For hours on a drizzly Wednesday, Jesus Estrella held a “Stop Asian Hate” sign outside Young’s Asian Massage, one of the three massage parlors in the Atlanta area that were targeted in shootings that claimed the lives of eight people, six of Asian descent.
Mr. Estrella, who is Hispanic and Asian, said that the shooting made him feel unsafe in his hometown, Acworth, Ga., and that he planned to return in solidarity on Thursday.
“Today was a great example to show you just how much hatred there is in the world, in this country,” Mr. Estrella said. “We need to take care of our Asian neighbors.”
The suspect in the shootings, Robert Aaron Long, 21, was charged with eight counts of murder on Wednesday. He has told authorities that the attacks were an attempt to remove the temptation of sex addiction, and not motivated by racism. But community leaders said it could not be ignored that most of those killed in the rampage had been of Asian descent.
Behind Mr. Estrella, smears of blood on a door frame were obscured by signs and flowers placed in honor of the four people killed there. The police have identified the victims as Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33, Paul Andre Michels, 54, Xiaojie Tan, 49, and Daoyou Feng, 44.
Alex Acosta said on Wednesday that he had noticed the gunman parked in front of Gabby’s Boutique, next door to Young’s Asian Massage, for an hour before the shooting. On the other side of the spa, in Perfecto Beauty Salon, Martha Enciso said she and her co-workers did not make much of what sounded like someone pounding on the walls on Tuesday night.
But they returned to their jobs the next day with a mix of terror and dread. “Life can’t slow down,” Ms. Enciso, 46, said. “We came in fear: Imagine, we are Hispanic, and some people hate us too.”
Rodney Bryant, the acting chief of the Atlanta Police Department, said it was not yet clear whether the shooting spree would be classified as a hate crime. But many vigils on Wednesday, including one organized by Shekar Krishnan, who is running for New York City Council, highlighted the concerns of Asian-Americans.
“We are here today to send a message that we will not be silenced,” said Mr. Krishnan, whose parents are from India. “An attack on one of us is an attack on all of us.”
Mr. Long, who is white, was arrested about 150 miles south of Atlanta after his parents told the police he might be the suspect. He bought a gun the day of the shootings at Big Woods Goods, a gun shop in suburban Atlanta, according to a lawyer for the store.
Within an hour of the shooting in Acworth, Gold Spa and Aromatherapy Spa in northeastern Atlanta were also attacked. The police have not named the four victims at those spas, but flowers and signs were piling up outside on Wednesday.
Sierra Houang, a Georgia Tech student who came with a friend to lay flowers, said she did not usually have to deal with anti-Asian statement because she passed as white.
“I carry a lot of guilt because my grandparents and my dad bore a lot of that burden,” said Ms. Houang, whose father is Taiwanese. “They worked hard so I would never have to be in a place where I’d know that. Still, this feels very personal to me.”
Priscilla Smith, who drove from Kennesaw with a bouquet, said the sight of the memorial was overwhelming. She said she wanted to show support for the Asian-American community.
“You have to embrace everybody,” Ms. Smith said. “America is everybody.”
President Biden said on Wednesday that “the question of motivation is still to be determined” in the Georgia shootings, while renewing his concerns over a recent surge in violence against Asian-Americans.
Mr. Biden told reporters ahead of a virtual meeting with the Irish prime minister that he had been briefed by the attorney general and the F.B.I. director about the shootings, and that an investigation was ongoing.
“Whatever the motivation here,” he said, “I know Asian-Americans are very concerned. Because as you know I have been speaking about the brutality against Asian-Americans for the last couple months, and I think it’s very, very troubling. But I am making no connection at this moment to the motivation of the killer. I’m waiting for an answer from — as the investigation proceeds — from the F.B.I. and from the Justice Department. And I’ll have more to say when the investigation is completed.”
In his first prime-time speech as president last week, marking a year of the coronavirus pandemic, Mr. Biden denounced “vicious hate crimes against Asian-Americans, who have been attacked, harassed, blamed and scapegoated.”
