Early polling first shared with NBC News shows that gun violence is a top issue for Asian American and Pacific Islander voters in Virginia ahead of the state’s November elections, in which parties will spar for legislative control.
Nationally, health care, the economy and education have long ranked among the most critical issues for AAPI to decide their votes. The community’s high focus on gun violence — ranking second as an issue in the poll — is significant, potentially aligning with a larger shift across the U.S.
“Education has been a prime issue in our community — it has been historically. But in the last two to three years there’s been a shift,” said Varun Nikore, executive director of AAPI Victory Alliance, the progressive organization that released the poll. “In my mind, [gun violence] is a sleeper issue going into the 2024 election, and it’s going to weigh in very heavily for 2023.”
Nathan Chan, an assistant professor of political science at Loyola Marymount University who teaches race and political behavior, said that gun safety has emerged as a priority likely due to the ways in which AAPI communities have been touched by mass shootings themselves, particularly those in California that occurred at the beginning of the year.
“The narrative has to do with violence in our own communities,” Chan said. “When we look at events that happened in Monterey Park, when we look at incidents specifically with Asian Americans that happened in Northern California, for example, that’s part of the story.”
Experts say Virginia’s Asian American electorate has become increasingly critical to candidates, with the population ballooning by 112% since 2000. Nearly a third of eligible AAPI voters in the state live in Fairfax County, according to AAPI Data. There, they constitute 16% of the electorate.
The poll, conducted by political strategy research firm Lake Research Partners in partnership with AAPI Victory Alliance, surveyed 600 registered Asian American and Pacific Islander voters in Virginia between July 19-26 online and over the phone. It showed that among top overall concerns for their families, AAPI voters ranked gun violence second, just after the rising cost of living and on par with jobs and the economy.
Seventy percent of AAPI respondents in the state said they are “much more likely” to support a candidate for state legislature who supports improving gun safety laws by requiring universal background checks. South Asian Americans showed the highest support at 74%.
The top position that raised doubts for voters was candidates who voted to “allow unlimited gun purchases without background checks.”
The findings are particularly significant in the context of years of Asian hate crimes and incidents that came to a head during the pandemic, Chan said.
“Even with all these attacks against Asian Americans, AAPIs in Virginia do not see guns as a solution to that problem,” he said. “Instead, these AAPI voters are really seeing the stricter gun laws and candidates that support these stricter gun laws, who are often of the Democratic Party, [as] a better solution to the rising hate incidents against AAPI.”
Chan added that for many, the answer to gun violence being tighter restrictions is likely informed by firearm legislation in their home countries. China, for example, overwhelmingly bans civilian gun ownership. And though the country’s population is more than twice that of the U.S., it records a few dozen firearms-related crimes a year. Japan similarly has one of the lowest rates of gun violence in the world. The country has outlawed handguns, and while civilians may purchase shotguns and air rifles, the process to obtain a firearm license is extensive, involving a class, a written test and a shooting-range test among other evaluations.
Due to the frequency of shooting incidents in the U.S., gun violence can be particularly traumatizing to immigrant voters, further causing them to prioritize the issue, he said.
“Traditionally, when we think of how difficult it is to get a gun in Asian countries, it makes sense that Asian Americans, when they arrive here, do not necessarily support loose gun laws,” Chan said. “Asian Americans have not been brought up in contexts where guns are necessarily commonplace.”
Chan said that the poll is consistent with other research that shows Asian Americans as among the strongest supporters of stricter gun legislation. A Pew Research Center report revealed that Asian adults showed the highest levels of support for increasing the minimum age to own guns to 21 at 71%. And 62% supported a ban on assault-style weapons altogether.
A number of other issue positions also emerged as popular among Asian American and Pacific Islanders in the Virginia voter poll, with 66% in support of “ensuring our children have the freedom to learn both the good and bad of our history.” And 62% said they were much more likely to support a candidate who supported ensuring that wages “of all levels” were consistent with the cost of living.
In looking at what voters considered to be red flags, not only did respondents say they had concerns around candidates who don’t support gun safety, but 71% also had doubts about candidates who opposed abortion, even in cases of rape or incest, or to protect the health of the pregnant person.
While the poll shows that Asian American voters ultimately align more with Democratic Party positions, experts emphasize that the electorate’s support for the party isn’t a given. And campaigns need to shift toward outreach that addresses gun safety, or else “they’re missing out,” Nikore said.
“They need to be talking about public safety. They need to be talking about gun violence,” he said. “They’re going to lose the crowd.”