Brandon Tsay’s State of the Union moment

Brandon Tsay, the 26-year-old who made global headlines last month for disarming the Monterey Park gunman, stood and waved to the crowd of lawmakers as President Biden called him a “hero” and called for new gun control measures in the state on Tuesday night the union address.

“He thought he was going to die, but then he thought about the people inside,” Biden said as Tsay received a rare bipartisan ovation. “It was then that he found the courage to act and wrestled the semi-automatic pistol from a gunman who had already killed 11 people at another dance studio.”

“He saved lives,” Biden added. “It’s time we did the same. Ban assault weapons once and for all.”

Tsay had had a long day. The official heroic treatment in Washington, which included a reception with fried shrimp and high-flown speeches, was admittedly overwhelming for him. Just a few weeks after the mass shooting, he’s still processing his feelings.

Weeks ago he was only known to his family and friends. But on Tuesday night, Tsay, wearing a black scarf and dark suit, sat in the gallery of the house chatting with First Lady Jill Biden, Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff and U2 singer Bono, who later put his arm on Tsay’s shoulder to comfort him Biden spoke about him.

As he was ushered Tuesday between meetings and receptions with members of Congress and other dignitaries at the White House and on Capitol Hill, and finally into the Chamber of the House, Tsay was asked more than once to reflect on the trauma that brought him here to experience once.

At a reception in a banquet room in the Rayburn House Office Building, he managed a half-smile and occasionally fidgeted in a corner as lawmakers took turns praising his bravery. Rep. Judy Chu, who originally invited Tsay to the State of the Union before Biden stepped in, called him a “hero” while introducing him to a group of colleagues before recalling that he doesn’t like using the word.

Juily Phun, whose aunt was one of 11 people killed in the shooting and attended Chu’s State of the Union address as a guest, spoke at the reception about how “this feeling of being honored struggles with my other emotions “.

“It feels bittersweet to represent my family and my community here,” Phun said at the reception with Tsay hosted by members of the Asia-Pacific-American Congressional Caucus. “At this moment it is a personal tragedy. But it’s also one where I’m one of the few in my family who doesn’t need a translator.”

When it was Tsay’s turn — after a stream of politicians with prepared notes thanking one another and promising legislative action against gun violence — he spoke haltingly and briefly, thanking Chu, a Democrat representing Monterey Park, for her support of the ailing community 11 dead and nine injured in the mass shooting.

“I’m impressed and touched,” Tsay said. “Sorry, I didn’t prepare anything.”

Urging him to say more, Chu walked him through the deadly New Year’s celebration and asked how he worked up the courage to face the attacker at his family’s Lai Lai Ballroom & Studio.

“That night was really horrible and it still haunts me to this day,” he said. “But what led me to confront the shooter was my instinct and my character, how I was raised and my feelings towards members of my own community.”

Two people shake hands while another person looks on.

Brandon Tsay, left, meets Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank) and Rep. Norma Torres (D-Pomona) at an Asia-Pacific-American Congressional Caucus event February 7, 2023 in Washington.

(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

The few dozen congressional staffers and activists in the room had already been offered tissues as they listened as Phun recounted the impact on her family and urged the country “to really see us.” Some dabbed their faces again or held hands as Tsay spoke about the fear he felt as he grabbed the gunman’s gun. He also spoke about the personal toll, volunteering that he “gained the strength to seek emotional and therapeutic treatment.”

Rep. Norma Torres, a Pomona Democrat, used the word “heartbreaking” when walking away from a meeting with Tsay.

“He’s not used to being in the spotlight,” she said. But eventually there will be a tipping point when he realizes what he’s done “and why so many of us want to talk to him.” Tsay told her he was close to that point now, as Torres promised all of his new friends in Washington would support her, Torres said.

“The fact that he was able to meet the President made him very happy,” Torres said. “But he knows he’s going to have to think about all this at some point, doesn’t he?”

Rep. Ted Lieu, a Democrat from Torrance, said he also had mixed feelings. He admires Tsay deeply, he said, but in a way “I wish he weren’t here.”

“I wish this whole incident hadn’t happened. And I just find it tragic that so many people died or were injured in this mass shooting,” he said. “I’m glad he did when he did, but I find it odd to be celebrating the action in the context of so much pain.”

Tsay’s humility and vulnerability are one of the reasons people are drawn to him. He has promised to find ways to use his attention and the money people have given him to help his community, while acknowledging it’s overwhelming. Chu said he’s still in shock but accepts the new responsibilities he’s been given.

Tsay defines a “new, non-toxic masculinity,” said Carol Hay, a philosopher at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and author of Think Like a Feminist. She has written about men who rise when needed without pumping their breasts.

People look to one side.

Brandon Tsay at the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus Event.

(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

“He’s not happy about fame. He does not glorify violence; he’s using fame to help his community,” Hay said.

The only time Tsay elicited a laugh during his public statements on Tuesday was when Chu asked him if he had martial arts training. “No prior training, but I’ve taken some Shaolin kung fu classes,” he said.

Towards the end of his time at the reception, Chu asked Tsay if he had a message for the American people.

“You may not know this, but there really is courage in all of us,” Tsay said. “And that courage can come to you at any moment.”

Then he walked to the side of the room.

Authors Nolan McCaskill and Noah Goldberg contributed to this report. Brandon Tsay’s State of the Union moment

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