'It’s a big responsibility to have a firearm, because it’s a tool that can save your life or someone else’s life, but it can also take life at the same time,' said gun instructor Kelly Chi. (Courtesy Tom Nguyen/LA Progressive Shooters)
While setting up camp with other backpackers at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, Sam Tayag was told "to hurry back up to the rim, otherwise, I'm gonna miss my Chinese tour bus," they said.
Tayag, who is a Filipino American outdoor educator, identifies as a woman and uses they/them pronouns. They were well acquainted with racist micro- and not-so-micro-aggressions like this one before 2020. For instance, white hikers reported them to the police because Tayag's son looks white, and the hikers didn't believe Tayag was his mother.
Tayag said people of color, especially women, aren’t always welcome in the outdoors. “My mom got grilled by a ranger," Tayag said, because she was trying to get a national parks pass at Joshua Tree and the rangers didn't believe that she was a citizen.
In the past, every time something happened, Tayag just walked away. But in 2020, confrontations started to escalate as some Americans scapegoated Asians for the pandemic. Some used racial slurs, and physical attacks created anxiety and anger.
“It got bad during COVID,” Tayag said. “People messing with my car and telling me to go back to where I came from in front of my kid and raising their voices, and saying, ‘People like you shouldn’t be in public.’ And then you see the elders getting targeted.”
As a second-generation American in a tight-knit extended family and a survivor of domestic violence, Tayag was determined to protect their loved ones. Their mom, now 65, suggested they get guns. Tayag, who identifies as liberal on most issues, had internalized stereotypes of gun owners as mostly white, conservative and male.
But by the beginning of this year, Tayag and their mom decided to buy guns for their family’s protection and went for training at a shooting range in Los Angeles County.
"I finally decided, you know, it's time to just, bite the bullet," Tayag said.
According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, in the first half of 2020, gun ownership ballooned for all Americans. The growth among Asian Americans was proportional to that of other ethnicities, but gun purchases by Asians were up over 40%. Anecdotal reports from gun shops and ranges show many of those buying guns in this big push were first-time buyers. In discussions of race and guns, many studies and news articles focused on white, Latino and Black perspectives, but excluded Asian views.
Asian Americans who buy guns give different reasons for their purchases, including scarcity concerns and fear stemming from unrest shown on TV. Some also cite fear of racist violence. COMPASS, one of the largest-known national surveys of Asian American and Pacific Islanders, conducted a poll between last October and January 2021 that showed two-thirds of those polled believed the U.S. was more dangerous for them. Most respondents were women. Stop AAPI Hate — a project based out of San Francisco State University that asks members of Asian American and Pacific Islander communities across the nation to self-report acts of hate and discrimination — reports Asian women experience harassment, assault and workplace discrimination more than two times more often than Asian men.
Kevin Ray, a 12-year member and treasurer at the San Leandro Rifle and Pistol Range, said customers at the range mirror the diversity of San Leandro. Though ranges do not specifically collect race data, he says he has noticed more women of Asian origin at the range since 2020. Safety instructors at the range have told him about a singular new trend: older Asian couples, typically beyond middle age, coming to the range for the first time.
“Grandmas and grandpas,” Ray said.
These new gun owners increased in the first part of 2021, when media publicity about physical attacks on older persons of Asian descent increased.
Svetlana Kim, 47, started going to her local range with her husband. Kim immigrated to the U.S. 15 years ago from Uzbekistan. As a member of a small ethnic Korean minority in Uzbekistan, she faced discrimination growing up. Kim views the U.S. as mostly a fair country without racism. She lived in Los Angeles' Koreatown when she first got to the U.S. and earned an MBA there.
Kim feels grateful to be in the U.S. She has considerate friends and neighbors and has never been the target of racism. She said guns used to make her anxious, but news reports about violence against Asians and lawlessness in general worried her.
“I’ve always tried to get rid of my fears,” Kim said. “I just wanted to have my anxiety about guns to go away.”
Her sister-in-law convinced her to get a gun for family protection. Kim felt stigma around being a gun owner and was reluctant to tell her Asian friends, worried that it might change their opinion of her.
“We think that people, if we let them know that we have a gun, they’d be like, ‘Something’s wrong with you, you’re violent,’ ” Kim said.
But once she came clean, their reactions surprised her.
“I’m the last one to get one,” said Kim with an ironic laugh.
Kim felt disturbed after a mass shooter killed eight people, six of them women of Asian descent, in Atlanta this past March. It bothered her that, when an Asian woman victim called 911, the dispatcher had a hard time understanding her accent. For Kim, any wait for the police during a mass shooting is too long.
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“If any of them would have had a gun, it wouldn’t have been so bad,” she said. “They could have tried to protect themselves versus just being, hopeless, accepting the fact that they’d be killed.”
In May, a transit worker in San Jose shot and killed nine of his co-workers and himself in the deadliest mass shooting in Bay Area history. Kim sees the attack as a result of untreated mental illness and also a part of a trend in senseless violence that contributed to her decision to buy a gun.
Sam Tayag was similarly horrified about the Atlanta and San Jose shootings. But they thought some of the media coverage raising the issue of gun control missed a key point.
“It becomes more about the firearm and less about the perpetrator,” Tayag said. In this case, “Toxic masculinity strikes again.”