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Asian Americans have been coping with the rise in anti-Asian attacks over the past year in a range of ways. Some are going out in public less. Others are organizing community ambassador programs, or escorts for the elderly.

But one small group of people in southern California is thinking about a very different response: Taking up firearms in self defense.

Last Saturday morning, about a dozen people gathered at the Marshall Security Training Academy & Range in Compton to learn how to handle and shoot handguns.

Sunha Kim organized the training.

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Materials used in the firearms training course.

"My hope is that those who are interested in protecting themselves by exercising their Second Amendment rights learn a thing or two about how to properly and professionally handle a firearm," he said.

"And my other hope is that Asian Americans around the country realize that, look, we can't live our lives in fear. We have to at least do something about it and stand up to it," Kim said.

Kim reached out to fellow Asian Americans though a university alumni network. Many who chose to attend the training said they had been on the receiving end of racism over the years, but events over the past year have been especially alarming.

One of them is Allen Soong, a business consultant.

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Organizer Sunha Kim, 29, stands for a portrait at the shooting range in a firearms training course organized by Asian Americans for Asian Americans at the Marshall Security Training Academy & Range in Compton, Calif., on Saturday.

"I grew up in New England. I went to good schools," he said. "Before, I was just 'other' and I would get comments or looks, all the usual indignities...But now there's actually a threat. Now there's potential violence. And it doesn't matter that I'm assimilated."

Statistics back that up, though experts say the data are not comprehensive, and likely under-represent the true extent of the problem.

Professor Brian Levin, with the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, says preliminary data show hate crimes targeting people of Asian descent surged nearly 150% last year across 16 major cities, from 49 in 2019 to 122 in 2020.

And a non-profit called Stop AAPI Hate (AAPI stands for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders) collected 3,795 reports of what it describes as hate incidents, from verbal harassment to physical assault, between March 19, 2020, and Feb. 28, 2021.

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Edmon Muradyan, left, instructs Allen Soong, 47, at the shooting range on Saturday.

Teddy Tong, a 64-year-old ophthalmologist, had never fired a gun before attending the training and has no plans to buy one. But he said he wanted to learn how to handle firearms "in case that need ever arises."

"It seems like a very practical and useful lesson at this point," he said.

"I think one just has to adapt to different situations that arise, you know, and in this instance it's a very unfortunate and disturbing phenomenon that's happening in our country," Tong said.

Seeking explanations

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Top: Sunha Kim records Edmon Muradyan as he demonstrates safety during the firearms training course. Bottom left: Participants in the firearms training course. Bottom right: Muradyan demonstrates safety during the training course.

Nationwide, the increase in violence has fueled a conversation about the causes of anti-Asian racism, and how to address it. Three weeks ago, the U.S. House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties held a hearing on the rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans.

Edward Chang, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, Riverside, said the hearing is a good start, because over the years Asian Americans "were either being ignored or not invited" to discussions about race.

"Asian American communities have been invisible," Chang said.

And that may be part of what's behind the new-found interest in taking up arms for self-defense by a subset of the community, he suggests - a sense that, without help, Asian Americans need to protect themselves. Chang, founding director of the Young Oak Kim Center for Korean American Studies, says that's what drove Korean American shopkeepers to take up guns to protect their stores when police retreated during the 1992 Rodney King protests in southern Los Angeles.

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Paper targets in the firearms training course.

"I think this is the same scenario here," he said. "Some of them feel helpless."

After a half-day of firearm training, not everybody who took the class was convinced.

One woman - a senior physician at one of the area's top hospitals - was rattled by the experience. She declined to be identified because she wasn't sure how her colleagues would react to her considering using guns.

And Soong said he would start exploring other means of self-defense.

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Jae Chung, 49, stands for a portrait outside the Marshall Security Training Academy & Range.

"I'm coming out of this more convinced that this is a huge responsibility and a huge step to own a gun," he said. "I realize that there's a heavy cost to ownership, not just monetarily, but just the mind space. You're constantly thinking about it."

But Jae Chung, a 49-year-old medical practice administrator, already has one — a Czech CZ 9mm handgun. He bought it last year. And it's not something he's happy about.

"I think it's ridiculous... I can't believe that I'm living in America now at this day and age where I have to think about how I can fend for myself and my family. And it's taken me to acquiring firearms to do that," Chung said.

A few weeks ago, he took his 16-year-old daughter to a gun range to teach her how to shoot.

Jane Hahn for NPR

Left to right: Compton School Police Chief William Wu, 49, speaks with Anthony Refuerzo, 61, and Sunha Kim after the firearms training course.

"I feel like I'm equipping her with something that empowers her, and hopefully she would never have to use it," he said.

Soon, he added, he'll take his 13-year-old.

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