“At this very moment, so many of them — our fellow Americans — they’re on the front lines of this pandemic, trying to save lives, and still they are forced to live in fear for their lives just walking down streets in America,” he said. “It’s wrong, it’s un-American, and it must stop.”
Vice President Kamala Harris, the first woman and the first Asian-American to hold the office, expressed condolences for the families of the victims during a meeting with Irish officials on Wednesday.
“This speaks to a larger issue, which is the issue of violence in our country and what we must do to never tolerate it and to always speak out against it,” Ms. Harris said, adding that the motive in the shooting was still unclear.
“I do want to say to our Asian-American community that we stand with you and understand how this has frightened and shocked and outraged all people,” she added.
Mr. Biden’s wife, Jill Biden, also addressed the Georgia killings in a speech in New Hampshire on Wednesday.
“I want to start by saying something directly to the families of the shooting victims in Atlanta last night,” Dr. Biden said. “My heart is with you. And I hope that all Americans will join me in praying for everyone touched by this senseless tragedy.”
Former President Barack Obama called on the country to enact “common-sense gun safety laws and root out the pervasive patterns of hatred and violence in our society.”
“Even as we’ve battled the pandemic, we’ve continued to neglect the longer-lasting epidemic of gun violence in America,” he wrote on Twitter on Wednesday morning. “Although the shooter’s motive is not yet clear, the identity of the victims underscores an alarming rise in anti-Asian violence that must end.”
At a briefing on Wednesday afternoon, the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, said comments made by former President Donald J. Trump and his administration were “dangerous rhetoric” that had contributed to a climate of hostility against Asian-Americans.
“Calling Covid the ‘Wuhan virus’ or other things,” Ms. Psaki said, “led to perceptions of the Asian-American community that are inaccurate, unfair” and have “elevated threats against Asian-Americans, and we’re seeing that around the country.”
The shootings in Atlanta, in which six women of Asian descent were killed, come amid a tortured public conversation over how to confront a rise in reports of violence against Asian-Americans, who have felt increasingly vulnerable with each new attack.
Many incidents have either not led to arrests or have not been charged as hate crimes, making it difficult to capture with reliable data the extent to which Asian-Americans are being targeted.
Investigators said it was too early to determine a motive in the Atlanta attacks. After a suspect, Robert Aaron Long, was arrested, he denied harboring a racial bias and told officials that he carried out the shootings as a form of vengeance for his “sexual addiction.”
The Atlanta shootings and other recent attacks have exposed difficult questions involved in proving a racist motive. Did the assaults just happen to involve Asian victims? Or did the attackers purposely single out Asians in an unspoken way that can never be presented as evidence in court?
Many Asian-Americans have been left wondering how much cultural stereotypes that cast them — especially women — as weak or submissive targets played a role.
As the debate over what legally qualifies as anti-Asian bias unfolds, the community is grappling with the reality that the law is simply not designed to account for many of the ways in which Asian-Americans experience racism.
Proving a racist motive can be particularly difficult with attacks against Asians, experts say. There is no widely recognized symbol of anti-Asian hate comparable to a noose or a swastika. Historically, many Asian crime victims around the country were small-business owners who were robbed, complicating the question of motive.
“There’s a recognizable prototype with anti-Black or anti-Semitic or anti-gay hate crime,” said Lu-in Wang, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. “They’re often more clear-cut.”
Asian-Americans are sharply divided over the best measures to curb the violence, reflecting the wide ideological and generational differences within a group that encompasses dozens of ethnicities.
From New York to Washington, crowds gathered on Wednesday night to pay tribute to the victims of Tuesday’s shootings in the Atlanta area and stand in solidarity with Asian-Americans who have become increasingly targeted for violence during the coronavirus pandemic.
They brought candles and signs proclaiming “Asian Lives Matter” with them to a series of vigils, one night after a gunman shot and killed eight people at three metro Atlanta massage businesses. Six of the victims were women of Asian descent.
The outpouring of tributes recalled previous public showings of solemnity and outrage after mass shootings and bias attacks, though the authorities have said they were still determining whether the rampage constituted a hate crime.
