootings occurred, where a man went on a rampage at three spas and killed eight people, including six Asian women.
In initial interviews with investigators, the shooter, Robert Aaron Long, said he had a sex addiction and that he targeted the spas that he viewed as a sexual temptation — a confession that experts have pointed toward a racial motive reinforced by the fetishization of Asian women.
In an attempt to cash in on fear of such hate crimes, the gun industry, which is known for intense political lobbying efforts, has also been dialing up its marketing toward the Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) community, pouring money into lobbying and partnering with Asian American spokespeople. While the industry’s immediate goal might be selling more guns, its longer-term goal is influencing the AAPI community’s views on the Second Amendment.
In the wake of the mass shootings in Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay in California, gun stores are seeing an increase in Asian and Asian American customers buying or considering purchasing firearms for protection in response to the racial discrimination fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to gun control activists.
Although gun violence has long plagued the U.S., the numbers of gun deaths in the country broke records in 2020, 2021 with 2022 not far behind at more than 44,000. In 2023, around 15,000 people died of gun violence as of May.
Data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also show that gun deaths among the AAPI community rose nearly 10% from 2016 to 2020.
The continued rise in gun violence coincides with a sharp rise in firearm sales and annual lobbying on gun rights. In 2021, gun lobbyists spent a record-high $15.77 million on gun rights. Its leading clients include the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), which has spent a total of $5 million on lobbying expenditures, and the National Rifle Association (NRA), which has spent $4.9 million.
Asian Americans — the fastest growing community and fastest growing voter group in the U.S. — have historically been the lowest gun-owning demographic in America.
However, an industry trade group showed nearly 30% of gun retailers reported an increase in Asian American customers in 2021. In the same year, the National Firearms Survey found that many new gun owners were people of color, including Asian Americans.
In a study conducted by the University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University, Asian Americans who experienced instances of racism during the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic were more likely to purchase firearms for self-defense.
“The targeting of Asian Americans is just the latest example of how gunmakers will cynically exploit any tragedy to fatten their bottom line, regardless of the lethal real-world impact of their actions,” said Josh Sugarmann, the executive director of the Violence Policy Center (VPC), in a press release for a study on how the gun industry has targeted the Asian American community as potential first-time gun owners and future pro-gun advocates.
In recent years, the gun industry has reportedly invested more in marketing toward Asian Americans after seeing the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes as a unique marketing opportunity to bring in an untapped market of potential buyers.
Chandler Treon, a 25-year-old Filipino American writer and editor for NextShark from Austin, purchased his first and only firearm in 2021.
“I decided to buy a gun after a multitude of shootings targeting minorities occurred in Texas,” Treon said, admitting that owning a handgun gives him a “sense of security.”
Bryan A., a 26-year-old senior underwriter from Jersey City, also hopes to purchase a firearm for safety reasons. Bryan, who said he believes that owning a gun equals upholding one’s rights as a U.S. citizen, advocates for more Asian Americans to buy firearms, noting that a community that bands together becomes a “powerful voice when it comes to political reform.”
“Think of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, when Koreatown was badly affected and where a Korean lady was shot,” Bryan told NextShark. “The Koreans pretty much took up arms to protect their communities to avoid getting burned down by the riots.”
In 2021, anti-Asian hate crimes increased by 342% across eight major U.S. cities as compared to figures from the previous year, according to a report from the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism in California State University, San Bernardino.
AAPI Victory Alliance is one of the organizations on the forefront advocating against gun violence to urge action and educate how the firearms epidemic has impacted Asian Americans.
Varun Nikore, the executive director of the AAPI Victory Alliance, told NextShark:
The NRA and NSSF started seeing in the late 2018-2019 time frame that gun sales were starting to decline and so they started looking for new markets. They had identified at the time that AAPIs could be a good market to sell guns to. When the pandemic hit, they saw the rising hate and violence against the AAPIs, and they capitalized on that fear and started pushing this horror by putting AAPI faces in gun catalogs.
According to Nikore, one of the ways in which the gun industry has been amping up their outreach efforts is through the help of Asian American spokespeople — most prominently Chris Cheng, a tech executive who won History Channel’s “Top Shot” shooting competition in 2012 without any formal training. The sport shooter and NRA commentator has since appeared in numerous documentary specials and podcasts to advocate for the Second Amendment.
Cheng previously served on NSSF’s Inclusion and Outreach Working Group and worked alongside the Asian American and Pacific Island Gun Owners (AAPIGO) Association, which was formed in April 2021 as a response to the increased interest in guns among the AAPI community.
He was described as “a techno-nerd, an Asian-American and openly gay” man that “breaks many shooting sports molds” by the NSSF. He currently owns a private gun range near Santa Cruz in California, where he gathers with his Asian American gun community for target practice.
In 2015, Cheng urged the gun industry to recognize that diversity is “the next big opportunity” to promote the Second Amendment by highlighting people of color in marketing.
“We have a template and a blueprint for how this can be successful. It’s about putting guns in the hands of good people,” Cheng previously told “The Reload” podcast. “I want to encourage Asian Americans to think about the Second Amendment, to think about these personal civil liberties that we have in our country.”
According to Larry Keane, NSSF’s chief lobbyist, if the organization’s marketing efforts are successful, “The impacts will be significant on the future of Second Amendment rights in America.”
But as for Treon, he said he believes that it is unethical to capitalize on the fear of a group with a higher risk of being victimized.
“I can’t blame Asian people for wanting to protect themselves, but I also don’t think putting guns in the hands of scared people is very safe,” Treon said. “Most people do not have the proper training to safely handle a firearm, endangering the lives of themselves and those around them.”
Nikore, who said he believes that guns continue to be the biggest epidemic in the U.S., suggests that AAPIs turning to firearms for protection look into the data and research that show how guns, in fact, will make them less safe. Moreover, he points to the pandemic-fueled fear that the AAPI community is continuing to experience as a political issue that needs to be addressed.
We need to really recognize that our community is still living in fear three years after the pandemic hit. What was the basis of that? A president who was just charged amped up the rhetoric against the AAPI community and so we must dismantle a lot of these racist acts and make sure that folks like him don’t ever get elected again. I hope this becomes a more salient issue as we go into the 2024 election.