Immigrants wonder, worry about gun culture

Satnaam Singh Mago (third from right, seated) is one of the panelist at an interfaith panel against gun violence in the Libertyville Civic Center, Libertyville, Illinois.

By Serena Yeh
Medill Reports

More than 30 years ago, Satnaam Singh Mago’s grandfather was murdered by gun in the United Kingdom.

“For my mom, it took her about maybe 20, 25 years after her father’s death where she could actually talk about some of the dark things that happened to him,” Mago, a youth mentor at the Sikh Religious Society, said. “It was very hard. It affected my family tremendously.”

Mago, 33, a second-generation American in the United States, now actively participates as a speaker and panelist against gun violence and advocates for commonsense gun laws and for people to take an academic approach toward gun culture.

On Feb. 21, a week after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, Mago joined an interfaith panel against gun violence at the Libertyville Civic Center in the northern suburbs.

The Florida shooting also sparked activism from the surviving students, who are rallying through news appearances, town hall meetings and social media to call for tighter gun control. This has caused a push back from the National Rifle Association, which continues to argue that Second Amendment rights be protected.

Amid this debate and with the recent series of mass shootings, immigrants to the United States are left wondering about the country they have moved to – a country they believed would provide a better life. Some have chosen to speak out, others have opted to be more cautious about the places they visit, rejecting crowded events like concerts, while some others have considered buying guns to protect themselves.

Mago’s father, Rajinder Singh Mago, 72, who moved to the U.S. from India in 1971, said he had a romantic view of the U.S. when he first arrived.

“My impression of America was on a romantic scale, watching Western movies, John Wayne, cowboys, guns from that point of view, older tales and historical stuff, I had some idea that guns would be there but I didn’t know that so many people die every day due to gun violence. I didn’t know the extent of all these,” said Rajinder, adding that he is now more careful about the places he visits.

In 2012, a mass shooting at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin left six people dead and four others wounded.

Since that incident, the Magos’ gurdwara, or religious temple, in Palatine has been holding candlelight vigils for every mass shooting reported in the media, up until Parkland, Florida.

“I think partly the Parkland teenagers, I think they spoke for themselves really well. Secondly, I think that we took the approach where we’re just speaking to each other and we wanted to branch out to other communities as well,” said Satnaam Mago. “Reaching out to the white community where there is more power in those communities, that kind of became our focus.”

As every immigrant and second-generation American have vastly different personal experiences, the gun culture issue has led to varied responses.

Ever since freelance writer Youngbin Song, 25, moved to America from South Korea when she was eight, Song said, she was aware of the prevalence of guns.

“Because I moved to Chicago, I would overhear my parents talking about not going to certain streets at night like even while driving, because they were talking about how their friends have encountered or like somebody with a gun would approach them while they were in the cars,” said Song.

The gun culture here and the recent mass shootings have prompted her to consider staying overseas.

“I do feel like the U.S. has a lot of issues that is just nonsensical, so I definitely have been talking about just not living here especially with my friends who are immigrants and internationals,” said Song. “We talk about how it’s not like a great place to live.”

While Violetta Smith, who emigrated from Ukraine two years ago, has not considered moving away, she said she has decided not to visit certain places such as concert venues for fear of her safety.

“I may not go to certain concerts because I think that this is like a perfect target,” said Smith, a Chicago Public Schools teacher. “I would go to some cultural things because I feel like people who want to do mass shootings would not do it in cultural places. I don’t know why but they would do it in concerts where people are having fun.”

As she is a teacher, Smith, 28, said she gets worried when she hears of school shootings and it leads her to wonder what she would do in those situations. When she calls her family in Ukraine, she said they would discuss the shootings.

“They get worried because I am a teacher and these shootings happen in schools,” said Smith.

“If they hear it on the news and the next time we have a phone call or Skype call, they would say, ‘Oh, we heard this and this happened.’ So we would talk about it,” she added. “They are always sympathetic because why doesn’t it happen in my country but happens here all the time?”

Purchasing a gun, for some immigrants and second-generation Americans, has also become an option.

Chris Tran, 28, a second-generation American whose parents were from Vietnam, said he has thought about buying a handgun for self-defense.

“Just to feel safe,” said Tran, adding that some of his family members owned guns. “People should still be able to have guns, even if bad things do happen. People need guns to protect themselves.”

Another second-generation American Arne Auza, 25, whose parents moved to the U.S. from the Philippines in the 1980s, said he bought a rifle when he became of legal age because he wanted to have one for target shooting, which then doubled as a home-defense weapon. He said he later also bought a handgun and carries it daily.

“What led me to that decision wasn’t any specific event or fear that I had to defend against, it was actually the appeal of having the ability to defend myself or others should the need ever arise without having to depend on anyone else,” said Auza.

While the reactions of the immigrants and second-generation Americans have differed, all of them shared the hope of the U.S. reducing the number of mass shootings and gun violence in the hopes for a better America.

“We grieve with the other Americans because we are Americans. We grieve with everybody in seeing this horrible, senseless violence being perpetrated and we just don’t want any more of it and we are tired of it,” said Satnaam Mago.

Elderly immigrants to the U.S., who have lived in the country for a long time, have also expressed fears about their safety, wanting to be further protected not only for themselves but also for the younger generation.

Debbie Liu, community-development coordinator for Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community, said in her organization’s conversations with the elderly community, the seniors have brought up concerns about the gun violence across America.

She said she thinks the seniors, who are all in their 80s or 90s, want the gun-control issue to be addressed for a better future.

“I have heard from generally a lot of seniors that it’s their number-one concern. I think that they want it to be addressed for their grandchildren and children.”

Photo at top: On Feb. 21, Satnaam Singh Mago (third from right, seated) participated as a panelist at an interfaith panel against gun violence at the Libertyville Civic Center in Libertyville, Illinois. (Photo by RAJINDER SINGH MAGO)