The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Nationwide protests supporting Asian Americans unfold after recent attacks

Demonstrators gather and march in Atlanta on March 20 after the fatal shootings at three Georgia spas. (Dustin Chambers for The Washington Post)
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Getting the gun was as simple as going to a local sporting goods store. Passing the background check took a matter of minutes.

Then it was a short drive to Young’s Asian Massage, where surveillance video obtained by The Washington Post shows the suspect spent more than an hour before opening fire. Within hours of purchasing the handgun Tuesday, police say, Robert Aaron Long, a White man, had shot and killed eight people — six of them of Asian descent and all but one of them women.

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Demonstrations unfolded across the country Saturday as activists and officials linked the massacre in Atlanta to a surge in violence against Asian Americans amid the covid-19 pandemic. In San Francisco’s Chinatown, children drew chalk butterflies on sidewalks to symbolize the people killed. In Atlanta, Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.) issued a call for solidarity: “To my Asian sisters and brothers,” he said, “we see you. And, more important, we are going to stand with you.”

Meanwhile, a growing chorus of advocates has called for a renewed federal effort to fight gun violence, arguing that, amid rising racism, lax gun laws make it too easy for someone to act on their hate.

The victims — Soon Chung Park, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Yong Ae Yue, Delaina Ashley Yaun, Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng and Paul Andre Michels — ranged in age from 33 to 74. They included a business executive two days from her 50th birthday. A single mother striving to support her sons. An Army veteran. A woman who loved to dance.

Yet activists say the attacks fit a pattern of racism and misogyny directed at Asian American women, as well as a broader trend of hate-fueled gun violence.

“Time and time again you’ve seen some of the most vulnerable communities in this country threatened by this lethal nexus of hatred and unregulated access to firearms,” said Peter Ambler, executive director of the gun control advocacy group launched by former congresswoman Gabby Giffords.

He listed the targets of recent mass shootings motivated by prejudice: Latinos at a Walmart in El Paso. A synagogue in Pittsburgh. A gay night club in Orlando. A Black church in Charleston, S.C. A Sikh temple in Wisconsin.

Using data collected in the National Crime Victimization Survey, Ambler’s organization has found that 10,000 hate crimes involving guns occur in the United States each year.

“A complex matrix of inadequacy and failure” enables these crimes and foments the hatred that fuels them, Ambler said. “This isn’t tolerable any more.”

Georgia has some of the country’s loosest gun laws. There is no waiting period for firearm purchases, a policy adopted by 10 states and the District of Columbia. Like most states, it does not bar people convicted of a hate crime from buying a weapon.

In Georgia, state Sen. Michelle Au (D) has proposed a bill that would close the loophole for background checks to include private gun sales and transfers, but has not been able to get a hearing in committee, she tweeted. In a private meeting with President Biden and Vice President Harris Friday, Au said, she also raised the need for universal background check legislation.

Georgia state Rep. Sam Park, a Democrat and the state’s only Korean American legislator, expressed outrage Saturday that many of his constituents waited in line to vote for longer than it took Tuesday’s massacre to unfold.

“This guy is able to get a gun, and on the very same day go on a shooting rampage?” Park said. “That can’t be the society that we live in.”

Bee Nguyen, another Georgia state representative, tweeted: “It wasn’t a bad day. It was a brutal and violent crime in which racism, misogyny, gender-based violence, and lax gun laws intersect.”

Nguyen was responding to a statement from Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Jay Baker, who at a Wednesday news conference described the suspect as a man “at the end of his rope.”

“Yesterday was a really bad day for him, and this is what he did,” Baker said.

The statement ignited an instant outcry, and Internet sleuths later uncovered Facebook posts in which Baker promoted shirts that called the coronavirus an “IMPORTED VIRUS FROM CHY-NA.” Baker is no longer a spokesman on the case.

More than a year into a global pandemic that has sparked record gun sales as well as racist rhetoric and attacks against Asians in the United States, lawmakers are now debating the best way to stem future violence.

Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) have introduced a bill that would require the Justice Department to appoint an official to review all pandemic-related incidents that are reported to federal or local officials. But previous legislative attempts to bolster hate-crime tracking have been blocked by Republicans, who have said existing laws are adequate to punish crimes.

The House of Representatives passed legislation this month that would require background checks for all gun buyers and give law enforcement agencies more time to inspect people who are flagged by the check system. This would close the “Charleston loophole,” which enabled a White supremacist to buy the weapon used to kill nine Black people at Mother Emanuel AME church in that city.

The bills face an uphill battle in the Senate, where they are unlikely to receive the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster.

Those rules would not necessarily have prevented the shooting in Atlanta. A lawyer for Big Woods Goods — the store where the suspect is said to have purchased his gun — said there was no indication of “anything improper” in the transfer of the weapon. The store is cooperating with law enforcement.

Experts have found that active shooters typically purchased their guns legally, including, in many cases, buying them specifically to carry out the attacks.

But stricter gun laws can prevent future racially motivated shootings, said Vanderbilt University sociologist Jonathan Metzl, whose book “Dying of Whiteness” examines the intersection of White supremacy and gun violence.

“There are racists all over the world, but there aren’t mass shootings all over the world,” he said. “Part of the issue is just access to guns. We make it too easy for people who have these kinds of predilections or intentions to go get guns.”

At the demonstrations Saturday, protesters voiced a desire to turn grief into action.

Across the country, people protested anti-Asian violence after a shooting in Atlanta on March 16 killed eight people, including six Asian women. (Video: The Washington Post)

“We have a tendency to internalize our struggle,” said Jennifer Chan, 27, one of the three women who co-organized the event in Chicago. She invoked the colloquial Chinese expression of “eating bitterness” — the notion of virtuously enduring hardship.

Chan said she was surprised not only by the turnout at the rally — which drew an estimated 250 people — but by its diversity. She underscored the importance of building solidarity not only with other racial groups but within the broad and diverse ranks of the Asian diaspora. She spoke of traditional rivalry between groups like Koreans, Chinese and Japanese, or how the American experience varies among Southeast Asians and South Asians, or immigrant Asians compared to ones who are American-born.

Tracy Wang, who attended the protest with several of her relatives, including her older sister, said she felt a sting of familiarity during the past week as the discourse turned to the twin threats of sexualized and radicalized violence that Asian women so often face. She said she endured name-calling and sexual harassment as a law student in rural Ohio decades ago but that Asian women in the United States are still “disrespected” and stereotyped as hypersexual yet submissive.

“We’re going to break that image,” Wang said, who plans to attend a second rally set for Chicago’s Chinatown next week. “As a woman, as an Asian, we can’t stay silent anymore.”

Jonathan Krohn and Mark Shavin in Atlanta, Jada Chin in San Francisco, and Sarah Pulliam Bailey, Julie Tate, Jennifer Jenkins, Hannah Knowles, Jorge Ribas, Elyse Samuels, Mark Berman, Brittany Shammas, Teo Armus, Marisa Iati, Meryl Kornfield, Paulina Villegas and Lateshia Beachum in Washington contributed to this report.