At L.A.-area gun store, Chinese immigrants exercise an unfamiliar right to bear arms

Tony Gao emerges from a gun store in the City of Industry with something he could have never gotten in his native China: a handgun license.

He passed the firearm safety test on his third try — he says the store’s Chinese translation of the test is a little off — but still, he’s a little nervous.

“Are you sure police won’t try to get me?” Gao, 58, asks.

Private gun ownership is generally banned in China. So when Chinese immigrants arrive in the U.S., many are curious about owning firearms.

In Los Angeles, Chinese immigrants frequent Gun Effects, a firearms store housed in a City of Industry strip mall that includes a boba tea spot, a massage parlor and a dinosaur-themed Taiwanese restaurant.

On a recent weekday, a line formed at a bilingual English and Chinese sign-in sheet as Tom Petty crooned over the store speakers. A few customers puzzled over a Chinese translation of the handgun test beneath an empty wall where the store once displayed assault weapons — all of which were snapped up before California’s tough new gun control measures take effect Jan. 1. The legislation was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in July in the wake of simmering outrage over mass shootings in San Bernardino and Orlando, Fla.

Across the state, sales have surged for semiautomatic rifles with bullet buttons, devices that allow for quick switching of ammunition cartridges and are banned under new law. Overall firearms sales increased by 40% over last year, according to the state Department of Justice.

In November, voters also approved Proposition 63, which outlaws the possession of magazines with more than 10 rounds, expands background checks for those buying bullets and makes it a crime to fail to report a lost or stolen gun.

At Gun Effects, Chinese buyers have shown up in droves to buy the store’s stock of soon-to-be restricted firearms.

Kai Kang, 48, of Irvine, lined up to purchase a scope for one of his guns. He remembers being curious about owning a gun when he came to America about a decade ago. In China he was in the military, but he never thought about owning a gun for his personal use.

Once he had his green card, he decided to try it out. Gun collecting eventually became a hobby. He goes to shooting ranges with his friends and keeps guns in his house for protection.

“I have short guns, long guns, handguns, AR-15s, rifles. I bought one, then I just kept buying more,” Kang said.

Gun Effects’ popularity with Chinese customers could have something to do with its Chinese ownership and bilingual services. The store’s owner, Dennis Lin, was born in Guangdong, China, to a dim sum chef and his wife. He came to the U.S. when he was 3 years old.

Lin, 29, grew up playing with airsoft guns and started a business selling gun accessories online after graduating from college. When the business grew, he opened a store.

Business was slow at first. He placed online advertisements, but they failed to increase demand. Still, about a year ago, Chinese customers began to show up in large numbers.

“I don’t even know how this happened, really,” Lin said. “In the past, most of our business has been with non-Chinese customers.”

Now about 40 percent of customers are Chinese, Lin said. He hired two Chinese-speaking employees and ramped up his study of Mandarin. He also travels to China several times a year to learn more about Chinese culture, which he never had much connection to as a kid.

In China, he’s careful never to say that he sells guns for a living.

“They do get nervous,” Lin said. “It’s like a taboo.”

Chinese customers often have questions about legality and safety, said Queenie Yang, one of the store’s Chinese-speaking employees. And many of them need time to get comfortable with even holding a gun.

One Chinese customer new to the country started shaking when he held a gun for the first time, Lin said. When he handed the gun back to Lin, it was soaked with sweat.

“I just tell them don’t be scared. It’s legal here,” Lin said.

Gao said that in China he never thought of owning a gun, and he admitted to being a little afraid of them. But he lives in America now, and he’s mostly retired and a little bored. His friends go to shooting ranges to pass the time and he decided to join them.

“I’m just doing this for fun. I don’t think everyone should have a gun,” Gao said.

Gao’s stance mirrors national trends. Asian Americans have the lowest rates of gun ownership among all demographic groups, according to exit polls conducted during the 2008 presidential election. And a 2016 survey of Asian American registered voters by APIAVote found that 77 percent wanted stricter gun control laws. Even Gao said he wouldn’t support legalizing private gun ownership in China.

Jason He, another Chinese customer, agreed.  He thinks it would be unwise for China to legalize private gun ownership, and expressed support for California’s new assault weapon restrictions.

Still, when his name was called from the wait list, he peppered one of the gun store’s Chinese-speaking employees with questions about weights, how to practice, and what kind of gun his wife should buy. He’s looking for a handgun and a long gun for his house, nothing too fancy or expensive.

Policy and politics aside, He said he has always wanted a gun.

“In China,” He said, “you only see guns on TV.”