The long lines and empty shelves at grocery stores are a constant reminder of how drastically life has changed since February. The coronavirus has done more than boost the toilet paper industry, however. Like previous national emergencies, it has exposed the United States’ ugly and ever-present relationship with xenophobia and its obsession with gun culture. Mere weeks into the pandemic, former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang wrote an ill-received plea following an uncomfortable, and racially motivated, encounter. Yang asked fellow Asian Americans to overtly perform their “American-ness” for the watchful gaze of others — or run the risk of being seen as a threat.
But this isn’t about Andrew Yang. This is about the unprecedented rise in hate crimes against ordinary Asian Pacific Islanders across the country. It’s about the frenzied purchasing of firearms. At first glance, the two may appear disconnected. But on closer inspection their commonality comes into focus: both are fear-driven responses to any “outsider” suspected of influencing or reshaping American life.
As the virus spreads, quasi-hidden animosity for Asian Pacific Islanders (API) has swelled in the United States. Reported hate crimes among APIs range from being spat on — while out for a walk, or heading to the gym — to more violent assaults, like a recent acid attack on a woman in Brooklyn, or the attempted murder of a young Asian American family in Texas.
While valuable, hate crime statistics cannot capture the extent of discrimination, harassment, and anxiety Asian Americans — and the rest of the global Asian diaspora — have experienced since the outbreak in China became headline news earlier this year.
Because of the uptick in violence against APIs, Asian American organizations across the country have had to adapt and respond to the changing needs of their community. Cynthia Choi, Co-Executive Director of Chinese for Affirmative Action, acknowledges that throughout U.S. history, groups with a shared ethnic identity have been scapegoated and blamed during periods of crisis. Choi further admits that anti-Asian sentiment is likely to remain an issue long after the coronavirus ceases to be top of mind.
The severity and potential lethality of attacks on APIs is becoming increasingly clear, and it is exacerbated by another life-threatening concern Americans need to address. The coronavirus outbreak has prompted a wave of gun sales, exceeding the previous record set after the Sandy Hook mass shooting. While elected officials and community activists debate the “essentialness” of gun stores, Americans have been flocking to gun dealers in unprecedented numbers to arm themselves. As most businesses struggle to stay afloat, firearm retailers are profiting from the fear and anxiety generated by the global pandemic.
In March alone, there were more than 3.7 million background checks conducted, including the record for the most firearm background checks in a single day. Despite the oft-touted “good guy with a gun” theory, the data reveals an uneasy truth: more guns equal more deaths.
Contrary to popular belief, a Harvard University analysis of figures from the National Crime Victimization Survey showed that people defended themselves with a gun in only about 0.9 percent of crimes, which makes self-defense a far less likely use of the many firearms being purchased.
As guns pour into the homes of our neighbors, ostensibly for self-defense, Brady is concerned about the potential for both hate crimes, and family fire. Family fire involves improperly stored or misused guns found in homes. Anecdotally, the surge in gun sales appears to be driven by first time gun owners, which includes APIs seeking to protect themselves and their families against anti-Asian assaults. Regardless of how the purchaser identifies, a firearm in the untrained hands of a first-time user, motivated to arm themself out of fear, is a potentially lethal combination.
In the time of coronavirus, Americans are facing mounting economic anxiety coupled with an alarming increase of reported hate crimes,without a mental healthcare system equipped to support them. In moments like these, it's our responsibility to treat these issues with the urgency they deserve.