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Filipino-American Gun Club's Roots Run Deep into U.S. History

Filipino Americans represent a different face of the American gun owner. A look inside a California club celebrating their affinity for firearms.

The first gun Abraham Lim remembers seeing up close was a pistol owned by his uncle in the Philippines.

The sight of the black semi-automatic made a lasting impression on the young boy, and when Lim immigrated to the United States in the 1980's at the age of 21, one of the first things he wanted to do was shop for a firearm.

“There was a lot of romanticizing about guns and war in the Philippines, and a lot of it came from America,” said Lim, now an immigration attorney in the Los Angeles suburb of Montebello. “There was that image of John Wayne that people responded to. If you owned a gun, it meant you were powerful, you mean something.”

Lim has a shared appreciation along with other Filipino Americans in Southern California who have bonded over a cultural affinity for firearms. They represent a different face of the typical American gun owner — 61 percent of whom are described as Southern white males, according to a 2013 Gallup poll.

While information on Asian-American gun ownership is scant, gun enthusiasts in Southern California say there’s a growing interest thanks in part to the Norco Running Gun Club, made up of mostly Filipino immigrants.

On Saturdays, they gather at an outdoor shooting range outside of Los Angeles, training and competing in tactical shooting events. During one exercise, participants dart around an obstacle course, kicking up dust as they run, blasting their modified guns at a series of targets.

“The goal is to shoot the target accurately with the fastest time,” said competitive shooter Valerie Levanza, who first learned to use a gun in the Philippines at age 12.

Her father, who owned a gun for security, wanted his three daughters to know self-defense.

“There was a lot of romanticizing about guns and war in the Philippines, and a lot of it came from America.”

“At first, I resisted. Guns are usually associated with men,” Levanza said. “But before I moved to America in 2000, I got interested in competing. I came to love the feeling of competition.”

Levanza’s experience with guns in the Philippines is a common one. Some families have a gun for security, while wealthier Filipinos might also take part in shooting and hunting activities.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino III is a well-known gun enthusiast and has competed in military and police shooting competitions. Other members of his Cabinet also consider themselves sharpshooters.

“It’s a hobby, a sport for the wealthy,” Lim said. “It’s like golf.”

The mostly Filipino-American members of the Norco Running Gun Club in Corona, California, take part in tactical shooting competitions and are trained marksmen.Coutesy Paul Cabiago

But its roots run historically deeper. After World War II, when the country gained its independence from the U.S., the idea of personal gun ownership matured, said Lino Miani, CEO of risk management firm Navisio Global and author of “The Sulu Arms Market,” about Southeast Asia’s illicit gun trade.

“When you talk to Filipino gun owners today, they talk about their love for guns and the need for ownership — it’s a uniquely American-sounding argument,” Miani said.

It’s a common sight to see security guards in the Philippines carrying guns outside of malls and banks. Gun stores are also prevalent, although lawmakers have tried to strengthen gun ownership and registration laws in recent years after the growth of illegal gunsmiths and violent crime.

An estimated 1.1 million guns remain “loose,” or unlicensed, in the country, the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime reported in 2011. Gun violence is so pervasive, particularly in the south, that firearms are generally banned in public areas during election seasons, Miani said.

“There was that image of John Wayne that people responded to. If you owned a gun, it meant you were powerful, you mean something.”

Lim said he learned how to handle his first gun — an M1 Garand rifle — as an ROTC member in the Philippines. But it wasn’t until he came to the U.S. that he became more involved with shooting. Now, he owns his own 9mm pistol and runs tournaments.

He said he was once a member of the National Rifle Association but is now inactive with the organization.

“Although I’m a registered Republican, I’m not a fan of [the NRA’s] politics,” Lim said.

He favors stricter gun control, and considers gun ownership a privilege — particularly after the number of mass shootings that have rekindled the national gun debate.

Levanza said she supports the NRA’s campaigns to protect the rights of gun owners and uphold the Second Amendment.

Ultimately, she wants to be able to pass her training and knowledge of guns on to her 8- and 10-year-old daughters when they’re older.

And she hopes that they, too, will get involved in competitive shooting like she did when she was a young girl learning from her dad.

“Back then, we would travel all together for shooting matches, which is really fun for us,” Levanza said. “It drew us closer to each other.”