The California Shootings Are About Race, but Not in the Way You Might Think
The suspects in two back-to-back shootings in California are Asian men. But focusing on the gunmen’s race alone, without understanding the greater context of gun violence in America, doesn’t help anyone.
The Asian American community is reeling from two consecutive mass shootings in California that targeted mostly Asian spaces. The tragedy has been made all the more difficult by the revelation that both gunmen were older Asian men.
Many on the right have been quick to seize on this detail, with Donald Trump Jr. accusing media outlets of failing to cover the massacres because they don’t “work for the narrative” of white supremacy. This isn’t true: The story was covered extensively by most major media outlets, but that didn’t stop people from amplifying the lie.
There are real reasons to talk about race when looking at what happened in California. The two shootings have compounded the trauma of Asian American communities, who have already been suffering from a meteoric rise in anti-Asian rhetoric and crimes the last few years, fueled in large part by Trump Jr.’s father, former President Donald Trump, and his language about the Covid-19 pandemic.
The gunmen’s race is an anomaly when looking at the history of mass shootings in America. But focusing on their race alone, without taking into account the larger context of gun violence in the country, does us a massive disservice.
“Multiple factors can be true, and one does not negate the other,” said Cynthia Choi, the co-executive director of Chinese Affirmative Action and the co-founder of the coalition Stop AAPI Hate.
But “in America, race always does matter,” she told The New Republic. “We have had to deal with multiple forms of hate and violence, and that includes coming from outside the community, within the community, amongst our other community members.”
Huu Can Tran, 72, is suspected of looking for his ex-wife when he killed 11 people and injured nine others in Monterey Park. Chunli Zhao, 66, is believed to have been targeting his workplace when he killed seven people and wounded another in Half Moon Bay. We may never know their true motives, but the suspected ones are completely typical for mass shooters in the U.S.
Tran and Zhao also are not the only senior Asians to commit mass shootings: In May 2022, 68-year-old David Chou entered a church in Laguna Woods, California, that was hosting a congregation from the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church and opened fire, killing one person and wounding five others.
These three shooters indicate a chilling trend of increased radicalization among older Asian Americans.
Sylvia Chan-Malik, a professor of American Studies and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Rutgers University, said Asian elders increasingly get their news from videos—either found online or shared through chat platforms such as WeChat—instead of Asian-language newspapers.
“They’re kind of engaging the same media landscape” as the rest of us, which is increasingly digital, she explained to TNR. “Except because of the limited range of media they can consume because of language barriers, YouTube and these content creators become the primary source of a lot of their media consumption.”
Algorithms feed viewers suggestions, which include videos rife with mis- and disinformation tailored specifically for immigrant communities. “And all of a sudden, it’s not really news, it’s ideology,” Chan-Malik said, noting she’s “found that this is true across all sorts of communities of color.”
She also pointed out that Asian immigrants come from a wide variety of backgrounds, but they are all being convinced there is truth in extremist views.
But Tran, Zhao, and Chou’s jump from ideology to action is unusual—and uniquely American. The Asian American Pacific Islander, or AAPI, community has one of the lowest rates of gun violence in the U.S., and almost 60 percent of those gun-related deaths are suicides. This tracks with gun-related deaths in Asian countries, which have low rates of mass shootings.
A major difference is how easy it is to acquire a firearm in the U.S., as well as the spread of ideology around guns.
“What we’ve seen in the last couple of years is people mainstreaming the idea that guns keep us safe. It’s not true,” said Josh Horwitz, the co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions.
Gun regulations vary by locale nationwide, making it easy for someone to slip through one state’s tight restrictions and purchase a firearm elsewhere, as was the case in Monterey Park. What’s more, after a mass shooting, gun sales actually increase as people fear for their own safety and believe owning a gun will protect them.
Mass shootings are most often the result of “pure, individual grievances,” Horwitz explained to TNR. Some, such as the shootings in Buffalo or El Paso, are fueled by clear-cut white supremacist ideology. But there’s a litany of other reasons, from perceived injustice to relationship problems and domestic violence. Authorities in Half Moon Bay say Zhao seemed to be targeting specific individuals.
According to Horwitz, there’s been a “concerted effort” to push the idea that individual force has a place in decision-making, particularly for political decisions.
“We often see very individualized grievances now getting into the idea that guns can solve” those grievances, he said. “There’s too many people who buy into the ideology that guns will keep us safe and save lives. And then in moments when they’re not doing well, they have lots of guns in their hands.”
There have long been calls to tighten gun regulations in the United States. The vast majority of Americans, about 71 percent, support doing so, according to a poll conducted in August by the University of Chicago and the Associated Press. But efforts have repeatedly been blocked by Republican lawmakers.
Unfortunately, race plays a role here too: Opposition to gun control has historically been rooted in racism. In their 2015 paper, “Racial Resentment and Whites’ Gun Policy Preferences in Contemporary America,” University of Illinois Chicago political science professors Alexandra Filindra and Noah Kaplan argue that “racial prejudice colors all aspects of the debate regarding gun policy.”
Not all current gun-control opponents necessarily are prejudiced, but racial prejudice helped give rise to the anti-gun regulation stance.
Post–World War II, gun ownership began being cast as a “right,” according to Filindra and Kaplan. The NRA actually supported gun control until 1977, when the group underwent a leadership change and began actively lobbying for increased gun ownership among Americans.
“We strongly suspect that such a change in gun policy attitudes among whites was possible because guns have been a marker of white privilege throughout American history,” Filindra and Kaplan wrote. For much of its history, the Second Amendment did not even apply to nonwhite people.
None of this, however, can fully explain what drove the gunmen. Instead, at the core of everything is a community that is grieving and struggling to process what happened. After almost three years of fear, this Lunar New Year—one of the most important holidays across the Asian diaspora—was supposed to be an especially fresh start.
Celebrations were planned after being canceled during the first years of the pandemic, and California recently declared Lunar New Year a state holiday.
“Our community is reeling,” Choi said. After the past three years, “we don’t feel safe going anywhere.”
The start of the New Year festivities “was just such a joyful moment,” she said. “And that feels like that was taken from us once again.”