2021 Atlanta spa shootings
On March 16, 2021, a series of mass shootings occurred at three spas or massage parlors in the metropolitan area of Atlanta, Georgia, United States. Eight people were killed, six of whom were Asian women, and one other person was wounded. A suspect, 21-year-old Robert Aaron Long, was taken into custody later that day.
|2021 Atlanta spa shootings|
|Part of mass shootings in the United States|
|Location||Atlanta and unincorporated Cherokee County, Georgia, United States|
|Date||March 16, 2021 |
c. 4:50 p.m. EDT (20:50 UTC)
|Target||Spas and massage parlors|
|Mass shooting, shooting spree|
|Weapons||9mm semi-automatic pistol|
|Accused||Robert Aaron Long|
According to police, Long said he was motivated by a sexual addiction that was at odds with his religious beliefs. He had previously spent time in an evangelical treatment clinic for sex addiction. After the shootings, Long was charged with four counts of murder in Atlanta, and four counts of murder and one count of aggravated assault in Cherokee County.
Although Long has not been charged with a hate crime as part of the ongoing investigation, some commentators have characterized the shootings as a hate crime, noting the backdrop of rising anti-Asian sentiment in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic. Following the shootings, mass protests against anti-Asian violence have occurred in cities across the U.S. and the world.
Cherokee County shootingEdit
The suspect, Robert Aaron Long, legally purchased a 9mm handgun at Big Woods Goods, a firearms store and indoor gun range in Holly Springs, hours before the shooting. Like most states, Georgia does not have a waiting period to buy a gun. Surveillance footage showed him arriving at Young's Asian Massage, a massage parlor near Acworth, and sitting for an hour in the parking lot. He then entered the building at about 3:38 p.m. EDT (19:38 UTC) and remained inside for a period of one hour and 12 minutes. Police did not elaborate on what Long did during this time. Another customer who went to Young's that day said in an interview that everything was still normal inside when he arrived at around 4:40 p.m.
Long left Young's at 4:50 p.m. Shots were fired at some point after. A customer who survived a gunshot wound said the gunman walked into Young's and began firing. The customer threw himself to the floor and begged the gunman not to shoot him. The gunman demanded him to look up at him, and when the customer complied, he was shot in the face.
The first 9-1-1 calls reporting the shooting to the Cherokee County Sheriff's Office were made at 4:54 p.m. Police arrived within minutes of Long leaving. There, they found two people fatally shot and three others wounded in different rooms down a hallway; two of the wounded later died at a hospital. Police found a male customer, whose wife and fellow customer was fatally shot, sitting on a bed in another room, scared and confused, and detained him for four hours.
Piedmont Road shootingsEdit
At 5:47 p.m. EDT, the APD responded to reports of a robbery at Gold Massage Spa on Piedmont Road in northeast Atlanta, about 30 miles (48 km) from the first shooting scene. There, they found three women dead from gunshot wounds. While Atlanta police were at Gold Spa, they received reports of another shooting across the street at Aromatherapy Spa, where they discovered another woman shot and killed.
Two Gold Massage Spa employees who survived the shooting reported hearing ticking sounds while in a break room, which turned out to be gunfire. They hid in a lounge, using items to take cover, and were shot at but not injured. According to them, the gunman did not speak or make any other sounds during the shooting, and he locked both the front and back doors of the spa at some point. According to a report from national Korean newspaper The Chosun Ilbo, a Gold Massage Spa employee who escaped from the store during the shooting stated that the shooter said, "I'm going to kill all Asians." According to an eyewitness, the attacker shot the worker who opened the door of Aromatherapy Spa for him and fled without entering the interior.
According to the APD, they noticed the similarities between the Piedmont Road and Cherokee County shootings and subsequently dispatched officers to patrol similar businesses in the area. The Federal Bureau of Investigation was called in to assist in the investigation.
After the first shooting, Cherokee County police released surveillance footage and were contacted by Long's parents. While they were being interviewed, the APD was responding to the second and third shootings in Atlanta. His parents informed deputies that Long's Hyundai Tucson was equipped with a tracking device. Using surveillance footage of his vehicle at both crime scenes along with the car's tracker, police were able to ascertain his location.
