RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
There have been several different responses to the rise in violent crimes against Asian Americans. Some Asian Americans are going out in public less, out of fear for their own safety. Others are organizing community programs to escort the elderly. And one group in Southern California is thinking about a very different response - taking up arms in self-defense. NPR's John Ruwitch reports.
And a warning - this story contains the sound of gunshots.
JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: It's a Saturday morning, and about a dozen people have gathered at the Marshall Security Training Academy and Range in Compton. They're here to learn how to handle and shoot handguns.
UNIDENTIFIED INSTRUCTOR: Today we'll be helping you guys understand about firearms, OK?
RUWITCH: A year ago, most of the participants couldn't have imagined they'd be here. Allen Soong is one of them. He's a business consultant who grew up in a mostly white neighborhood in New England. He says he's always had to cope with being other. People would give him funny looks or make comments.
ALLEN SOONG: But what changed was, in the last year or so, now suddenly there's an active threat, the threat of violence associated with all of that, and that's what made me start to think about self-defense, generally.
RUWITCH: Hate incidents are on the rise. The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State, San Bernardino, says preliminary data shows hate crimes targeting Asians surged nearly 150% last year across 16 major cities. Experts say that increase is driven by anti-Asian rhetoric linked to the pandemic. Sunha Kim organized the firearm training course.
SUNHA KIM: The truth of the matter is, I'm scared. I'm anxious. I feel the same way I felt when this country was attacked on 9/11.
RUWITCH: That sense of vulnerability is pervasive. Edward Chang is a professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, Riverside.
EDWARD CHANG: Since no one is protecting Asian American communities, some of them may be feeling that I have to defend myself.
RUWITCH: Nationwide, there's a growing conversation about how to address anti-Asian racism at its root, and some hope the Biden administration will help.
CHANG: And yet still, we haven't really seen concrete-action plans to suppress anti-Asian hate.
RUWITCH: Polls show that a large majority of Asian Americans support stricter gun control in America. Gun sales, meanwhile, have soared during the pandemic, including among Asian Americans, according to trade organizations.
UNIDENTIFIED INSTRUCTOR: Grab the slide. Pull. Now we have a live round, OK?
RUWITCH: Back at the shooting range, owner Edmon Muradyan demonstrates how to use a Glock handgun.
EDMON MURADYAN: And slowly squeeze.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOT)
RUWITCH: The students take turns next.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)
RUWITCH: This is the first time Teddy Tong, a 64-year-old ophthalmologist, has shot a gun.
TEDDY TONG: On the one hand, I think I learned a lot from the process. On the other hand, it also gives me additional hesitancy because of its potential destructive effect.
RUWITCH: Sunha Kim, the organizer, hopes training like this can help Asian Americans feel empowered.
KIM: Look; we can't live our lives in fear. We have to at least do something about it and stand up to it. And if exercising the Second Amendment is what you're going to do, then do it safely and do it responsibly.
RUWITCH: For now, Teddy Tong has no plans to get a gun. Same for Allen Soong, the consultant. But Jae Chung, a 49-year-old medical practice administrator, already has one - a Czech-made C-Z 9-millimeter pistol. He bought it last year. And it's not something he's happy about.
JAE CHUNG: 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.
RUWITCH: The fear is real, though. A few weeks ago, he took his 16-year-old daughter to a gun range and taught her how to shoot, and soon, he says, he'll take his 13-year-old.
John Ruwitch, NPR News, Compton, Calif.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BEST PESSIMIST'S "FUTURE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.