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EDITORIAL

Fear and hate in Atlanta

A culture of gun violence and hatred poisons American society. When will it end?

Authorities investigated a fatal shooting at a massage parlor on Tuesday in Acworth, Ga.
Authorities investigated a fatal shooting at a massage parlor on Tuesday in Acworth, Ga.Mike Stewart

Guns and hate. Hate and guns. It’s the same story over and over again in the United States. Only the details of the particular weapon, and the particular bigotry consuming the killer, seem to change.

On Tuesday, a man opened fire at three spas in the Atlanta area, killing eight. Six of the victims were women of Asian descent.

The police said the alleged shooter was a 21-year-old sex addict who may have patronized the spas in the past and wanted to eliminate them because they were a source of temptation.

He was caught as he headed to Florida, where he may have planned to target “some type of porn industry,” according to Sheriff Frank Reynolds of Cherokee County, Ga.

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To the Asian American community, which has suffered from a series of high-profile attacks, the fact that the shooter may not necessarily have been specifically motivated by anti-Asian hate comes as no relief. Considering the long history in this country of anti-Asian violence, recent efforts by former president Donald Trump to blame the COVID-19 pandemic on China, and the spate of depraved assaults on Asian Americans that have been caught on video recently, there’s a good reason why so many Asian Americans are on edge.

The killings take place “in a landscape where Asian Americans are increasingly terrified and fearful for their lives and their safety because of these escalating threats against our people,” said Michelle Au, a Georgia state senator who represents an Atlanta-area district.

If it turns out the shooter really did target his victims for sexual reasons, he won’t be the first. America has another violent strain — of sexually frustrated or confused men targeting women, which has surfaced most recently in “incel” violence. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported Wednesday that the shooter could be charged under the state’s hate crimes law, which covers gender-based violence.

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Hate-fueled killers in the United States have also targeted Black people, gay people, Jewish people, Sikhs . . . the list goes on.

The first step to stopping the hatreds that underlie the violence is for leaders to denounce it unequivocally. Over the last year, too many Republicans stayed silent as Trump, in an effort to deflect blame for his mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic, tried to shift blame to China. It did not take any kind of crystal ball to see how that kind of rhetoric would translate into fear and suspicion of Chinese Americans and other people of Asian descent. More broadly, any political strategy that relies on stoking white, male, or white-male grievance is part of the problem, because pandering to those attitudes only gives them oxygen.

That responsibility extends beyond elected officials. Especially among conservative evangelical groups, there was also a general failure during the Trump years to stand up against hate against immigrants, Muslims, and other groups targeted by the former president. For that matter, religious organizations and leaders should reconsider how they portray women — and foremost the idea that they are to blame for tempting men.

Law enforcement should also do a better job identifying, tracking, and prosecuting hate crimes; it’s nearly impossible to get reliable data on the extent of racially motivated violence. The adage is true: You can’t manage what you don’t measure, and law enforcement has been blind to the extent of white supremacist and other hate activity.

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Finally, at long last, state governments and Congress need to get real about guns.

The fact that a troubled 21-year-old apparently had no trouble getting a gun is utterly insane. The plain fact is that too many people in this country have too much access to too many deadly weapons. Even minor reforms, like outlawing sales at gun shows without background checks, have been stymied by the gun lobby.

The problem posed by guns and the gun culture in America goes beyond the carnage caused by the guns themselves. A country that’s awash with firearms, and inducements to buy more and more of them for “self-defense” is one in which there’s profit to be had in stoking fear and division. It’s no accident that the NRA, which is ostensibly just a gun-rights group, has been scaremongering about the Black Lives Matter movement; getting Americans to fear and hate each other is a great strategy to sell them more guns.

There’s no single solution to prevent the next shooting. But as social problems, guns and hate are joined at the hip.

Putting an end to anti-Asian hate — and all the other social pathologies that define too much of American life — will take time and effort. In the short term, that means forcefully defending Asian Americans from defamation around the coronavirus, and showing zero tolerance for hatemongering. Longer term, getting guns out of Americans’ hands and getting hate out of their hearts will both point us to a more peaceful future.

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Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.