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A makeshift memorial forms outside Gold Spa in Atlanta on March 17, 2021. Gold Spa was one of three businesses attacked by a gunman in a spree that killed eight.

LYNSEY WEATHERSPOON/The New York Times News Service

Atlanta police on Thursday were considering all motives including hate crime in the fatal shootings of Asian women at two spas in the city as a U.S. lawmaker said the Asian American community was “screaming out for help” to combat discrimination.

Robert Aaron Long has been charged with murdering four people at the spas in Atlanta and four more at a spa in Cherokee County about 65 kilometres to its north on Tuesday. Six of the victims were women of Asian descent.

“Our investigation is looking at everything, so nothing is off the table for our investigation,” Atlanta deputy police chief Charles Hampton told a news conference in response to a question about whether police were looking at the killings as hate crimes.

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Mr. Long, a 21-year-old white male, suggested to investigators that a sex addiction led him to violence. Lawmakers and anti-racism advocates have speculated the killings were motivated at least in part by anti-Asian sentiments.

In Washington, U.S. lawmakers, professors and actor Daniel Dae Kim said the Asian American community was reeling from a year of heightened anti-Asian attacks.

“Our community is bleeding, we are in pain and for the last year we’ve been screaming out for help,” Democratic Representative Grace Meng, who is of Taiwanese descent, told a House of Representatives subcommittee.

The Georgia killings have prompted police departments across the U.S. to step up patrols and visibility in Asian American communities around New York, Chicago, Atlanta and San Francisco.

Hate crimes against Asian Americans rose by 149 per cent in 2020 in 16 major cities compared with 2019, according to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism.

Civil-rights advocates have connected the rise in incidents to the COVID-19 pandemic, which originated in China. Some Americans, including Republican former president Donald Trump, started calling the coronavirus the “China virus,” “the China plague” and even “kung flu.”

President Joe Biden ordered that the U.S. flag be flown at half-staff at the White House to honour the victims of Tuesday’s rampage. He and Vice-President Kamala Harris will visit Atlanta on Friday to offer support to the Asian American community.

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Deputy Chief Hampton said Mr. Long patronized the two Atlanta establishments he is accused of attacking using a 9mm gun. Authorities are not ready to release the names of the victims, he said.

Captain Jay Baker of the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Department said on Wednesday that Mr. Long had confessed to the shootings and indicated he had a sex addiction and “wanted to eliminate” the temptation the establishments represented to him.

A former roommate who spent several months living with Mr. Long in a halfway house for recovering addicts told Reuters Mr. Long had been treated for sex addiction, was “deeply religious” and would become “very emotionally distraught that he frequented” spas for “explicitly sexual activity.”

Mr. Long was headed for Florida when he was apprehended, perhaps to carry out further shootings, authorities said.

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