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Why Don’t Asian Americans Own Guns?

By Mary Tablante

Falls Church, VA—After the Newtown tragedy last month, Mai Le, a petite 52-year-old originally from Vietnam, was frightened. Now living in Springfield, Va, she never felt threatened by gun violence before, but suddenly felt an urgent need to learn to defend herself.

Le went to see Due Tran, a federally-licensed firearms dealer and lawyer based in Falls Church, Va. Tran teaches classes on safe handgun use, and under his guidance, Le learned how to properly handle the weapon in a basic pistol course. Tran, a Marine veteran and National Rifle Association-certified instructor, teaches people of all ages, mostly Asian Americans.

“I learned how to use [the gun], how to safely store it, and I was interested [in learning] because if something happens, I can protect my family and myself,” Le said.

Le and Tran are not typical gun owners. Asian Americans are much less likely than other Americans to own guns. According to the most recent available figures, in 2008 Asian Americans had the lowest gun ownership rate of any race at 15 percent, compared to 47 percent of white voters. 15 percent may not seem like much, but it comes out to about 70, 440 AAPI gun owners in Virginia and about 50, 706 in Maryland. (Figures for D.C. are unavailable.)

Part of the reason for the disparity is cultural, part of it is political, and a great deal of it may have to with immigration law.

The Asian American population began surging after 1965’s immigration law overhaul allowed greater numbers of Asians to relocate here. The biggest increase occurred in the last two decades, with immigrants coming from Asian nations including China, Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam and Korea, where gun ownership is generally difficult to achieve for civilians. Thus, Asians are not bringing a tradition of gun ownership, or familiarity with a gun-oriented culture, with them to America.

Once here, Asian immigrants tend to live in urban and suburban areas, where hunting and other shooting activities are less prevalent. There is also the matter of political affiliation. Despite all the attention given to guns in America, the rate of gun ownership has actually declined over the past 40 years, with most of the decrease coming from people identifying as Democrats. Asian Americans strongly identify with the Democratic party, giving President Obama 73% of their vote in November. According the General Social Survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago in 2010, only 22% of Democrats own guns, while 50% of Republicans have firearms, a figure that jumps to 65% for rural Republicans.

Shaoming Cheng, a lawyer licensed in DC, Maryland and Virginia, agrees that relatively few Asian Americans own guns because of restrictions in their home countries. “Asians probably own fewer weapons than Caucasians. In Asian countries, weapons are banned for the public, so that’s probably the main reason,” he said. Cheng added that he believes owning a gun or weapon is not only a privilege and a right, but also a responsibility. Although he doesn’t own a gun, Cheng said he is considering having one in the future, and is learning to safely operate the weapons.

Cheng said he wants to see measures taken to ensure that weapons do not fall into the wrong hands, joining dealer Tran, who thinks the Asian American community generally supports some control over gun ownership, but don’t want their possession eliminated. He cites Asian American business owners who might want a weapon to protect them from robbery.

“You have to have reasonable rules and regulations in place. Especially in the Asian community, we’re business owners and a lot of our retail shops handle a lot of cash. The owners are going to buy the guns … I think there should be more safety courses, more NRA-certified instructions; information needs to be put out that you can’t just go out and buy a gun,” Tran said.

The walls of Tran’s office are covered in certificates, newspaper clippings and photos from his time in the Marine Corps. He teaches classes in a conference room next to his main office. Tran’s students must complete six hours of training before they can begin practice at an indoor shooting range, and only then purchase a weapon.

Maryland resident Vincent Liu, whose work involves firearms, estimates that only five to 10 percent of AAPI business owners in Baltimore have guns. “From my view with Asians, mostly Chinese, they all like guns, but I think in order to own a gun, there are lots of responsibilities; you have to be trained,” he said. “I think there’s a fascination … there are people, after reading about gun culture, they say ‘everyone can own a gun,’ so they want to be part of the mainstream. But there’s a lot of responsibilities that go with it. Plus, how you use a gun can affect if you go to jail or not. Guns can only be used to defend you, in a life or death situation. You can’t just get your gun out and try to scare people.”

Tran stated people should be required to go through an NRA-certified gun safety course before purchasing a gun, the same way a driver’s license is required to operate a vehicle. “It scares me when someone comes in [to buy a gun] and they don’t even know how to pick it up,” he said. His classes focus on making sure students understand and respect the lethal power of a firearm and how to care for it. He emphasizes that gun owners must lock firearms in a safe, out of reach from children and others. Tran also discusses guns laws and policy with his students.

Tran supports “reasonable gun control,” and would like gun laws more strictly enforced. But, he added, “We cannot forget our freedom and our constitution. Those are the same amendments we have to preserve just as well.”

Although AAPIs are less likely to be gun owners, the consensus among Tran, Cheng and Liu is that Asian Americans believe in the right to own guns for self-defense, but think gun laws need to be stricter for everyone’s safety.

Maybe the younger AAPI generation will show more interest. On November 29 (before the Newtown shooting occurred), members of the online Meetup group Asian American Young Professionals of DC/MD/VA held an event called “Shooters & Hooters.” The youthful male and female members started their evening at Blue Ridge Arsenal in Chantilly, used the shooting gallery for target practice, and then headed to a Hooters restaurant.

Back at Tran’s place, Mai Le said she enjoyed learning about guns, happily posing with a weapon and her new NRA-inscribed certificate. But she left without plans to purchase a gun, satisfied for now, with just learning about firearms. For this Asian American, knowledge is power, and that’s enough for now.

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