David Liu's gun shop looks unsuspecting from the outside. Nestled into the back of a quiet strip mall in Arcadia, near Los Angeles, Liu keeps the overhead sign of the sushi restaurant that once occupied his living-room-sized shop. He does this, he says, to remain discreet. The people who need to find him will seek him out, he says.
Liu posts fliers on his windows offering Carry Concealed Weapons (CCW) license classes in both Mandarin and English, pasted below his Trump 2020 flag, orchids and decorative fish.
Liu says roughly half of his customers are Asian – mostly Chinese – and conduct transactions in their native language.
At his shop, many of his customers are like friends – regulars who come by for multiple sessions of training, paperwork, or just to chat. Several of them are new gun owners driven by fears over rising levels of violence and hate crimes, which increased over 330% between 2020 and 2021, according to a report by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism published in 2022.
Arcadia is a predominantly Asian area just a few minutes from Monterey Park, the site of a deadly mass shooting following a Lunar New Year Festival this year.
A growing demographic of gun owners
Asian-Americans traditionally have the lowest rates of ownership than any other measured demographic in the US, but saw a 43% rise in ownership between 2019 and 2020, starting with the pandemic. The COVID-19 outbreak reportedly spurred public scapegoating of Asians in the US. Crimes such as robberies and home burglaries have also increased in recent years, following the pandemic and a rapid rise in cost of living.
Liu says that in the LA area, Chinese people are sometimes violently targeted both publicly and in their homes due to a stereotype of keeping large amounts of cash on hand.
"The situation is getting worse," says Ray Gong, 27, a customer of Liu's. "I just got out of the military recently, and hearing the news, my mind changed."
Gong arrived in the US in 2016 from Hangzhou, an eastern city in China just south of Shanghai. He purchased his first pistol in August and another two firearms in September, with a view to "be ready for anything."
He says that while he hasn't experienced violence related to his ethnicity, he was discriminated against in the military, where he was prevented from taking on higher roles due to being Chinese and was often handed the work that nobody else wanted.
He is also in the process of obtaining his CCW, which typically takes over six months in California. "I'm thinking about carrying it (a gun) all the time."
Gong is now a member of a nearby shooting range and says he works on target practice at least once a week.
In a Public Policy Institute of California survey last year, two-thirds of Californians said they saw crime as a serious problem.
"Everyone (not just Asian-Americans) is buying more guns," says Liu. "People are scared."
Ricky Wong, 44, a legal administrator, says that in the last few years he survived a violent attack with a baseball bat and two car thefts. The attack, he said, was carried out by other Asians. He was a gun owner before, but the attack and thefts both validated his decision to be armed.
Calls for justice system to get tough on violence
One of the solutions to rising violent crimes in California, Wong and Liu say, is to get tough on crime again, citing multiple murderers who were released after what they see as much-too-brief stints in prison.
Chris Cheng, sport shooter and founding member of the Asian Pacific American Gun Owners Association, echoed the sentiment that law enforcement is not effectively tackling violent crime.
"The lack of prosecution" by district attorneys in major cities, including Los Angeles and his home, San Francisco, against criminals perpetrating racist attacks against Asians, decreased the community's confidence in the criminal justice system.
"Combine that with the increased civil unrest with the George Floyd riots and the January 6 insurrection, it should come as no surprise that many Asian Americans began to understand that law enforcement cannot protect them."
However, not everyone feels that firearms are not the answer to rising hate crimes. "The firearms industry and gun lobby are currently targeting minority communities in their marketing in response to long-term stagnation in the traditional gun market of white men," according to a report issued by the Washington-based Violence Policy Center.
"As a result of their increasing size and consumer power, Asian Americans are viewed as an untapped market by gunmakers," it said.
Liu sees the motivation of his customers not as a result of marketing, but as a result of fear. "It's just so dangerous out there. A lot of people buying are victims already."
Edited by: Sou-Jie van Brunnersum