At around 8:30 p.m., roughly 3.5 hours after the shootings, Long was spotted by police in Crisp County, about 150 miles (240 km) south of Atlanta. Georgia State Patrol officers followed him south on Interstate 75 until a location just south of Cordele, where they used a PIT maneuver to stop his vehicle and took him into custody. Long was on his way to Florida when he was apprehended.
Long was initially arrested in connection to the Cherokee County shooting; police later identified him as a suspect in the Piedmont Road shootings as well. Police found a 9mm handgun in his car.
The shooter killed eight people and wounded one. Six died at the scene, one on route to a hospital, and one in treatment. Their ages ranged from 33 to 74, with five of the victims above 50. Six victims, four at Piedmont Road and two at Cherokee County, were women of Asian descent. The others were a white woman and a white man, and the survivor is a Hispanic man from Guatemala. The South Korean Foreign Affairs Ministry reported that four of the dead were of Korean ethnicity, and one was a South Korean citizen.
The victims at Young's Asian Massage in Cherokee County included the business owner, a customer there with her husband for a couples massage, a handyman finishing a project, and an employee. The victims at the Gold Spa included the business owner. The other victims at the Atlanta locations included two spa employees and a manager.
The suspect was identified as 21-year-old Robert Aaron Long, a white man of Woodstock. He graduated from Sequoyah High School in 2017. From fall 2017 to fall 2018, Long was enrolled at the Cumming campus of the University of North Georgia, but he did not earn a degree. Long was a hunter and was heavily involved in his Southern Baptist congregation. Cherokee County Sheriff Frank Reynolds said Long did not have any prior interactions with law enforcement.
Long spent time in HopeQuest, an evangelical treatment facility located near Acworth and down the road from the first spa that he attacked. He was a patient at the treatment center for what he described as "sex addiction", a label used by some for those that cannot control their sexual urges as expected by purity culture. He claimed to be "tortured" by his addiction to sex since he was "deeply religious", according to his halfway house roommate. His roommate also said that, several times during his stay at the halfway house, Long said that he had "relapsed" and gone to massage parlors to visit sex workers. His parents had kicked him out of their house the night before the shooting due to concerns about his sex addiction, and said he watched internet pornography several hours each day. A report to police said that he "was emotional" after being evicted from his parents' house.
According to the police, Long described his actions as being the result of a sex addiction that conflicted with his religious beliefs. Long had been a patron of two of the massage parlors, and saw them as sources of sexual temptation. Police records show that two of the massage parlors had been the site of 10 prostitution arrests, the latest of which took place in 2013. All three targeted spas appeared on an online guide to brothels. Long claims to have initially thought about killing himself but instead decided to target the businesses to "help" others dealing with sex addiction. According to the Cherokee County Sheriff's Department, Long wanted to "eliminate the temptation" by targeting spas. Ruth Graham, a national religion correspondent of The New York Times, wrote that Long "seemed to have a fixation on sexual temptation, one that can lead to despair among people who believe they are failing to follow the ideal of refraining from sex and even lust outside heterosexual marriage."
The American Psychological Association does not have sex addiction as a diagnosis in the DSM-5, following its removal in 2012. The World Health Organization includes "excessive sexual drive" as a diagnosis (code F52.7) in the latest version of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10), but it categorizes it as a form of compulsive behavior or impulse control disorder rather than an addiction. Psychologist David J. Ley and neuroscientist Nicole Prause noted significant differences between sex addiction and other types of addiction. According to Ley, rehabilitation treatments focusing on the suppression of sexual thoughts such as the type experienced by Long are usually counterproductive. Psychotherapist Robert Weiss, who diagnoses people with sexual addiction, expressed doubt in the diagnosis for Long because sex addicts are typically nonviolent.
Some noted the ethnicity of six of the victims, who were Asian women, amidst an increase in anti-Asian hate crimes in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic, or characterized the shooting as a hate crime. Long said his actions were not racially motivated. Multiple experts have said that race cannot be ruled out as a motive because of the fetishization of Asian women in the U.S.
