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

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

Local authorities say Huu Can Tran, 72, who killed 11 people in Monterey Park on Saturday, may have targeted 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 farm businesses in Half Moon Bay, involved in a “workplace violence” case. Although both suspects are older Asian men, experts are noting that gun violence is pervasive and spans races, cultures and identities.

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

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

“Asian Americans are not exempt from mass murder,” Ho added.

Police officers gather at the scene of a shooting Monday in Half Moon Bay, California.Jeff Chiu/AP

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

“Any mass shooting is lowering the threshold for the next one, so if you were someone contemplating this type of crime and going through a crisis, there’s certainly a chance that witnessing some type of shooting would serve as a motivation to commit yours.” Densley said. saying.

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

So far this year, the US 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 is not innate in Asian cultures

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

Looking at attitudes among Asian Americans, the overwhelming majority support stricter gun laws at 81%, according to a 2022 AAPI data report on the status of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Hawaiians. of the Pacific islands. It is about 20 percentage points higher than the national average. So Ho condemned those trying to paint the Asian-American community with a broad brush because of the two tragedies.

“The longer you are in the United States, the more susceptible you are to certain US regulations and access to guns,” Ho said. “That means that yes, there will be a greater tendency to decide that you are going to solve whatever grievance you have, by shooting.”

Pawan Dhingra, president of the Association for Asian American Studies, similarly said that as more Asian Americans acculturate into American society, more will also absorb US pathologies.

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

The tragedies have highlighted the gaps in Asian mental health care.

While experts caution against jumping to conclusions about the shooting, they say some of the resulting discussions about a lack of mental health help, particularly among older Asian immigrants, have been long overdue. Dhingra noted that many immigrants, particularly those who left in the midst of war or political turmoil, deal not only with the unresolved trauma of experiences in their home countries, but also with the experience of immigration. And the lack of mental health services that are culturally competent and language-sympathetic has prevented seniors from working on, or even acknowledging, these issues.

“When they do look for it, it’s typically for more extreme situations, which means people wait until it’s pretty serious,” Dhingra said. “Lower levels of assistance is what we are not accessing.”

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

“It’s always a concept of ‘we’ve already accepted that this is our destiny, that we don’t have anything better,’” Ng said. “We are not the same'”.

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 reason that can “explain” the cause of gun violence.

“If a mass shooter has a mental health diagnosis, this does not mean that all of their actions are related to that diagnosis or that their symptoms have led them to pull the trigger,” according to the Violence Project website. “All we can say with any degree of certainty is that nobody leading a full life commits a mass shooting.”

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

Although more details need to emerge before determining whether the tragedies are indicative of deeper problems for Asian Americans, Karthick Ramakrishnan, founder and director of demographic data and policy research for the nonprofit AAPI Data, said the gun violence directed against and among Asian Americans exposes a glaring disparity.

“We have mountains of evidence now for more than a decade, that Asian Americans are among the strongest supporters of gun control. And yet we don’t think of gun control as an Asian-American issue,” Ramakrishnan said.

Gun control organizations have not 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 the community could see more of this violence. And Dhingra said he fears that as more attacks take place in Asian-American spaces, it could lead to more Asian-Americans buying weapons for self-defense, leading to more weapons being used and misused. fire.

“I imagine this is not the end of a trend, but rather the start of a possible trend,” Dhingra said.

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