How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Filipino gun culture has deep roots

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At an outdoor shooting range in a houseless expanse of Corona, wind whips dust into the air. A bright sun beats down on necks.

Brian Urbano doesn’t mind the conditions. He’s enjoying his favorite pastime.

"We — my culture, my heritage, my roots — we do embrace firearms," Urbano said.

Urbano is a member of the Norco Running Gun club, a predominantly Filipino-American group of more than 500 shooters from all over Southern California.

About 80 have shown up today at the range housed at Raahauge's Shooting Enterprises for a weekly competition that has shooters running through obstacle courses, shooting at paper and metal targets.

In the U.S., the vast majority of gun owners are white and male. The picture is very different at the Norco club where the president is a Filipino immigrant and members banter in Tagalog about technique and gun models.

Urbano, the son of immigrants and an automaker employee, explained that guns are popular among many Filipino-Americans because they're exposed to them at a young age.

He bought his first gun at age 18. Fourteen years later, his collection has dramatically increased. 

"I think I have about 10 pistols, about four rifles, and I’ve got two shotguns," Urbano said.

Imported from the Philippines

The scene at the Norco gun club was initially surprising to Chee Kwan, a Chinese-American former Marine who was invited by a Filipino friend to join the club.

"Typically you don’t see as many Asian people actually go to gun clubs shooting and whatnot," Kwan said. "But here, it’s the complete opposite."

Information about Asian-American gun ownership is spotty, but there’s indication they’re less likely to own guns than other Americans.

Many Asian immigrants come from countries that lack a tradition of citizens owning firearms. In fact, China and Japan effectively ban private ownership of guns.  

It’s a different story in the Philippines, where  gun laws have been tightened recently but it remains possible for private citizens to carry firearms if they demonstrate, for example, that the nature of their profession puts them in "imminent danger."

Filipinos have a long history with guns, according to Jay Gonzalez, a professor of Filipino studies and public policy at Golden Gate University in San Francisco.

Gonzalez cited a machismo culture where fathers teach sons that they need to do what it takes to safeguard their family.

"This cultural tradition of having a gun to protect your family has been passed down generation to generation," Gonzalez said.

John Wayne and pistols

Gonzalez said the country's entrenched relationship with the U.S. further shaped Filipino gun culture. Militarily, the countries have been enmeshed since the 19th century, originally fighting each other and later becoming allies.

The U.S. backed the Philippines’ plan to mandate ROTC training in college for much of the 20th century.

"Every male graduate knew how to handle a gun and was introduced into that gun culture, so it’s sort of reinforced," Gonzalez said.

Meanwhile, U.S. entertainment served to romanticize guns. Hollywood war movies starring the likes of John Wayne captured the attention of many children.

"We grew up watching a lot of movies," said JoJo Vidanes, the international shooting champ who’s also the president of the gun club. "It was all about World War II stuff."

He said war movies from that era often featured the .45 pistol that came to be revered by many Filipinos.

"Actually, if you ask a lot of Filipino-Americans, they’re always going to have a .45.,"  Vidanes said. "For some reason there is a joke: Filipinos are born with a .45."

The face of the future

There are multiple shooting ranges within driving distance of the Corona location. But Matthew Clarke, a power grid engineer from Temecula, tries to shoot with the Norco club a couple times a month.

He enjoys the diversity — "I'm the minority here, the white guy," he laughed — but he said he also wants to  shoot with the best.

"If you want to become a world champ, this is the best place to come locally," Clarke said.

The club is home to leading shooters, such as Kwan, who was featured on two seasons of the History Channel's competition show, "Top Shot." And there are some rising stars such as Vidanes' 17-year-old daughter Claudia, who has competed nationally, as well as Jonathan Musngi, who will be one of the junior shooters representing the U.S. at the International Practical Shooting Confederation competition this fall.

Musngi, 17, got interested in shooting because of his dad, who’s from the Philippines. One day his father took him to the Norco shooting club.

"People asked how old am I, and I was 9 when I first came here, and they were like, 'He’s old enough to shoot,'" Musgni said.

Musngi said money’s been tight since his dad got sick a few years back, but members of the club have pitched in for his training and gear.

"Since the start, everyone’s been pushing me and telling me that I have a lot of potential," Musngi said. "That’s why, for me, everyone’s family here."

An earlier version of this story misstated Jay Gonzalez’s affiliation. KPCC regrets the error.

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