On March 17, 2021, Long was charged with eight counts of murder, split evenly between the shooting in Cherokee County and the shootings in Atlanta, and one count of aggravated assault in Cherokee County. According to the latter agency, he confessed to the killings while in custody. His first court appearance, for his arraignment, was scheduled for March 18, but this was cancelled after he waived his right to appear.
On March 18, President Joe Biden ordered all U.S. flags at the White House, on other federal grounds, at military installations, on naval vessels, and at U.S. diplomatic missions to be flown at half-mast until sunset on March 22 to respect the victims of the shooting. He and Vice President Kamala Harris subsequently met with local Asian American community leaders on March 19 to discuss the shootings. After the meeting, he gave a speech condemning rising hate crimes against Asian Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic and declared his support for the proposed COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, which he claimed would facilitate tackling anti-Asian hate crimes.
South Korean foreign minister Chung Eui-yong and national defense minister Suh Wook held a joint press conference in Seoul on March 19 with their U.S. counterparts Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, and the South Korean foreign ministry released a statement the following day addressing the shooting and the United States government's anti-hate crime efforts.
On April 14, following the shootings and the overall rise in anti-Asian hate crimes, the U.S. Senate voted 92–6 to advance the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, which would allow the U.S. Justice Department to review hate crimes related to COVID-19 and establish an online database. On April 22, the Senate voted 94–1 to pass the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act with bipartisan changes. It will head to the U.S. House of Representatives.
Sociologist Nancy Wang Yuen characterized the event as "part of a nationwide pattern of Asian [women] being disproportionately targeted in hate incidents", stating that the events took place in the context of an "intersection of racism and sexism" against Asian women, citing the Page Act of 1875, and the portrayal of Asian women as prostitutes in media such as Full Metal Jacket and Miss Saigon as examples.
Georgia House of Representatives member Sam Park urged Asian Americans who are facing discrimination to reach out to the police, politicians, and the public. Another member, Bee Nguyen, said that violence against Asian Americans has increased in the last year and identified as a causative factor Donald Trump's use of the term "China Virus" to refer to COVID-19. Asian-American basketball player Jeremy Lin accused Trump's rhetoric of inciting hatred. A number of other athletes and public figures also made statements alleging racist motives in the attacks.
The attacks were widely covered by media in South Korea, which has close cultural ties with the United States, especially through the 1.8 million Korean Americans considered part of the Korean diaspora. The Hankyoreh called for American society to accept "the serious reality of racial hate crimes" and take steps to ensure everyone's safety regardless of race. The Kyunghyang Shinmun said the United States was "defenseless to racist attacks", while Segye Ilbo called for "effective measures so that crimes against humanity do not take root" in the United States. Mainstream American English-language media was criticized for its coverage of the shooting compared to American Korean-language and South Korean media. Issues brought up included that the former was focused more on the shooter's background, ignored the victims, and immediately dismissed racial motivations after the shooter and law enforcement claimed it was sexually motivated, while the latter instead focused on the victims, interviewed community figures and people who knew the victims, and looked at previous racist and anti-China statements made by the shooter.
The shootings prompted the Chinese Canadian National Council's Toronto chapter and other groups to issue a statement calling for action against rising anti-Asian sentiment in Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic and the discrimination and violence faced by Asian workers in massage parlors and the sex industry. On March 23, the House of Commons of Canada unanimously passed a motion introduced by New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh condemning the shootings and the rise of anti-Asian sentiment across North America, as well as calling on the federal government to hold a federal-provincial summit on coordinating and funding anti-hate efforts.
Advocates for sex workers said the shootings fueled fears over anti-sex work ideology. Columnist Tracy Quan commented on the incident from her perspective as an Asian American and a former sex worker: "Untangling the suspect's motive isn't easy when race and sex are competing to dominate the narrative ... I've experienced bias and ethnic profiling, but I've also been a sex worker, and I have encountered more prejudice, more name-calling, more fear, anger and hostility in connection with my sex work than regarding my race."
