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Back-to-back California shootings reflect an American tragedy, not an ‘Asian issue,’ experts say

As more Asian Americans become acculturated to American society, more will also absorb the pathologies of the U.S., said the president of the Association for Asian American Studies.
Flowers placed near the scene of a deadly mass shooting on Jan. 22, 2023 in Monterey Park, Calif.
Flowers on Sunday near the scene of a deadly mass shooting in Monterey Park, Calif.Eric Thayer / Getty Images

As Asian Americans attempt to make sense of two deadly shootings in California targeting the community within a matter of days, experts warn against drawing broad cultural conclusions from the gun violence. 

Local officials say that Huu Can Tran, 72, who killed 11 people in Monterey Park on Saturday, may have been targeting his ex-wife in a personal dispute, while Chunli Zhao, 67, who the next day killed at least seven people and seriously injured one at two agricultural businesses in Half Moon Bay, engaged in an instance of “workplace violence.” Though both suspects are older Asian men, experts are making the point gun violence is pervasive and spans race, cultures and identities.

“The problem is, when an Asian American or Asian person does something in the United States, it feels like the whole weight of a community, whether that’s an ethnic community, or an entire race, gets placed on the bodies of people,” Jennifer Ho, professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder, told NBC News. 

The violence, rather, is symptomatic of a “uniquely American phenomenon,” she said. 

“Asian Americans aren’t exempt from mass killings,” Ho added.

Multiple people were killed in two related shootings Monday at a mushroom farm and a trucking firm in a coastal community south of San Francisco, and officials say a suspect is in custody.
Police officers gather Monday at the scene of a shooting in Half Moon Bay, Calif.Jeff Chiu / AP

While the timing of the tragedies and some shared characteristics between the suspects have led many to lump them together, or float a contagion effect between the shootings, the Half Moon Bay shooter told police that he had no knowledge of the previous shooting at Monterey Park, two police sources with direct knowledge of the investigation told NBC Bay Area. And while there’s no evidence of the contagion effect between the latest tragedies, it’s been seen in mass shootings in the past, James Densley, co-author of “The Violence Project: How to Stop a Mass Shooting Epidemic,” said.     

“Any mass shooting is lowering the threshold for the next one, so if you were somebody contemplating this type of crime and going through a crisis, there is certainly a chance that witnessing some type of shooting serves as motivation to do your own,” Densley said. 

According to Densley, mass shooters will often study other mass shooters, but this is usually more common in younger people.

So far this year, the U.S. has had 39 mass shootings in 24 days, according to the Gun Violence archive, which defines a mass shooting as a single incident in which at least four people — other than the shooter — are shot.

Gun violence isn’t innate in Asian cultures

Gun violence, experts note, is not inherent in the Asian diaspora's culture. When looking at countries with comparable income levels to the U.S., several East Asian countries rank among the lowest incidence of gun violence, including Japan, Korea and Taiwan, which have some of the strictest gun laws in the world. And while China’s population is more than twice that of the U.S., it records a few dozen firearms-related crimes a year.

In looking at attitudes among Asian Americans, the overwhelming majority support stricter gun laws at 81%, according to a 2022 AAPI Data report on the state of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders. It’s roughly 20 percentage points higher than the national average. So Ho condemned those attempting to paint the Asian American community with a broad brush due to the pair of tragedies. 

“The longer you’re going to be in the United States, the more you are going to be susceptible to certain American norms and access to guns,” Ho said. “That means yes, there is going to be more of a tendency to decide that you’re going to settle whatever grievance you have, through shooting.” 

Pawan Dhingra, president of the Association for Asian American Studies, similarly said that as more Asian Americans become acculturated to American society, more will also absorb the pathologies of the U.S. 

“There’s things that Americans are known for that immigrants and their kids gravitate towards because they’re becoming more and more ‘American,’” he said. “Gun violence is one of those things.” 

The tragedies have highlighted gaps in Asian mental health help

While experts warn against drawing early conclusions around the shooting, they say that some of the resulting discussions around the lack of mental health help, particularly among older Asian immigrants, have been long overdue. Dhingra noted that many immigrants, particularly those who left amid war or political upheaval, deal not only with unresolved trauma from experiences in their home countries, but also from the experience of immigration. And the lack of culturally competent, language-friendly mental health services has further kept elders from working on, or even recognizing, these issues. 

“When they do seek it is typically for more extreme situations, which is to say that people wait until it’s quite severe,” Dhingra said. “Lower levels of assistance is what we’re not accessing.”

Research shows that Asian Americans are about a third as likely as white Americans to seek mental health help. Warren Ng, psychiatry medical director at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, previously told NBC News that many Asian immigrants fear bringing shame to their families or communities. And others may internalize the racism that they confront. 

“It’s always a concept of ‘we’ve already accepted that this is our fate, that we don’t have it any better,” Ng said. “We are not equals.’”

Gun control advocates, however, emphasize caution and nuance when discussing mental health in relation to gun violence. The Violence Project, Densley's nonprofit, nonpartisan research center dedicated to reducing violence, points out that mental illness is not a motive that can “explain away” the cause for gun violence. 

“If a mass shooter has a mental health diagnosis, this doesn’t mean that their every action is related to that diagnosis or that their symptoms caused them to pull the trigger,” according to the Violence Project's website. “All we can say with some degree of certainty is that no one living a fulfilled life perpetrates a mass shooting.”

Shootings point to need for greater inclusion of Asian Americans in gun reform discussions

Though more details need to emerge before determining whether the tragedies are indicative of deeper issues in Asian America, Karthick Ramakrishnan, founder and director of demographic data and policy research for the nonprofit AAPI Data, said that the gun violence directed at and among Asian Americans, does expose a glaring disparity. 

“We have mountains of evidence now for over a decade, that Asian Americans are among the strongest supporters of gun control. And yet we do not think of gun control as an Asian American issue,” Ramakrishnan said. 

Gun control organizations haven’t invested enough time and resources in the Asian American community, Ramakrishnan said. And campaigns and parties have often targeted Asian American voters with a focus on education and affirmative action, he said. 

Experts said that with little movement on gun reform, it’s likely that the community could see more of this violence. And Dhingra said he fears that, as more attacks occur in Asian American spaces, it could lead to more Asian Americans purchasing weapons for self-defense, leading to more firearms to be used and misused. 

“I would imagine that this is not the end of a trend but the beginning of a possible trend,” Dhingra said.