CNN  — 

Kris He walked into Arcadia Firearm & Safety in Arcadia, California, three days after his gun license became official.

Kris He, left, and David Liu discuss a purchase at Liu's gun store.

The 22-year-old immigrant from mainland China walked past a Trump flag, past the rifles, and headed to the glass case displaying handguns. He didn’t grow up around guns, but after seeing the gun store’s website in Chinese, he hoped owner David Liu would answer some of his questions.

“I speak Mandarin and Cantonese. They can use their mother tongue and talk to me. I will try to explain to them about the law and about the safety of firearms,” said Liu.

David Liu is the owner of Arcadia Firearm & Safety.

Liu opened Arcadia Firearm & Safety in 2016, hoping to reach the growing Asian American population in the suburban sprawl east of Los Angeles. The store sits above a Chinese restaurant, just a few minutes’ drive from Monterey Park. The mass shooting in that majority-Asian community last month is the reason why He sought to get a gun license.

In the wake of the mass shootings in Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay, a growing number of Asian Americans are buying, or considering buying, guns for protection. Gun safety activists say this trend is in response to increased racial tensions across the country exacerbated by the pandemic and a nationwide gun violence epidemic.

Kris He came into Liu's store shortly after getting his gun license.

“I’m afraid in my house,” said He. One of He’s friends lost his aunt in the Monterey Park shooting that killed 11 people, mostly Asian. He, who is not a native English speaker, said, “I think if you have gun, I have gun. I afraid you, you afraid me. So, it’s safe.”

Liu unlocked his glass case and gave He a handgun to hold, bluntly explaining, in Mandarin, how a new gun owner should train and safely live with a deadly weapon. He said he would think about it and promised to come back.

Attacks against Asian Americans on the rise

Asian American buyers make up a small percentage of overall gun sales in the US. In 2021, a Pew Research Center survey found 10% of Asian adults reported they personally owned a gun and another 10% said they live in a household with a gun owner. Thirty-six percent of White adults said they own a gun with another 11% saying they live with a gun owner.

But during the pandemic, the 2021 National Firearms Survey found that many new gun owners were people of color, including Asian Americans.

Chris Cheng and Trish Sargentini, in the foreground, practice at Cheng's private range.

Trish Sargentini, 34, was one of those new Asian American gun buyers.

A biotech worker, Sargentini bought a gun for self-defense during the pandemic, driven by fear, a feeling that was entirely new to her living in the Bay Area. “I definitely felt very worried for myself and others in the Asian American community,” said Sargentini, reflecting on the dozens of viral videos of Asian Americans being spat on, beaten, tripped and in some cases, murdered. “That was the first time that it was very clear that I wasn’t just American. Suddenly, I’m Asian American.”

Charlie Ha, a civil engineer in South San Jose and Vietnamese American, bought his first gun during the pandemic. “People were being xenophobic, blaming China and other minorities who look like they’re Chinese. Being marginalized all your life, it wears on you. When things hit the fan like in this case, it definitely encouraged people to get firearms to protect themselves,” said Ha.

Ha turned to his childhood friend Conrad Bui, a San Francisco chiropractor, for help finding a gun and proper training.

Bui says his own wife’s attitude about guns has fundamentally changed after watching videos on social media of Asian Americans being harassed. “My wife feels it’s dangerous going out there and that she doesn’t feel safe anymore,” said Bui.

For Ha, buying a gun made him realize that “it’s not something that just conservative Americans can do. Everyone has a right to do these things.”

Conrad Bui, left, is a chiropractor. His friend Charlie Ha, right, is a civil engineer.

Ha, Bui and Sargentini gathered at Chris Cheng’s private gun range near Santa Cruz for target practice, what they call their Asian American gun community.

“This is what my gun experience has been like,” said Cheng, waving at the three Asian friends. “The face of the typical gun owner being White, that can send a message to say, ‘oh, gun ownership is a civil right is only for White people,’ which is just factually incorrect,” said Cheng.

A gay man, Cheng said, “I’m a diversity and inclusion advocate, no matter where I am, whether it’s in the gun community, whether it’s in my day job in Silicon Valley.”