At least eight police departments in major cities across the United States have announced plans to increase patrols in Asian communities after eight people, including six Asian women, were killed in a series of shootings at massage parlors in Atlanta this week.
On Tuesday, shortly after details of the deadly shootings made national headlines, the New York Police Department’s counterterrorism bureau said on Twitter that it would “be deploying assets to our great Asian communities across the city out of an abundance of caution.”
In Seattle, the Police Department said it would increase patrols and outreach to support the city’s Asian-American community.
Since then, at least six other police departments have promised increased security to residents and business owners.
Houston’s chief of police said on Wednesday that a virtual town-hall meeting would be organized to discuss concerns about crimes targeting the Asian community there and that the department would increase patrols in certain areas out of an “abundance of caution.”
In San Francisco, where there had been a rise an anti-Asian violence in recent weeks, including a fatal attack on an older Thai man, the police department said it was coordinating with the federal authorities and increasing its presence in Asian neighborhoods.
Gun control activists have seized upon a key element of Tuesday’s shooting rampage at spas in metro Atlanta: Because Georgia has no waiting period for gun sales, the suspect was allowed to buy a weapon on the same day the authorities say he killed eight people.
The suspect, Robert Aaron Long, legally bought a gun from Big Woods Goods, a gun shop and shooting range outside Atlanta, on Tuesday, according to a lawyer for the business. It was unclear whether the gun he bought was the 9-millimeter handgun the authorities recovered while arresting Mr. Long.
The gun shop’s lawyer said the business had complied with all laws and regulations and was cooperating with the authorities. But critics of Georgia’s gun laws said that had the state required Mr. Long, 21, of Woodstock, Ga., to wait several days before completing the purchase, as some other states require, the bloodshed might have been averted.
“In Georgia, it’s easier to buy a gun than it is to vote,” Matthew Wilson, a Democratic state representative from the Atlanta suburb of Brookhaven, said on Twitter.
Igor Volsky, a co-founder and executive director of the group Guns Down America, said on Twitter that 10 states and the District of Columbia had waiting periods on gun purchases. He said they reduced gun homicides by about 17 percent, citing a 2017 report from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.
To buy a firearm from a licensed gun dealer in Georgia, buyers must pass an instant background check. Gun control groups noted, however, that people who have a weapons carry license can avoid that background check.
The weapons carry licenses, which are valid for five years, require a background check and fingerprint to be kept on file with law enforcement. People with felony convictions or who have been recently discharged from a mental hospital or drug treatment facility are not eligible for the licenses, which can take up to 30 days to approve.
A representative for the Georgia Department of Public Safety said in an email on Wednesday night that the agency did not keep records of registered firearms.
It was not immediately clear if Mr. Long, who has a hunting license, had passed an instant background check or if he had a weapons carry license, or whether he had bought any firearms before Tuesday.
A sheriff’s deputy in Georgia who has been a main conduit for information about the deadly rampage at three Atlanta-area massage businesses faced criticism on Wednesday for saying that Tuesday “was a really bad day” for the suspect, and for anti-Asian Facebook posts that he made last year.
At a news conference, the deputy, Captain Jay Baker, the spokesman for the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office, discussed the frame of mind of the man charged with eight counts of murder in Tuesday’s shootings. He said that the suspect, Robert Aaron Long, 21, of Woodstock, Ga., had understood the gravity of his actions when he was interviewed by investigators on Wednesday morning.
“He was pretty much fed up and had been kind of at the end of his rope,” Captain Baker said. “Yesterday was a really bad day for him, and this is what he did.”
The comments were widely panned on social media, with critics characterizing them as callous and pointing to Facebook posts from March 30 and April 2 of last year by Captain Baker, in which he promoted sales of an anti-Asian T-shirt. The shirts, echoing the rhetoric of President Donald J. Trump, referred to the coronavirus as an “imported virus from Chy-na.”
“Place your order while they last,” Captain Baker wrote at the time in one of the posts. He did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.
“Cop says it’s not a hate crime, it’s him just having a bad day,” Ms. Cho wrote on Twitter. “Oh ok.. NO. It’s because you’re a racist also Jay Baker.”