California tops deadliest month of mass shootings in at least a decade

It took only 23 days into 2023 to make this California’s deadliest month of mass shootings in at least a decade.

And it seems like everybody is feeling it. Six dead in the San Joaquin Valley town of Goshen. Five days later, 11 gunned down in the LA suburb of Monterey Park. Two days after that, seven killed in Half Moon Bay. In all, during a month known for renewal, 27 people have been killed in five mass shootings. Another 20 have been injured.

“Everyone is hurting, whether you live on the coast or not,” said Patricia Love, head of communications at the San Mateo County Office Education, which spent the last 24 hours reaching out to provide support to teachers, students, and school staff at classrooms not just in Half Moon Bay, but across the county. “I don’t live in Half Moon Bay, but I’ve been choking up all day.”

The carnage is weighing heavily on Californians everywhere in a state with some of the nation’s toughest gun laws. Perhaps nothing symbolized the shocking toll like Gov. Gavin Newsom learning about Monday’s shootings at a pair of coastal farms in Half Moon Bay while he was at the hospital in Southern California visiting survivors of Saturday’s night’s massacre at a dance studio. Hours later, Oakland experienced its own mass shooting near a gas station Monday night in which five people were shot, one fatally.

This month’s death toll in California has already eclipsed the Golden State’s previous monthly high of 17 mass shooting deaths recorded in December 2015, according to the Gun Violence Archive, a non-profit that documents mass shootings across the country in which at least four people were shot. That month, 16 people were killed in the San Bernardino terror attack, and a 17th person was killed in a mass shooting in Los Angeles, which injured three other people.

This month didn’t just set records for California. Throughout the country, it is the deadliest January for mass shootings since the Gun Violence Archive began counting in 2014. From the first of the month through Monday, 70 people have been killed in 39 separate mass shootings. Another 167 were injured.

“It’s horrifying,” said James Zarsadiaz, an associate professor of history at the University of San Francisco who specializes in Asian American history. “And unfortunately, a lot of Americans have to cope with dealing with not only this, but the regularity of this type of tragedy.”

At the center of California’s deadliest shootings this month is the state’s Asian American community, which had been celebrating the Lunar New Year this past week. The gunmen in Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay were both of Asian descent along with many of the victims.

“There really are no words to describe how the community is feeling,” said Cynthia Choi, the cofounder of Stop AAPI Hate, a California-based non-profit that tracks incidents of hate and violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. “Especially at a time that’s supposed to be joyous and celebratory, and a time for fresh beginnings after three years of fueled attacks against our communities.”

Across the state, Asian American communities were already reeling, with Bay Area leaders reaching out to those in Southern California, fundraising pages being launched for victims’ families, and organizations planning vigils to honor the dead in Monterey Park. But as all those plans were being made, the community was lurched into a second stage of grief, now focused on the deaths of seven farmworkers — some of whom were of Asian descent — in Half Moon Bay.

“I don’t think we fully processed or fully grieved what happened in Monterey Park,” said Manjusha Kulkarni, the executive director of AAPI Equity Alliance, and another co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate. “And then just last night, to hear of the other killings — our trauma has just been compounded.”

A video shows Chunli Zhao, 67, the suspect in the killing of Seven people, being taken into custody in Half Moon Bay on Monday, Jan. 23, 2023. (Courtesy of Kati McHugh) 

At Lunar New Year celebrations across the Bay Area, some festivities have continued. But again and again, communities are being reminded of those who were lost to gun violence. Over the weekend, San Francisco’s mayor London Breed began a Lunar New Year celebration with a somber message, along with a pledge for increased police presence at events throughout the week.

“We pray that in the city and county of San Francisco, we continue to lead with all those things that the rabbit represents: mercy and kindness,” Breed said at the weekend’s event.

The deaths have sparked grief, outrage, and trauma far beyond the state’s Asian American communities. Across California, communities near the shootings have been grappling with their own kind of heartbreak, the repercussions of which, mental health experts say, will continue to unfold in the weeks and months to come.

Jason Owens, coordinator of student support for San Mateo County, said that teachers will need to watch for behavioral changes in their students — a sign of trauma — while also getting the support they need to heal themselves.

Dr. Angela Moreland-Johnson, the associate director of the National Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center, said that back-to-back shootings like California’s can be particularly devastating for those the violence touches.

“If someone goes through a mass violence incident, anytime there’s another one — even if it’s years later — they’re going to be further impacted,” she said. “Though time heals a lot of wounds, when you stack them on top of each other, it’s basically like a wound that hasn’t been at all healed.”

Two men place flowers near Star Dance Studio to honor victims killed in a shooting in Monterey Park, Calif., Sunday, Jan. 22, 2023. A gunman killed multiple people at a ballroom dance studio late Saturday amid Lunar New Years celebrations in the predominantly Asian American community of Monterey Park. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong) 

Despite such compounded trauma, communities across the Bay Area are doing the only thing they have left to do: continue onward.

On Thursday, a vigil for the victims of the Monterey Park shooting will congregate in San Francisco’s Portsmouth Square. And throughout the weekend, Lunar New Year parades will continue across the region, with festivities in Fremont, San Jose, Oakland, and beyond.

“On the one hand, we want to carry on with our celebrations and festivities to celebrate the new year, and recognize that this is an annual turning point in the community to start on a new foot,” said Zarsadiaz. “But at the same time, it’s hard to celebrate when we know there has been tragedy upon tragedy.”