The gun industry benefits, too

Cheng found fame on History Channel’s reality TV show, “Top Shot.” At the start of the series, he was an amateur gun owner with no formal training. He ended up beating 17 professional marksmen on the show to win a $100,000 cash prize and a contract with a gun seller. That moved him from a life in tech to what he now calls civil rights advocacy in the firearms community.

Chris Cheng is pictured in San Francisco's Castro neighborhood, where he lives with his husband.

Cheng doesn’t shy away from what he believes is a fundamental right that Asian Americans culturally have avoided. “Responsible gun ownership is for every American in this country, regardless of the color of your skin,” said Cheng.

He took that message to the 2015 meeting of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a firearm industry trade association, delivering a speech titled, “Diversity: The Next Big Opportunity.” Cheng told the participants that there is an “opportunity for us to promote the Second Amendment, to promote hunting and sports shooting to this new demographic and make them a multigenerational customer and lifelong Second Amendment advocate.” He urged the industry to recognize that “diversity is the next area of success” by targeting messages to ethnic groups and highlighting people of color in marketing.

Cheng’s message caught the attention of the Violence Policy Center, a non-profit educational organization that approaches gun violence from a public health perspective.

“You could call Chris Cheng an ambassador at best and a salesman at worst,” says Josh Sugarmann, Violence Policy Center executive director. The organization included Cheng in a 2021 analysis titled, “How the Firearms Industry Markets Guns to Asian Americans.”

“What you’re seeing head-on is the marketing efforts by the gun industry to target a new market. The primary base of the gun industry’s sales attention has been older White males. And what’s happening is they’re dying off. To borrow a phrase in the tobacco industry, the industry is not finding replacement shooters to take their place.”

During the pandemic, the gun industry promoted on social media that the path to #StopAsianHate was through more weapons. “They saw an opportunity with the hate crimes committed against Asian Americans during the pandemic and they stepped in and said, ‘this is something we can exploit,’” said Sugarmann.

Cheng admits that diversifying the customer base leads to a stronger business. “If you want to look at the firearms industry from a business perspective. Sure, right? Anytime a business diversifies (its) demographics, of course, that’s good for the bottom line. But this accusation that gun companies put profits over people is just not what the industry is about. The industry is about providing people with the firearm to protect themselves if they choose to do so.”

Joining the mainstream

Gloria Pan, senior vice president at Moms Rising, a gun safety group, says of Asian American fears, “I understand. I’m Asian, too.” But she disagrees with the idea that more guns in her community make it safer. “There are very few verified defensive gun use cases, only about a couple of thousand annually. Balance that against the more than 48,000 firearm deaths, tens of thousands of injuries, hundreds of thousands of abusive uses, and the fact that close to half a million guns are stolen each year. Does he really want to carry a gun around and risk accidentally shooting someone when the actual safety benefits are so slim?”

Pan says historically, Asian American communities have experienced the lowest levels of harm from gun violence because simply put, there are fewer guns in the community.

“We have not had guns on the brain, which, when people have problems, makes turning to firearms as a possible solution that much likelier,” said Pan. “Bringing guns into the AAPI community will only increase gun violence in our community. That’s exactly what happened in Monterey Park. An ostensibly harmless elderly Asian man’s mind was captured by the idea of guns. He decided they were a good idea and brought them into the community. Look what happened.”

Trish Sargentini says she bought a gun for self-defense during the pandemic, driven by fear.

Sargentini, however, bristles at the argument that making guns more palatable to Asians is dangerous.

“Why are you trying to disarm and further repress an entire group of people?” said Sargentini. “It’s like saying women who can read are threatening, right? Other women, women of color, minorities, the disenfranchised – this is an opportunity for them to learn protection of self, learn a new skill. We want to be good people and be good citizens.”

After the two mass shootings in California, Sargentini and her friends at the gun range discussed the challenges Asian Americans face and barriers to accessing care for mental illness. They also discussed how to safely store weapons, train and report dangerous behavior.

As Asian Americans buy more guns, they are now also faced with how to prevent gun deaths in their communities.