Hate crime debateEdit
The shootings sparked fears of lack of security among owners and employees of Asian-owned businesses across the U.S., a debate over hate crime definitions, and criticism of the current methods used to aggregate hate crime data in the country. The New York City Police Department deployed counterterrorism officers to Asian American communities as a precaution due to the shootings. Police patrols and community outreach efforts were also increased in Seattle.
Long's statements that the shootings were not racially motivated but rather motivated by an intent to lash out at sources of temptation have spurred widespread skepticism, with members of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus citing the nature of the targeted locations and the ethnicity of many of the victims. State Representative Nguyen argued that Long should be charged with a hate crime, noting that a racial motivation would not be necessary for his actions to qualify as a hate crime, since the law also applies to those who specifically target women. President Joe Biden also condemned the attacks as a hate crime, and expressed his support for hate crimes legislation recently introduced into Congress. U.S. Representative Marilyn Strickland, a Korean American from Washington state, said from the House floor that racially-motivated hate crimes should be called out instead of "making excuses and rebranding it as economic anxiety or sexual addiction."
On March 18, the U.S. House of Representatives held a previously-scheduled congressional hearing on anti-Asian American discrimination, where Representative Chip Roy (R-TX) questioned whether the committee's attempts to prevent hate crimes and hate incidents against Asian Americans would hamper free speech. He claimed, "It seems to want to venture into the policing of rhetoric in a free society." His statement prompted criticism from Democrats.
Andrew Sullivan criticized speculation in the media about Long's motives and the assertion that his actions constitute a hate crime, saying that the media is "rushing to promote ready-made narratives, which actually point away from the empirical facts." Elizabeth Nolan Brown, writing in Reason, also said that Long's motives were "still unclear, despite many in the media attributing it to anti-Asian racism".
Deborah Epstein, director of Georgetown University Law Center’s Domestic Violence Clinic, said in an interview for NPR, "This man targeted his victims because they were Asian, and he targeted his victims because they were women. And we have to shed the blinders that limit us to seeing the race piece, but not the gender piece of hate."
Several politicians expressed concern with how easy it was for Long to obtain a gun on the day of the shooting, with the Giffords Law Center saying he would have completed the required background check within 100 seconds. Georgia state senator Michelle Au commented, "It is easier to buy a gun here than it is to vote." Advocates said a waiting period in Georgia could have prevented spontaneous violence. Satirical news site The Onion republished its 'No Way To Prevent This,' Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens article, with minor alterations, the day after the killings.
Calls for gun reform were renewed when a shooting in Boulder, Colorado, occurred six days later. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said the Senate "must and will move forward on legislation to help stop the epidemic of gun violence".
Criticism of police captain's phrasingEdit
During a press conference on the shootings, Captain Jay Baker of the Cherokee County Sheriff's Department paraphrased what Long told investigators about his motives, saying "he was pretty much fed up and kind of at the end of his rope, and I guess it was a really bad day for him and this is what he did."
The phrase "really bad day" attracted criticism and led to the discovery of Baker's anti-China sentiments on Facebook, thereby calling the integrity of the investigation into question. Critics said his description of Long was sympathetic. Georgia State Senator Michelle Au said Baker's remarks showed that law enforcement handled crimes against particular groups differently. Representative Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) called for the FBI to conduct its own independent investigation, saying that he believed the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office investigation would be unfair because of Baker's press conference remarks and Facebook post. Vincent Pan, a co-executive director of the civil rights group Chinese for Affirmative Action, said that Baker's involvement undermined Asian-American confidence that the investigation would be taken seriously.
On March 18, Sheriff Reynolds of the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office released a letter that acknowledged the criticism, expressed regret over Baker's words, and contextualized the remarks by pointing to the "difficult task" that Baker had and Baker's personal connections to the Asian-American community. The letter did not address Baker's Facebook post. Later that day, Baker was removed from his spokesman role in the investigation. According to WSB-TV, the incident prompted the Cherokee County Sheriff Department to briefly consider handing off its role in the case to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
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