Editor’s Note: Jeff Yang is a research director for the Institute for the Future and the head of its Digital Intelligence Lab. A frequent contributor to CNN Opinion, he co-hosts the podcast “They Call Us Bruce,” and is co-author of the book “RISE: A Pop History of Asian America from the Nineties to Now.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.
Lunar New Year is traditionally a celebration of hope, renewal and reconnection with loved ones. Instead, Asian Americans woke up Sunday to the horrific news of yet another mass shooting the day before affecting our community — this one taking place at a ballroom dance studio in the suburban immigrant enclave of Monterey Park, California. The town of 60,000 is about two-thirds Asian and nearly 50% of Chinese ethnicity.
Eleven people were killed. Another nine were wounded, some critically.
People instantly wondered whether the murderous attack was an act of racially motivated hate. That question is hardly surprising, with echoes of previous attacks on Asians still on our minds. Nearly two weeks ago, an Indiana University student was stabbed in the head multiple times on a bus for “being Chinese,” according to court documents The Washington Post obtained.
And, of course, Saturday’s shooting took place on a cultural holiday, at a dance studio in a neighborhood where tens of thousands of people had been expected to gather for a public celebration.
But it was reported that the suspect was 72 years old and described as an Asian male. He died Sunday of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, police said.
That news didn’t eliminate the possibility of a hate-based motivation. May’s horrific attack on a Taiwanese American church congregation in Laguna Woods, California, showed how complicated the dynamics of hate crime can get (the suspect, who opposes Taiwan’s independence from China, has been charged with “hate crime enhancements” in the attack) — it certainly changes what many may speculate about the motive of this horrible crime.
Here’s the bleak reality behind this tragedy: Asian Americans have now experienced two high-profile mass shootings in about eight months.
The shooting in Laguna Woods took place in a church my parents might have attended, had the pandemic not thwarted their plans to move into a senior community there. We had friends and relatives in the immediate vicinity. On the day of that attack, my family received countless panicked phone calls asking whether our loved ones were alive and well.
The shooting in Monterey Park hit even closer to home, both in geography and in social connection. Dozens of people in my immediate friend network shared that they were “marked safe,” detailed how they had been near the dance studio hours or even minutes before the attack or noted that they were connected to people among the wounded or dead. These incidents feel like they’re looming ever nearer, like a specter from a 3D horror movie drifting inexorably toward the camera.
It’s understandable that Asian Americans might have, once upon a time, thought that our ethnic communities were insulated from the realities of this country’s spiraling epidemic of gun violence. After all, parts of Asia have among the lowest gun homicide rates in the world.
As of 2016, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association, Taiwan had 0.3 gun deaths per 100,000 people per year, with other Asian markets in the same range. For example, South Korea was at 0.4 and Singapore at 0.1. (By contrast, the United States was at 10.6.)
What’s interesting is that gun use is very much a part of all three of those cultures since they each require compulsory military service for every able male. My father, now in his 80s, was a sharpshooter during his brief mandatory tour of duty in the Taiwanese army and proved to me at a range on vacation a decade or so ago that he could still hit bull’s-eyes on demand.
But guns are not a part of their civil societies.
For those who immigrated to America from that reality, it’s easy to imagine mass shootings as things that happen to other people, in other places. But gun violence is the curse America has wished upon itself, and none of us is immune to it. We all live in a country where most people can — either legally or illegally — readily gain access to a weapon of mass destruction on demand.
There’s an opportunity for Asian Americans to speak out loudly and firmly on the need for gun reform.
Asian Americans generally believe gun control to be an important issue. Sixty-two percent of Asian American voters called gun policy very important to their midterm vote, according to an August Pew Research Center survey, and 51% of Asian Americans voters said the same of violent crime. And 75% of Asian American adults approved of the new gun law Congress passed last year, Pew found.
And there has never been greater urgency or need.
On the day of the shooting, US Rep. Judy Chu, who has represented Monterey Park and its environs since 2009, gave a speech celebrating the return of the city’s Lunar New Year festival after years of cancellation due to Covid-19.
Her speech connected the community to the Chinese astrological symbol of this new year, noting that “just like the rabbit, when we face obstacles, we will continue to run.”
That line hits differently now. Rabbits run when shot at. We, our elders and our children, should not be forced to do so.