Two-Act American Tragedy: Mass Shootings in Atlanta and Boulder, Colorado

In the afternoon hours of March 16, 21-year-old Robert Aaron Long purchased a handgun from a firearms store in Cherokee County, Atlanta. He shot and killed eight women in three Atlanta massage parlors later that day. Less than a week later, law enforcement arrested 21-year-old Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa for opening fire and killing 10 people in a King Soopers grocery store in Boulder, Colorado. This latest spike in mass shootings, even by American standards, has led to renewed discussions on gun control and reform.

Though police departments are still investigating potential motives for the Atlanta and Boulder shootings, protests have errupted across the country. Many believe the Atlanta shootings were motivated by racial discrimination. Long is a white male, whereas six of the women he shot at Young Asian’s Massage and the Gold and Aromatherapy Spas were Asian. Yet the Atlanta police department has not acknowledged that a hate crime took place. If the shooting was formally recognized as a hate crime, prosecutors could invoke local legislation and charge Long with a longer sentence.

However, according to Capt. Jay Baker from the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office, Long believed he was suffering from sex addiction. Long was a patient at an evangelical sex addiction treatment center near Young’s Asian Massage. In a press conference, Baker said that Long only attacked the massage parlor and spas because he saw them as a “temptation […] to eliminate.” Although Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms stated that the spas were not “on the radar” of police, police records show that officers had visited the business over twenty times in the past ten years and had arrested ten people on charges of prostitution. Long was arrested 150 miles from Atlanta. According to police, he traveled to Florida to carry out a fourth attack on a pornography-related business. 

Anti-Asian hate crimes are rising in the U.S. and across the world, in part because of anti-Asian and specifically anti-Chinese rhetoric linking Chinese people to Covid-19. Government officials use divisive language — intentionally or accidentally. Former President Donald Trump called Covid-19 the “Chinese Virus” in various tweets. Others criticized Atlanta Sheriff Jay Baker for posing for pictures with a T-shirt referring to Covid-19 as an “imported virus from CHY-NA.” People of Chinese descent, biracial people, and even Asian people who are not Chinese have been told to “go back to China” or have been beaten in the streets as a result of growing anti-Asian sentiment. More than 3,200 racially motivated attacks—including instances of verbal harassment, workplace discrimination, and physical assault—were reported to an online Asian American and Pacific Islander tracking center in 2020. 

That the Atlanta and Boulder, Colorado shootings occurred close in time have kindled a new wave of debate about gun reforms. Lawmakers at the federal and state levels have floated introducing red-flag legislation and waiting periods. Red-flag laws allow courts to temporarily confiscate firearms from people who are deemed a danger to themselves or other people, while a waiting period would prevent rapid over-the-counter purchases of firearms and thereby deter impulsive crimes like what happened the afternoon of March 16. 

However, America has been trying to have a conversation about gun reform for a while. At the beginning of March, the House passed two bills expanding background checks. It is widely expected the bills will be subject to filibuster before failing in the Senate. States are free to make their own gun laws, partly because few federal regulations exist. As a result, most states don’t implement heavy reforms—only ten states and the District of Columbia require waiting periods.

Now that Covid-19 is starting to become less of a concern in America and lockdowns are beginning to end, politicians should take the time to lead discourse and propose legislation. After all, anti-Asian hate crimes and gun purchase rates can only fall if cities and societies are committed to change.